Trench law, spurred by East Bridgewater death, could dig into municipal budgets

Dan McDonald

Unfunded mandates.

As a municipal battle cry, those words tumble from the lips of countless officials during a diatribe condemning one freshly imposed state requirement or another. A new public safety bylaw that would require cities and towns to issue permits allowing someone to dig a trench three feet or deeper on their property appears to be no different.

Under the law, all regulated trenches have to be attended, covered, barricaded or back-filled. It applies to all construction-related trenches on both public and private property.

That mandate goes into effect Jan. 1.

A divide deeper and wider than most trenches separates state and town officials on the matter.

Local town managers say the measure scratches only the veneer of public safety. They criticize it for lack of depth, as there is no provision for inspectional follow-up once the permit is granted under the present provisions. They also say it eats up time and money.

The state, however, says the law will improve public safety.

The Legislature passed the bill following the death of Jaclyn Moore. The 4-year-old was killed after an unattended trench collapsed in a backyard in East Bridgewater. The law is also referred to as Jackie's Law.

While saying he wanted to maintain public safety and avoid a similar tragedy, Framingham Town Manager Julian Suso said, "No thought is given how one is to afford these issues."

No provision for follow-up inspection constituted a vagueness that did not sit well with Suso.

"It looks to me like the bull's eye is on local government," said Suso.

He added,"It gives the appearance of creating a level of responsibility but does not follow through on what happens next."

The state disagrees.

Mark Mooney, chief of inspections mechanical for the Department of Public Safety, said the new requirement "fit(s) nicely" with the existing permitting promise.

Mooney said the fees that are allowed under the provisions could negate any administrative costs associated with issuing permits.

To which Suso said, "Then those permit costs will be extraordinary."

Martha White, Natick's town administrator, said the initiative would cost another thing: time.

She said it is another example of the state "stretching us thinner."

"I think it places a burden and obligation on a municipality," said White. "The consensus most administrators have is of the oddity of having to permit them but not to inspect them."

The responsibility falls squarely on the applicant, said Southborough Town Administrator Jean Kitchen.

"If it does not require us to inspect (the sites) how do we ensure they do it correctly?" said Kitchen.

Dan McDonald can be reached at 508-626-4416 or at dmcdonal@cnc.com.

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