The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 17, 2001


ConsCom leaves no doubt: Fox Hill is 'last resort' as septic site

In two unusually well-attended conservation commission meetings on July 26 and August 2, the commission heard selectmen Vivian Chaput and John Ballantine present and eventually withdraw a request to conduct soil testing on the Fox Hill conservation parcel. In the course of the two evenings the selectmen were clearly influenced by comments from abutters and other residents vehemently opposed to any proposal to place a new school sewage treatment system on the scenic hillside. In the end the commissioners left no doubt that they would consider such a legal 'change in use' only if convinced that the town had no other alternative.

In her initial presentation Chaput explained the dilemma faced by the board of selectmen and school committee. The Banta-Davis Land, which was the site originally chosen and approved by Town Meeting, is still the location preferred by the school committee engineers and town officials. Unfortunately, the original plan for a Title V septic system filed in 1997 has been stymied by a successful abutter appeal to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Following three years of hearings and adjudicatory action, DEP sent the plan back and subsequently added a requirement that the town substitute a small sewage treatment plant with a secondary leaching field to receive the resulting relatively clean effluent.

Selectmen ask for test holes

A preliminary estimate for the cost of such a facility, if constructed at Banta-Davis is $1.1 million. However, the selectmen have had to face the fact that the same abutters might decide to appeal the new filing, dragging out the process for another three years. In the meantime the school is operating with a failed septic system that is pumped out monthly, a solution that the state is unlikely to accept indefinitely. Therefore, as part of the selectmen's search for feasible alternative sites, Chaput said the board was requesting permission to dig test holes on the Fox Hill property, which consists of two fields and a woodland area near the intersection of Stearns Street and Bedford Road.

Chaput and Ballantine assured the commission that the selectmen still intend to pursue the use of Banta-Davis and are hopeful the town can eventually arrive at a compromise with the abutters. To a question from commissioner John Lee as to what priority had been given to Fox Hill, Ballantine replied that no priority has been assigned the several sites under consideration. Both he and Chaput reiterated previous assurances that the parcel could return to agricultural usage once the facility was installed. However, they admitted that it was difficult to define exactly what the system would look like until a location was identified.

"A violation of trust"

Steve Hinton of East Street warned his former colleagues that he had indications that there would be a"public outcry" if the commission were to approve testing on Fox Hill, as was experienced in 1995 when a land swap involving the parcel had been proposed. A number of residents informed the commission that they felt altering the use of conservation land in any way was a violation of the trust of those who have given or sold property for conservation in the past and that such action would be an abdication of their responsibility to the citizens of Carlisle. Said Anne Marks of Bedford Road, "I would not keep my confidence in your ability to make good decisions if you allow an alteration to conservation land." Bedford Road resident Maureen Ruettgers was more specific, saying that even allowing testing on the parcel would send a message to the public that the board might be willing to entertain such an unfortunate proposal.

Commissioner John Lee indicated that he would need a better understanding of the legal framework of the request before making a decision, since it appeared a change of use would be involved. He declared himself sensitive to the issue of misplaced public trust but felt the commission also had a responsibility to discuss such a potentially important public need. Commissioner Jonathan Beakley said he would be uncomfortable approving a nebulous plan but felt the commission should show itself open to the town's needs.

When conservation administrator Sylvia Willard pointed out that three of the seven commissioners were not present, Beakley suggested that the group might meet the next Thursday, when a full board could be anticipated, to discuss the matter further. All concurred.

Smaller leaching field needed

Paul Sellew of Shady Brook Road, executive vice president of Synagro, a company that designs sewage treatment systems, offered to meet with the school's engineers to discuss the situation. The offer was welcomed by Chaput and occasioned a meeting August 1 at the Ruettgers' house. Both Chaput and Ballantine participated in that informal exploration of system options and learned that a sewage treatment facility reduced the footprint for the leaching field from 40,000 to 10,000 square feet, making it reasonable to look again at possible locations on the school grounds.

Approval by Legislature required

The August 2 continuation of the discussion with the commission drew another 16 interested residents to the Clark Room at the Town Hall. To a question about the legal process involved in a change of use for Fox Hill, chair Tom Brownrigg explained that the commission would have to okay it; the matter would then require a two-thirds vote of Town Meeting, and finally it would have to be approved by two-thirds of the state legislature.

"A bad precedent"

Kathryn Dennison of Stearns Street raised the question of "the chilling effect" that a change in use of such a visible conservation parcel might have on people who were considering giving land to the town. Her Stearns Street neighbor Dan Mosely reminded the commission that, "Even to dig test holes at Fox Hill would require crossing the wetlands." Others noted that after installation of a leaching field, its maintenance could prove a constant disruption. Lee recognized the potential validity of a statement from Ruettgers that many townspeople might well be willing to consider a somewhat more expensive alternative to Fox Hill in order to preserve the beautiful vista.

At this point former commissioner Ken Harte rose to recommend that the commission reject any change of use for Fox Hill citing two reasons. First, it would set a bad precedent that would ease the way for future depredation of conservation lands. Second, it would permit the school committee and selectmen to relax efforts to find another solution if Fox Hill proved feasible.

Selectmen back down

Soon thereafter Ballantine observed that as a result of the strongly held opinions offered by the public and the revived possibility of finding a solution on school property or elsewhere, he and Chaput were withdrawing the request to dig test holes at Fox Hill at present, but that he would appreciate at least a straw vote as to the leanings of individual commissioners. The straw vote produced the following comments:

Beakley: "I would have to be convinced that there were no other alternatives, that what we were doing was in the best interests of the town; and my standards would be extremely high."

Lee: "I've looked at Field A and Field B [at Fox Hill] and there's no way I would vote to change the use of the field you can see from Bedford Road. To use the other field, I would have to be assured there was no alternative."

Peter Burn: "Clearly, conservation land should be a last resort; I'm afraid if we say okay, it would set a bad precedent. However, at this point I can't just say no."

JoRita Jordan: "There's an unfortunate trend toward conversion of conservation land. I would be very reluctant to vote for it unless the state actually threatened to close the school."

Chris Gaulden: "I would not vote to change the use of Fox Hill."

Brownrigg: "I feel the most important issue is setting a precedent. The refrain, 'You did it at Fox Hill' would come up again and again to haunt us."

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