Friday, September 1, 2006
Benfield Task Force struggles with constraints and trade-offs
The town purchased the 45-acre property in 2004 for conservation, affordable housing and active recreation. Twenty-three acres, south of a stone wall, were designated for conservation and passive recreation. A Task Force then created a master plan for placement and construction of the ballfield and the affordable units. Since then a number of constraints have emerged that require a significant reworking of the master plan.
• The 2005 Spring Town Meeting approved the master plan for construction of affordable housing and an athletic field, both located in the interior of the site. The motion specifically prohibited placing the housing along South Street.
• Later that year, the protected blue-spotted salamander and two vernal pools were discovered on the property, placing the areas under the immediate jurisdiction of the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP). A 300-foot diameter circle around a vernal pool is a strict no-build zone. Some development may be permitted within a larger 800-ft circle around the vernal pool and in the patency zone, a 400-foot swath connecting the two vernal pools, but only if the town can show that: 1) there will be insignificant impact on the protected species, 2) no reasonable alternative building location exists on the property, and 3) building within the circle results in a net benefit.
• Native Americans claim that a number of stones in the center of the property have ceremonial significance, although an investigation by the state's Public Archaeology Laboratory had found that the area did not qualify as a "registered" historic site.
• Abutters and the Board of Selectmen have recommended that any development be a minimum of 100 feet, and preferably 200 feet, from lot lines.
Plans A, B, C, D
Two plans, developed around the constraints, were presented to the Selectmen in June. Plan A showed the ballfield in front, on South Street, and the housing in the interior approximately 50 feet from the lot line. The Selectmen rejected this plan as the housing development lay much closer to the abutters than is considered desirable.
Plan B had the housing in front on South Street and the athletic field in the rear, in the conservation area beyond the stone wall. Although this plan may less costly, possibly offering savings of $300,000 to $500,000, it was also rejected by the board as it violated the 2005 Town Meeting criteria.
On Tuesday architectural consultant John Winslow presented two more conceptual plans. Plans C and D both kept the ballfield along South Street. Plan C clustered the housing units between the Indian stones and the stone wall. Plan D placed the housing between the stones and Vernal Pool 2.
State prefers Plan B
Task Force chair John Ballantine reported that earlier in the week he, Winslow, and consulting wetland biologist Brian Butler discussed the four plans with NHESP representative Sarah Haggerty. Although Haggerty did not offer any binding recommendations, Ballantine felt that the state would reject both Plans C and D, as both encroached on the patency zone and the 800 foot buffer circles. Plan B was preferred by the state, because it would have the least impact on the salamanders.
Moral and legal obligations
"What are our moral obligations?" asked Selectman John Williams from the audience. Member Alan Deary pointed out that Town Meeting purchased the property specifically to be used for affordable housing, recreation and conservation. In addition, there is a "handshake" agreement with the Benfield family and a vote of Town Meeting that the housing development would not be placed along South Street.
"What are our legal obligations?" continued Williams. Ballantine responded that there is no legally binding agreement with the Benfields, although placing the housing in front (Plan B) would require another Town Meeting vote. There are no deed restrictions on the land which would prohibit placing the ballfield beyond the stone wall.
What is the best option?
With no clear solution surfacing, Ballantine asked participants to offer some thoughts on the best option. He suggested that "a case can be made to make Plan B look good. The Selectmen should consider B." Task Force member Russell Dion agreed, "Plans C and D are "non-starters for the state. My vote is to challenge the town on B."
Phyllis Zinicola, Planning Board representative to the Task Force, believed that Plan A is the better alternative, as it is closest to the plan approved by Town Meeting vote. "I would not want to be on the stage when we take Plan B to the Town Meeting." Conservation Commission representative Tom Brownrigg would like to have NHESP respond specifically to Plan D. "If Plan D is not liked, then we go with Plan A," he said.
Housing Authority representative Alan Lehotsky pointed out that there would be no need for another Town Meeting vote with Plan A, although his personal preference is for Plan B. He worried that there may be a "conservation backlash" against the location of the field, but the cost savings may be the justification to pursue Plan B.
Neighborhood representative Sarah Hart preferred "Plan A merged with Plan D", moving the housing further away from the lot line. Selectman Alan Carpenito felt that from a taxpayers' perspective Plan B is best; from the neighbors' perspective he would like to see some buffer between the housing and South Street. Recreation Commission representative Alan Deary was "O.K. with either A or B. We should explain it all to the town. Are economics most important?"
Neighbor Tim Fohl, who has worked to define Native American structures on the property, felt that Plan B protects the ceremonial stones completely, but Plan A may be a compromise. However, he cautioned, "If the town disregards [Native American] concerns, there will be a response [from Native Americans].
Winslow suggested that Plan B is preferable from a community planning perspective. "I like housing to be integrated with the community a large. My preference is for B."
With a majority of members favoring Plan B, Ballantine saw the need to move quickly to prepare for a possible vote on Plan B at the Fall Town Meeting on October 30. The Task Force needs to reserve space on the Warrant by September 26. In the next three weeks members will hold conversations with a number of parties, including the Benfield family, the Carlisle Conservation Foundation, neighbors and abutters, town officials, town counsel, and consultants to the Task Force to explain the constraints and trade-offs.
The Next Task Force meeting is scheduled for Friday, September 15 at 6:30 p.m.
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