Is Conservation Commission in Peril?

Tuesday April 18, 2023

GEORGETOWN – The future of this town’s wetlands regulations has become a focal point in the upcoming Board of Selectmen election as town officials battle over upcoming appointments to the Conservation Commission, replacing the conservation agent and possibly the town’s wetlands bylaw.
Board of Selectmen chairman Douglas Dawes and commission chair Carl Shredder have been meeting in person and exchanging emails, trying to resolve differences between a majority of the Select Board and the Commission.
The ConComm last year denied approval of G. Mello Trash Disposal Corp.’s proposed transfer station, a decision that has divided the town. Mello appealed that decision, which as of last week had not been ruled on by the court.
In what some in town believe is an attempt to reformate or kill the commission, the Selectmen last year did not reappoint Laura Repplier and Rebecca Chane, two veteran members of the commission, and have filled only one of those seats. They have since rejected one candidate, a highly qualified landscape consultant, Ida Wye, for the vacancy.
Rachel Bancroft, another veteran member of the commission, is running for the Board of Selectmen. She said she does not expect that the current Selectmen will reappoint her to the ConComm.
Shredder, the long-time commission chair, whose term ends next year, said he doubts that unless there is a change in the Select Board this spring that he will be reappointed.
Selectman Gary Fowler is running for re-election in May as is Bancroft. Selectman Peter Kershaw is not expected to run for re-election for the two seats on the five-member Select Board.
Last January, the conservation agent Steve Przyjemski resigned after 17 years, citing a toxic work environment created by the town administrator Orlando Pacheco. The position has not been filled, relying on an administrative aide and outside consultants to process applications and other commission work regulating the town’s wetlands.
In an email to The Town Common, Pacheco wrote last week that he and the Selectmen needed to assert more controls over the ConComm’s staff to avoid “the vast payroll fraud and undocumented work hours that occurred previously. Please note while the Commission may refer to this as harassment, we are simply doing our job to protect taxpayers and follow the law.”
Pacheco said he has not heard from the ConComm on how it wants to fill the agent position on a permanent basis. “We had been working on a regional solution with (the town of) Merrimac, but they are actually hiring Bill Holt’s daughter so that would not be prudent or feasible to regionalize with them moving forward.”
Samantha Holt is also the conservation agent for the town of Newbury. She is the daughter of Bill Holt, Georgetown’s health director, whom Pacheco recommended to become also a part-time conservation agent.
“I did recommend Mr. Holt as one of several options in filling the gap noted as well as (the consulting firm) BSC, which the Commission is utilizing,” Pacheco wrote. “It’s important to note that most of the Commission’s filing are septic systems (over 50% of filings) so they are already reviewed by Bill in the Board of Health process.”
In emails to Pacheco, Dawes questioned the appointment of Holt, who also has a private consulting firm, worrying that it would be too much work for him.
Shredder and Bancroft said they believe Dawes, most of the selectmen and Pacheco want to “kill the commission” or appoint pro-development members of the commission, who will rewrite the town wetlands bylaw.
Shredder said, “It is a bad situation. It is a real challenge.”
If the commission has no staff or is understaffed, it will be difficult to process and hold hearings on proposals for development that impact wetlands. Under state law, if the ConComm does not hold a hearing in 21 days, the application is kicked to the state Department of Environmental Protection to regulate.
State regulations on wetlands are not as stringent as Georgetown’s wetlands bylaw. “I’ve never seen the state deny any project,” Shredder said.
If a land developer’s plans are rejected by the commission, as Mello’s was, Georgetown’s bylaw requires that the applicant must wait three years to refile unless the commission deems that it has made significant changes. The state regulations have no such requirement.
In his email Pacheco wrote that, “The position (of conservation agent) is not funded full time in the FY 24 budget nor does the commission have the revenue to continue to fund the position the way it has.
“As you can see from the attached, the revolving accounts are down over $100K in paying Steve with no revenue to support the position. 67% is paid by the operating budget and 33% was paid for by the revolving accounts to make the position full time.
“However, over the years no revenue came in to continue to support the transition to full time, and clearly the filings to the commission do not support that either. There is funding in the budget for a part time position.”
A former commission member John Lopez, the part-time conservation commissioner for Rockport, has been hired by the commission to help process applications to the commission.
Pacheco strongly criticized the commission for hiring Lopez.
“My personal opinion was that Mr. Lopez, as a board and committee member and former conservation commissioner should not act as a paid consultant to the Town, especially since the position does not have special municipal employee designation under MGL Chapter 268A.
“Mr. Lopez’s previous communications as well as being the previous complainant to business before the Commission in my opinion would not make for a fair and objective party.”
He cited an application for a shed at Catbird Farm, “a generally minor issue, took four years to approve due to his involvement. The adjacent abutter, a nice elderly man was forced to pay fines from the commission as well.”
The fines, which he called illegal, were “subsequently returned.”
Pacheco wrote, “I am not privy to any exact communications between Mr. Shredder and Mr. Dawes (I think Carl is probably providing you more information than I), but I suspect it has more to do with accountability and openness, not only with the hiring of Mr. Lopez, but the push to give a former employee and $50K no-bid landscape design contract via CPC funds, that has not be withdrawn for procurement reasons.
“That, coupled with the desire for the maintenance of public records and making sure the vast payroll fraud and undocumented work hours that occurred previously has more controls over it. Please note while the Commission may refer to this as harassment, we are simply doing our job to protect taxpayers and follow the law.”

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