Friday, November 5, 1999
Dam repairs provoke the ire of conservation commissioner
Quiet descended early at the Carlisle Conservation Commission meeting on October 27 as acting chair Tricia Smith bore down on the first applicant of the evening. The cause of her displeasure was a request for a Certificate of Compliance from Jonathan Sachs, owner of the former Evans property at the end of Baldwin Road.
In presenting the application, Sachs and his environmental engineer Kenneth Wagner of ENSR readily admitted that errors of both omission and commission had occurred during repair of a dam that holds back the waters of the so-called Evans Pond. The shallow body of water lies mainly on Sachs' property but also borders on land owned by Ralph Anderson.
In a letter to the commission dated October 21, Wagner reviewed the evolution of the project which was originally approved by the board in 1997 along with an Order of Conditions governing construction. He stated that the current berm or earthen structure forming the dam appears stable and in his opinion meets the intent of the state Department of Environmental Management regulations for dam safety. However, in a pertinent later paragraph, he foresaw the problems that indeed arose at the ConsCom hearing.
"Review of the project from the perspective of the Order of Conditions indicates that not all clauses were adhered to in the strictest fashion. Notification of activities does not appear to have been timely, and a necessary change in berm design was not reported prior to construction. While we do not believe that the intent of any environmental law has been abrogated, it is true that compliance with the Order of Conditions was not complete," the letter states.
Chain of events
Sachs traced the events that had led to the departures from the original design specifications. He explained that following what he believed to be completion of the original repair project by North Star contractors in the late fall of 1998, the ground froze, precipitation increased, and as the water level rose, the "repaired" structure sprang a leak. The situation threatened the integrity of the entire project and, as he described it, "We were worse off than before we started." Therefore, Sachs engaged a new contractor, Macone Bros., to stabilize the dam.
In repairing the structure, the berm footprint was widened using material dredged from the pond bottom and rocks from the surrounding territory. These changes apparently meant that the wetland fill area now covered approximately 4,230 feet rather than the 700 square feet indicated in the original submittal. Sachs' major mistake was in not returning to the commission for an assessment of the new dam specifications before the work began. For this, he again apologized, explaining that he was not aware that once a project was approved, changes in any of the specifications required a return visit to the commission. Apologies or not, Smith made it clear that with the discrepancies described, the commission could not issue a Certificate of Compliance until they knew exactly what work had been done.
From an engineering standpoint, the commissioner seemed concerned about increased disturbance of land under water, the filling of additional wetland terrain and possible heightened pressure behind the dam. She made it clear that she could not be comfortable "until we [the ConsCom] know whether any remedial work is needed." Further, she observed that had the commission known the actual extent of wetland disturbance, they might have required replication of the filled area.
Wagner responded that the disturbance was under the 5,000-square-foot limit that triggers action under the Massachusetts Wetland Protection Act. He repeated that, in his opinion, the dam is "approvable as it exists." Maintaining a hard-nosed approach, Smith indicated that the commission might need to request a consultant of their own to evaluate the project, and further, might need to consider an enforcement action. Maintaining his composure, Wagner pointed out that no habitat had been lost and that, in fact, some had probably been gained from the overall rise in the level of the pond. Far from mollified, Smith then called for a fully documented drawing of the dam structure.
The other three commissioners present, all of whom were new to the board and apparently hesitant to speak up about a project with a prior history, had listened to the exchange in silence. But at this point, commissioner Eric Jensen questioned the request for a detailed drawing of a dam, parts of which dated back many years. He also expressed doubt about the need for yet another engineering consultant. But when Wagner stated that ENSR is not a survey firm, Sachs said he would be glad to engage such a service. Jensen inquired of Smith if she could say exactly what information was needed, and she responded, "As things now stand, I have no assurance that contractors have not altered more than 5,000 square feet."
The tense encounter terminated with an agreement to hold a site walk on Sunday, October 31. Six of the seven commissioners participated in the inspection, along with the Sachses, Anderson and the probable buyer of the property. Commissioners posed technical questions and compared pictures of the crumbling dam as it had looked before the repair project with the present grassy berm, modern outlet structure and concrete spillway.
Again admitting that he was ultimately responsible for the failure to keep the commission informed, Sachs declared, "I did the best I could to restore the dam and save the wetland habitat that would certainly have dried out had the dam failed. There was no intent to go over someone's head or deceive," he said, "I just didn't know the rules."
The conservation commission intended to continue discussion of the matter at their November 4 meeting.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito