Jul 17 2008


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This information is provided courtesy of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) which administers the ACEC Program.


Download ACEC Frequently Asked Questions

Download the ACEC Guidelines.

Download ACEC Regulations.


Q: What is an ACEC?
A: An Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) is a place in Massachusetts that receives special recognition because of the regional, state, or national significance of its natural and cultural resources and the ecological relationships between them. These areas are identified and nominated at the local level, and designated by the state’s Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs if they meet ACEC designation criteria. The purpose of the ACEC designation is to preserve, restore, and enhance these exceptional environmental and cultural resources and to promote greater public awareness and stewardship of them. For information on how to nominate an ACEC see: ACEC Nomination Guidelines.

Q: What is the benefit of ACEC designation?
A: ACEC designation increases public awareness and provides education about the exceptional ecological and cultural resources within the ACEC, and creates a framework for local and regional stewardship of these resources. ACEC designation provides for a higher level of protection of wetlands and public waterways, and heightened scrutiny in the state environmental review of development projects. It also may give municipalities and other groups priority for funding for projects within ACECs that support resource protection and restoration projects.

Q: Is an ACEC similar to a state park, forest or wildlife refuge, where the government owns and manages the land?
A: No. ACEC designation does not change land ownership or allow public access to private property. Although state parks and wildlife refuges may be part of an ACEC, the private and public lands included in the ACEC boundary are managed by their owners.

Q: How does ACEC designation protect natural and cultural resources?
A: ACEC designation protects natural and cultural resources in basically three ways: 1) through public education and outreach provided first during the nomination review, then via stewardship efforts; 2) higher state environmental standards for development projects within ACECs that impact wetlands, tidelands, Great Ponds and most navigable rivers and streams; and 3) state-coordinated public review with higher scrutiny of development projects within ACECs that require a state permit, state funding, state agency action, or state land transfer. For more information see: ACEC Program Regulatory Summary, and Guide to State Regulations & Programs Regarding ACECs.

Q: Is development prohibited in ACECs?
A: No – except in the limited instances described below involving state regulations. The great majority of private land development and management activities must observe local bylaws and regulations only. However, there are several prohibitions or restrictions on specific types of projects, such as:
• New solid waste management facilities are prohibited within ACECs.
• New docks or piers or other water-dependent structures in and along tidelands, Great Ponds, and navigable rivers and streams are prohibited without a locally adopted and state-approved resource management plan. If an approved resource management plan exists, new docks and piers are eligible for a license if they are consistent with the plan.
• No new fill is permissible in tidelands, Great Ponds, and navigable rivers and streams, except on previously filled tidelands.
• Improvement dredging is permissible only for fishery and wildlife enhancement, while maintenance dredging remains eligible for a permit.

Q: How does ACEC designation affect projects that need wetlands permits?
A: ACEC designation prohibits altering of freshwater Bordering Vegetative Wetlands (BVW), more commonly known as wet meadows, marshes, swamps and bogs, unless the work qualifies as a “limited project” under the Wetlands Protection Regulations. For example, “limited project” status may be granted by the local conservation commission if the only access to upland property is across a wetland. Under these circumstances, the property owner may be allowed to alter some BVW to build the access road if specific performance standards are met.

In coastal wetlands within an ACEC, the performance standard is raised to one of no adverse effect, except for maintenance dredging, where the standard is to “minimize” adverse effects. Under the Wetlands Protection Act, no adverse effect means a project must create only a negligible (i.e., small enough to be disregarded) change to the resource area or to one of its characteristics that has value to one of the interests of the Act, such as storm damage prevention or flood control.

Q: If a proposed development project only needs local permits does ACEC designation affect it?
A: No. A proposed development project within an ACEC that does not require any state permits, state funding, or other state agency action simply proceeds with the local permitting process. However, a local Conservation Commission wetlands permit (Order of Conditions) is based on the state Wetlands Protection Regulations which do have higher standards for projects within ACECs. ACEC designation does not change or supersede local regulations or zoning.

Q: What is the state-coordinated (MEPA) review process and how does it affect development projects in ACECs?
A: In an ACEC, any project that requires a state permit, state funding, state agency action, or state land transfer, except one that consists solely of a single family dwelling or comprises routine maintenance, must file an Environmental Notification Form (ENF) with the state Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) Office. The MEPA office publishes the ENF for public comment, usually for a period of three weeks, during which time the public (individuals, private organizations, and state, federal, regional, and municipal agencies) has the opportunity to comment on the project and its potential environmental impacts. Development projects within ACECs are afforded careful environmental review creating better projects with fewer impacts to natural and cultural resources. As a result of the ENF review, the project proponent may be required to conduct additional environmental impact analysis, or the Secretary of EOEEA may issue a Certificate for the project to go on to the state permitting process.

