Friday, June 30, 2006
Salamanders gain ground at Benfield
The town purchased the 45-acre property in 2004, to be divided between the uses of: open space preservation, a site for affordable housing and a recreation field. Because of neighborhood concern over the recreation field and housing, limits were placed on the property and a Task Force spent a year developing a master plan for the parcel. Twenty-six acres in back, much of it wetland, was reserved for open space. Complications arose when possible Native American relics (placed stones) were identified on the site, and later when a blue spotted salamander was found on the property (see Sept 30, 2005 Mosquito, Benfield Land shelters rare species.) After the Benfield Task Force was disbanded in 2005 the Selectmen informally asked Ballantine to assist the Housing Authority with the Benfield paperwork.
About 20 people listened as Sarah Haggerty, an Endangered Species Review Biologist from the Natural Heritage Endangered Species Program (NHESP), spoke about the natural habitat of the blue spotted salamander. Apparently, the salamander breeds in vernal pools and lives in forested uplands when not breeding. The NSESP is concerned with regulating species on the state list and their respective habitats. Since the program received credible evidence that the blue spotted salamander does exist at Benfield, they are particularly concerned that any plans on Benfield do not disrupt or destroy the salamander's forested habitat.
Architect John Winslow presented two different possible plans that take the salamander's habitat — as well as the Native American ceremonial stones and conservation land — into consideration. Winslow had been hired by the town for earlier drawings of the Benfield Land, and he had volunteered to make these modified drawings pro bono.
The maps show two vernal pools, one on the Benfield Land and the other nearby on abutter's land (see map, page 4.) Around each pool are drawn two circles: one 300 feet away from the pool, and the second circle at a distance of 800 feet. Ballantine said later that construction would probably be prohibited within the inner circle, marking essential salamander habitat, though some housing construction and/or the playing field would probably be allowed within the 800 foot circle. Salamanders usually travel no more than 600 feet from the vernal pool where they breed, but they are known to travel as much as 1,000 feet. The two pools are about 1,200 feet apart. To date, only one blue spotted salamander has been found on the site.
Plan A-1 describes the full-sized playing field up front and the 26-unit housing development is shifted onto the upper ledge area. Plan B, a radically different plan, places the housing development up front and the playfield in the back. Plan A-1 is believed to be more costly since Winslow knows that a $250,000 road needs to be built just to get to the housing development in the ledge area. Ballantine stressed that the conceptual plans being shown were just two possible configurations, and were not endorsed by the Task Force or any town board.
Selectman Tim Hult commented that the town is now aware that previous Benfield plans are in question and that the status of Benfield is of great concern, particularly with respect to the affordable housing aspect of the plan. "Developing a plan where we gain some control over our future is becoming more difficult." Hult expressed the BOS's need to put together a representative group that can present the different options to the board. Later, Hult said topics the group would address may include: to reexame the limitations on property use made at the time of purchase prohibiting housing in the front field; whether further salamander observation would be useful; alternative siting and designs for the affordable housing; and alternative uses for the property, including selling it. He said, "I don't think you'll find a town that's more sensitive to environmental issues." But he added, "You have to be realisitc. We have a finite amount of money and time."
Chairman Doug Stevenson said that the BOS will put Benfield back on the agenda for their July 11 meeting so they can consider who the group should be — who should be represented and who are the likely volunteers — so they can begin to chart the course.
© 2006 The