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Vernal pools are isolated wetlands that hold water in most years for two continuous months in spring or summer and are generally fish free. These pools plan an important role in our ecosystem as this pool is the only breeding area for several unique species of amphibians and freshwater amphipods. Most of the species that breed in these pools are terrestrial species that live in the leaf litter surrounding the vernal pool and only reproduce using these pools in the spring.
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The Sherborn Conservation Commission is charged under state law (Wetlands Protection Act) and town by-law (Sherborn General Wetlands Bylaw Chapter 17) with protecting wetlands, streams, and ponds from alterations, including development, that would degrade the wetlands' hydrological and biological functions.
Massachusetts was the first state to adopt a statewide wetlands protection law and ours is among the strongest. The Wetlands Protection Act, as adopted in 1972, has been amended and expanded almost every year, most recently by the 1996 Rivers Protection Act. In Massachusetts, unlike in most other states, communities rather than state agencies have primary authority over wetlands protection, through the Act and through local laws. Your Sherborn Conservation Commission has primary permit responsibility for work conducted in wetlands and their associated buffer zones.
Marshes, streams, and ponds aren't the only wetlands governed by the law. Some wetland resources lack standing water. Wetlands are any lands where the soil is saturated for a significant portion of the growing season. Just because water pools occasionally in the early spring does not automatically make an area a wetland. Conversely, an area may be a wetland even if there is never standing water there. Even if a project isn't in a wetland, a project near a wetland can degrade that wetland by increasing siltation and runoff. For this reason, the Commission has jurisdiction over all work, including landscaping and brush-cutting, in any wetland resource area and within 100 feet of a wetland.
The definitive test of the wetland is an analysis of the soil in the 12 inches immediately beneath the surface. A survey of vegetation is another, though less reliable, means of identifying a wetland. Certain types of vegetation, such as cinnamon fern, winterberry, skunk cabbage, and high-bush blueberry prefer to grow in wetlands.
Anyone planning a project must consult the Commission to determine whether a wetland is present. The Commission's agent is trained to identify wetlands. Simply fill in the short Request For Determination form available at Town Hall and the Agent will visit your site to evaluate the soil conditions and vegetation and review your building, landscaping, or brush-cutting plans.
Under Sherborn Wetlands Regulations, the first 50 feet from the vegetative wetland border is deemed a "no alteration" zone where no activity is permitted. The second 50 feet from the wetland border are considered "the buffer zone" where limited, or temporary, alterations may be permitted but permanent alterations and buildings typically are not. The presumption is that any activity within 100 feet of a wetland will increase siltation and run-off, interfere with the hydrology, and damage wildlife habitat. Since our town relies on residential wells for our water supply, the town adopted the Sherborn Wetlands By-Law which is more stringent than state law.
The Commission has permitted some construction in hardship situations, often involving an existing septic system that has failed. In these cases, the minimum distances required between a septic system and a domestic well leave no other option but to put a portion of the leaching field within the 100-foot zone. The Commission has taken the position that such alterations are allowed because it is better to reduce the risk of groundwater pollution by making certain that failing septic systems are replaced by new Title V systems.
In a few circumstances where options were extremely limited, the Commission has permitted activity to occur in wetlands in exchange for wetland replication or conservation easements protecting a natural area from future development. Replication projects create new wetlands, always considerably larger than the wetland that was disturbed. The Commission's preference, however, is to keep existing wetlands intact.
Many Sherborn structures pre-date the passage of the Wetlands Protection Act (1972) and Sherborn's Wetlands By-Law (1979). These structures may not comply with today's rules but are grandfathered. However, any prospective additions or landscaping activities undertaken on grandfathered structures are subject to current law and by-laws and must be approved in advance.
If you think you have a vernal pool on your property, please notify the Commission. All vernal pools are protected by Sherborn Wetlands Regulations, but there is a state procedure for certifying and protecting vernal pools as well. To date, only a fraction of our vernal pools have been identified and certified.
If you own acreage, consider a conservation restriction on a portion of your property, as a number of residents who want to protect our town’s natural character have done in recent years. A conservation restriction protects the parcel from future development without ceding ownership or the right to sell the property. In addition, the grantor of the restriction has the right to decide whether to permit public access for hiking or horseback riding.