Q: Who takes care of ACECs?
A: The stewardship of critical ACEC resources is a responsibility shared by all citizens and is most often met when multiple partnerships at different levels work together on a variety of strategies. State agency programs and actions alone cannot successfully preserve and manage the unique ecosystems of ACECs. Some ACECs have stewardship groups that help coordinate education and protection efforts at the local level. These groups are typically volunteer organizations. For more information see: ACEC Stewardship.

Q: Who manages the ACEC Program?
A: The Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) in Boston administers the ACEC Program on behalf of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

For more detailed information regarding the ACEC Program, including ACEC maps, resource summaries, and designation documents, as well as the publications mentioned above, please contact ACEC Program staff at the Department of Conservation and Recreation:

Elizabeth Sorenson
(617) 626-1394 or

Lisa Berry Engler
(617) 626-1435 or

Download ACEC Frequently Asked Questions


Why are ACECs nominated?

Although the designation of an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) is a state decision, the nomination and ultimate stewardship of the area is firmly based in local and regional goals and community commitment. An ACEC designation gives communities an important tool to preserve and manage areas they identify as having natural and cultural resources of regional or statewide significance. These environmental resources are an essential part of the history and character of a community and help provide the basis for its continued sustainability. If these unique areas are nominated and designated as ACECs, communities can receive additional support and assistance through state environmental reviews of development projects, stricter state regulations for wetlands and waterways protection, technical assistance from ACEC Program staff, and grants or other proactive ways to protect and manage their resources.

The nomination and designation process highlights the environmental significance of an ecosystem and its resources, calls attention to the need for collaboration and stewardship, and helps create a planning and management framework to achieve these goals. Nominators have decided that an ACEC designation can be a constructive part of their long-term efforts to preserve these resources and their community. They are prepared to commit long hours over months of time to prepare a nomination and shepherd it through a sometimes arduous public review process, and to follow-up this process by establishing a stewardship group to meet the goals and objectives of long-term resource management.

How do you nominate an ACEC?

People interested in preparing a nomination should first consult ACEC Program staff from the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). DCR administers the ACEC Program on behalf of the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. ACEC staff will provide information and general guidance during the early nomination stages. Prior to the completion and submission of a formal nomination to the Secretary, ACEC staff will attend local meetings and site visits, provide guidance as to the eligibility of an area and the completeness of the nomination document being prepared, and answer questions about the nomination process and the purpose and effects of ACEC designation. An ACEC nomination is usually prepared by citizens and communities and involves extensive public input and discussion even during these early stages. A potential area must meet certain eligibility requirements and the nomination must undergo a formal public review conducted by DCR on behalf of the Secretary. If the nomination is ultimately successful, the ACEC is designated by the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs according to the established criteria described below.

Who may nominate an area for ACEC designation?

Any 10 citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, board of selectmen, city council, mayor, planning board, conservation commission, state agency, regional planning agency, the Governor, or any member of the legislature may make a nomination by submitting a document with detailed resource and boundary information to the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

What must be included in an ACEC nomination?

• As further described below, detailed information about the area’s resource features, ecological relationships, and their regional or statewide significance must be provided.
• A suggested boundary that clearly delineates the area needed to protect and preserve the resources must be drawn on a USGS topological map. If roads or other features used to delineate the proposed boundary do not appear on the USGS map, additional maps (e.g., copies of tax assessors’ maps) must also be included.
• The nomination must include a detailed written description of the proposed boundary (see below). In addition, a written explanation must be provided that describes how the proposed boundary is based upon the resources and ecology of the nominated area.
• Potential benefits of ACEC designation, goals and objectives for stewardship, and strategies for public education and outreach efforts regarding the nomination should also be described.

What features must an area contain to be eligible for an ACEC nomination?

