Overview of the Need for Regulatory Flexibility for Research and Demonstration Projects Promoting Nature-Based Approaches in Massachusetts
Most of the existing statutory and regulatory programs governing projects in coastal and inland areas were designed several decades ago before we knew about the trends and threats of climate change and sea level rise. The current permitting structure for a wide range of environmental protection programs (Department of Environmental Protection, Coastal Zone Management, Marine Fisheries, and the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act Office), were not designed to accommodate or allow Nature-Based Approaches (NBAs) to occur seaward of mean high water. Extending projects into the water can protect existing buildings better and improve the public waterfront experience better than trying to squeeze in more easily permissible infrastructure into the tiny gap between the shoreline/mean high water and existing structures. The existential threat of climate change, increased frequency and intensity of storm events and sea level rise highlight the need to design and implement NBAs, particularly in densely developed areas. The time is now to allow NBA research and demonstration pilot projects (living shorelines, restoration of freshwater wetlands, offshore reefs, living seawalls), which mimic natural systems to be implemented in order to adapt to climate change-induced storms and projected sea level rise.
Massachusetts has been at the forefront of environmental protection programs for many decades. It was one of the first states in the country to enact legislation and regulations to protect coastal and inland wetlands, privatize hazardous waste clean-up programs, and more recently is leading on carbon reduction and transitioning to a renewable energy system.
Hurricane Sandy highlighted the need for northeast states, particularly in environmental justice communities, to plan and prepare for increased impacts resulting from our rapidly changing environment and severe storm activity. A wide range of strategies and options are needed to plan for and adapt to sea level rise and more frequent and severe storm events. Many municipalities in the Commonwealth have efforts underway to evaluate potential vulnerabilities and strategies to adapt to these rapidly changing conditions. Through these efforts it has become clear that it is very difficult, to permit NBAs to occur below mean high water. For example, the City of Boston has conducted a comprehensive planning and assessment effort, which has highlighted the current regulatory structure as a significant impediment to implementing resiliency efforts in neighborhoods throughout the city.
Enact legislation to allow for regulatory flexibility so that research, demonstration pilot projects, and monitoring of NBAs can occur here in Massachusetts. Regulatory flexibility should not provide “exemptions” from review and oversight by existing regulatory programs; however, flexibility should provide the ability of state permitting programs to waive standards/requirements and impose conditions for the purposes of research and implementing NBAs. The draft legislation contains a five-year sunset clause, providing a five-year period to evaluate the impacts and effectiveness of the flexibility provided for NBA research and demonstration projects. Similar permitting flexibility currently exists for projects including but not limited to maintaining or improving existing roadways, landfill closures, ecological restoration projects, and construction & maintenance of electrical generation facilities.
Boston Harbor Now is taking the lead in collaboration with UMass Boston to introduce Bill H.3581 (An Act promoting nature-based approaches for resiliency and climate change adaptation throughout the Commonwealth). We believe that many environmental organizations and municipalities will support the need to better understand how Nature-Based Approaches (NBAs) can be implemented successfully, particularly in coastal urban areas and environmental justice (EJ) communities that are vulnerable to climate change impacts.
The bill, if passed, will give state environmental review agencies “the discretion” to waive any and all performance and regulatory standards (provided that protections are upheld for Indigenous and other cultural and historic resources) in order to fulfill the goal of conducting research and demonstration projects to inform future resiliency strategies and to implement NBAs throughout the Commonwealth. A key component of these research projects will be extensive physical monitoring requirements that will allow adaptive management interventions as needed to avoid environmental impacts.
Another key component is to accommodate or allow NBAs to occur seaward of mean high water. Extending projects into the water can protect existing buildings better and improve the public waterfront experience better than trying to squeeze in more easily permissible infrastructure into the tiny gap between the shoreline/mean high water and existing structures.