Friday, August 4, 2006
Benfield Task Force rethinks housing, ballfield locations
As members and interested observers emerged from the first meeting of the re-constituted Benfield Task Force on July 25, the word that remained in their minds had to be "constraints." This had not been the case back in 2004 when the Town Meeting endorsed purchase of the 45-acre Benfield Parcel A for purposes of conservation, affordable housing and active recreation or in June of 2005 when it approved a master plan for construction of affordable housing and an athletic field in the interior of the site.
Factors limiting construction
Although the town was aware of the presence of Native American ceremonial stones in 2005, an investigation by the state's Public Archaeology Laboratory had found that the area did not qualify as a "registered" historic site, but the town still had an obligation to consult with them. In October of 2005, a more serious stumbling block arose with the discovery of a state "species of concern," specifically a blue-spotted salamander. This and the presence of two vernal pools and several other amphibian residents caused two 800-foot circles of land to come under the immediate jurisdiction of the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP). Subsequent investigation and negotiation indicated that the wooded upland area where the town was planning to locate the housing units was prime habitat for the salamanders, so it was literally "back to the drawing boards."
Two "purely illustrative" approaches to the problem the planners now faced were presented to the Board of Selectmen (BOS) in June of 2006. One (Plan A1) showed the ballfield in the front of the parcel on South Street, with the housing in the back but much closer to the abutters' lot lines than is considered desirable, while Plan B had the housing in the front on South Street and the athletic field in the rear. The latter is the plan preferred by the state, because it would have the least impact on the salamanders. According to Task Force chairman John Ballantine, neither plan is acceptable to the town (nor to the Task Force), particularly Plan B with the housing in the front, an arrangement that runs counter to the parameters set at the 2005 Town Meeting. "The challenge," he says, "is to come up with an acceptable variation on Plan A that is further away from the lot lines and satisfies the state."
To give the task force a realistic starting point, architectural consultant John Winslow presented a multi-colored map showing "Site Planning Constraints," i.e.:
· Two 800-foot circles surrounding each vernal pool, and marking NHESP areas of jurisdiction.
· Two 300-foot "no disturbance" buffers around each pool.
· A 400-foot-wide salamander migration zone (Patency Area) that runs between the two pools and includes the wooded area originally slated for development by the town and considered crucial habitat.
· Native American ceremonial stones spread throughout the site, some in otherwise restricted areas, some in the potentially buildable portion.
· 100-foot abutter property-line setback or a preferred 200-foot property-line setback.
There followed a discussion of the implications of the constraints as pictured in Winslow's map. It was clear that considerable reconfiguring would be required to keep the affordable housing units within the much-reduced potential building area. Winslow estimated that six acres would be needed for the 26 units originally anticipated, but even this would mean some condensing of the architecture as previously shown.
Task Force member Russell Dion indicated that the closer together the units were, the more "alien" they would look. He said the topography of the area now available is on a definite slope that could require significant clearing and reconfiguring. Alternate member Juergen Lemmerman questioned whether the cost could then be kept within the Town Meeting parameters. Ballantine replied that the proposal would have to return to Town Meeting if the committee could not stay within the limit, a situation the group definitely wished to avoid. Wetland biologist and Oxbow Associates consultant Brian Butler felt there was a chance that the NHESP might allow a 100-foot impingement on the 400-foot-wide patency area, but that would have to be negotiated with them. Picking up on that possibility, member Alan Lehotsky noted that some of the constraints shown on Winslow's map are absolute and some may not be. It was pretty much accepted that the construction site would have to move closer to the abutter lot lines than the original 300-foot buffer, but the hope was to keep it as close to 200 feet as possible, and under no circumstances to come closer than 100 feet from any house.
Which constraints are rigid and which are negotiable?
Stressing that there should be "flexibility" in the approach to the Native American ceremonial stones, Phyllis Zinicola conceded that an effort should be made to preserve the most important of them. Ballantine had previously noted that while the Native Americans are maintaining an "all-or-nothing" stance, the town remains sensitive to their concerns and is continuing to consult with them, but with the realization that the state has found the locale ineligible for designation as a "registered" site.
For the record, Winslow reminded his listeners that Plan B, showing the housing units up front on South Street and the athletic field in the rear met all the constraints, would be less costly and was acceptable to the state. (Ballfields are not considered harmful to salamander migration.) However, Ballantine again reminded them that this plan was turned down by the 2005 Town Meeting, and its adoption would send the process back to step one.
The discussion concluded, Winslow was asked to come up with two possible variations on the Plan A site with the following general features:
· Define a buildable zone in the rear that is conscious of cost constraints and works with the obvious site topographical constraints.
· Stays 100 feet off the stone wall bordering the back field.
· Impinges no more than 100 feet into the patency area. Is 200 feet or less from the closest abutting lot line, but no closer than 100 feet.
· Offers one plan that works around the three Native American key stones and one that does not.
· Locates the ball field in the front on South Street.
Once Winslow drafts such plans, he, Butler, NHESP representative Sarah Haggerty and Ballantine will meet to talk about the Plan A constraint variations and Ballantine will consult with Doug Harris, spokesman for the Native Americans, to get his input. Finally, the task force will reconvene, preferably by the end of August, to review the two plans and evaluate input from the state and from Harris. At that meeting, the chairman hopes the task force will be ready to make a recommendation on a revised plan, probably following final consultations with the state and the Native Americans.
Current members of the Task Force as appointed by the BOS on July 25: Chairman, Ballantine; BOS representative, Alan Carpenito; Housing Authority, Alan Lehotsky; Planning Board, Phyllis Zinicola; Conservation Commission, Tom Brownrigg; at large, Russell Dion; Recreation Commission, Allen Deary, neighborhood representative, Sara Hart.
© 2006 The