An ACEC must contain at least four of the following eleven features in an ecosystem of regional or statewide significance:

    • Fishery Habitat – anadromous/catadromous fish run, fish spawning area, fish nursery area, or shellfish bed
    • Coastal Features – barrier beach system, beach, rocky intertidal shore, or dune
    • Estuarine Wetlands – embayment, estuary, salt pond, salt marsh, or beach
    • Inland Wetlands – freshwater wetland, marsh, wet meadow, swamp, or vernal pool
    • Inland Surface Waters – lake, pond, river, stream, creek, or oxbow
    • Water Supply Areas – surface water reservoir, reservoir watershed, groundwater aquifer, or aquifer recharge area
    • Natural Hazard Areas – floodplain, erosion area, or unstable geologic area
    • Agricultural Areas – land of agricultural productivity, forestry land, or aquaculture site
    • Historical/Archaeological Resources – buildings, site, or district of historical, archaeological, or paleontological significance
    • Habitat Resources – habitat for threatened or endangered plant or animal species, habitat for species of special concern, or other significant wildlife habitat
    • Special Use Areas – undeveloped or natural area, public recreational area, or significant scenic site.

Nominators summarize as much information about these resources as is available from existing sources, including municipal reports, academic research, local bird and plant lists, as well as state or federal information such as rare species and vernal pool inventories, shellfish surveys, water quality reports, or other environmental assessments. Resources can be described separately, but clear information should also be presented about their ecological relationships. The regional or statewide significance of these resources needs to be substantiated.

What guidelines should be used to propose a boundary for a nominated area?

The minimum area necessary to protect and preserve the critical resources should be included in the ACEC boundary. For example, if a wetland is part of the critical resource area, then adjacent uplands necessary to preserve the wetland should be included in the nominated area. The proposed boundary must be justified and described based on both the resource features in the area and how the boundary will help protect those resources. A proposed boundary should also be easily recognized by the general public and local and state regulatory agencies working in the area. Roads or other rights-of-way are easily understood as identifiable boundaries (e.g., “the proposed boundary follows X road in a northerly direction to the intersection of X road and Y road; the boundary then follows Y road in a westerly direction …”). Nominators should realize that the boundary represents a suggested delineation of the proposed ACEC and can be altered by the Secretary if a different boundary configuration would provide more effective or consistent protection for the resources of the area.

What criteria does the Secretary use in reviewing a nomination?

A nomination is reviewed for the quality and uniqueness of the natural resources, regional or statewide significance of those features, threats posed to the resources, economic benefits, and stewardship commitments identified by the nominators and local community. Nominators should describe not only how these criteria are met, but also the public education and outreach efforts taken during the nomination process including public meetings, notices to local landowners, and press releases. Commitments to stewardship should include management goals and objectives and proposals for local and regional actions for implementation. Other supporting documents may be included, such as excerpts from professional reports and letters of support and commitment from municipal or regional agencies, environmental organizations, resource professionals, or public advocates.

What steps are involved in a formal nomination and designation procedure?

Once an ACEC nomination is formally submitted to the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the following steps are taken:
1) On behalf of the Secretary, DCR conducts an initial review of the nomination. The Secretary may request additional information, decline to review the nomination, or accept it or full public review.
2) Upon acceptance, DCR proceeds with a full review of the nomination. This process includes coordinating with nominators to hold public information meetings, gathering additional environ­mental information, and receiving public comment. The nomination review culminates in a public hearing.
3) The Secretary’s decision whether to designate the nominated area is made within 60 days of the public hearing. The decision is published in the EOEEA Environmental Monitor, and is further explained and discussed at a public meeting.

The preparation of a nomination may take a year or more, while the formal review process usually takes about six months. In addition to gathering and synthesizing the natural and cultural resource and mapping information required, nominators are strongly encouraged to carry out community outreach and education about the nomination and the proposed goals of long-term resource management. Landowners and residents, municipal boards, commissions, and departments, and community and environmental organizations should be included in this outreach. The successful stewardship of an ACEC is a long-term commitment that cannot be sustained without strong community understanding and support in cooperation with regional and state agencies and other partners.

These guidelines are a summary of the minimum requirements for the nomination, review, and designation of ACECs described in the ACEC Regulations (301 CMR 12.00) and are based on over 25 years of state agency experience in conducting the review of ACEC nominations. Please contact ACEC Program staff and review other ACEC Program materials and the ACEC Program website for more information.

Download the ACEC Guidelines.



12.0l: Authority
12.02: Purpose
12.03: General Provisions
12.04: Definitions
12.05: Nominations for Designation
12.06: Eligible Areas
12.07: Review of Nominations
12.08: Public Notice and Public Hearing
12.09: Criteria for Designation
12.10: Secretarial Finding
12.11: Notice and Effective Date of Designation
12.12: Effects of Designation
12.13: Review of Designations
12.14: Description and Maps of ACECs
12.15: Waiver
12.16: Severability

Download ACEC Regulations.

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