Friday, September 29, 2006
Frustration boils over as Benfield Article unveiled
Was it the two and a half years of spinning wheels? The continued calls to revisit and restudy? The broken Town Hall heat, keeping the room at 80 degrees? Whatever the reason, frustration was evident on all sides as the Benfield Task Force presented the Selectmen with an Article for the Warrant for the Special Town Meeting changing the configuration of the Benfield project so the housing is in front, along South Street, and the ball field is in back. This change is needed to satisfy the state agency protecting endangered salamanders. After much discussion, the Selectmen agreed to bring the matter before Town Meeting this fall.
"With very good intentions the town went through a purchase ... and we've been taken through the ringer," said Chair Doug Stevenson, noting the plan is not what was approved at Town Meeting in 2004 when the land was purchased by the town with Parcel 1 (front) designated for open space or recreation and Parcel 3 (back) for housing.
John Ballantine of the Task Force provided the background, detailing the various configurations that have been examined in an attempt to satisfy abutter, conservation, recreation, housing, Native American and salamander concerns. These included "keep all of the housing in the center not visible to neighbors," to "develop behind the hill" only 50 feet from the Carpenito lot line. But none of these plans satisfied the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (MNHESP), whose approval for the project became necessary when rare blue-spotted salamanders were found on the property.
MNHESP criteria for approval of a project affecting an endangered species include: no alternative siting; minimum impact on species; and a net benefit to the species, often achieved by conserving other land. "From their perspective there is an alternative" to siting the housing within the salamander area, said Ballantine, and that alternative is to put the housing in front. Perhaps surprisingly, a playing field in the forested area where the rare salamanders live was acceptable because "the salamanders can go back and forth."
Costs savings may be $500,000
Although opposed by abutters, the new siting would have some advantages. The elimination of a thousand-foot road and a better construction location without ledge would cut as much as $500,000 from the cost of the project. Tim Hult noted the housing would be "better integrated into the neighborhood" in the new location. Screening with evergreens would reduce the impact of the housing from the street. In addition, Native American concerns for ceremonial stones on the land would be largely satisfied.
Russ Dion of the Task Force noted that although a detailed plan has not been drawn up, the housing will remain "New England style two-story." The density will likely remain the same, with about eight separate structures for 26 units.
Why do salamanders have priority?
Stevenson responded, "It is troublesome to me . . . the salamander issue takes precedence" over wetlands, abutter, and other issues. He noted some housing would still be within the salamander zone, "Why is that acceptable? Who's making the decision?"
Ballantine explained, that the MNHESP has to approve the project. "Whether you agree or not, they've told us this is what would be accepted. Other proposals will not work."
Brian Butler, consultant on the project, sympathized that "people's money is being held hostage by the process. I sympathize with your frustration, but we must meet the standards or the project is illegal." He explained that within the 800 protected feet from where the salamander was found there is a forbidden zone and a "negotiable" zone within which the few units are acceptable. "One-half acre within the 800 feet is better than the entire project within."
Stevenson continued, "The town was reacting to a state-imposed regulation" when Benfield was purchased for affordable housing. "One agency is telling us one thing and another is telling us another. Can we apply pressure at the proper level" to resolve the problem? He added, "My greatest frustration is that we have the most exemplary record for preserving resources and preserving habitat. And there's no consideration for us trying to comply with 40B."
The state statute known as "Chapter 40B" allows the construction of higher-density developments than allowed by local zoning as long as at least 25% of the housing meets state affordability criteria. For any year that Carlisle adds 12 units of affordable housing, it will earn a one-year moratorium from 40B projects.
Regarding the 40B/MNHESP conflict, Butler said, "I haven't seen one agency yield to another on an issue like this." He noted the MNHESP "does not regulate any differently" based on usage, and pointed to a hospice program that was denied. "They want the law to apply evenly," Ballantine interjected.
Finally Stevenson criticized the plan to "throw out the purchase and sale, and Town Meeting votes that designated . . . no housing in front" and wondered if playing fields could now be withdrawn from the plan, or other changes, such as fewer housing units, incorporated. David Freedman responded, "Nothing can be built without a Town Meeting vote" and criticized Stevenson's characterizing the change as "throwing out" what the town decided."We always come back to the town" before taking another step in the process.
Abutters suggest slow down
Alan Carpenito, who recussed himself from the Board of Selectmen to speak as an abutter, noted he felt "the plans put before us are nothing like what we voted on at Town Meeting (in 2004)" He pointed to "a rush to buy the land without due diligence" and suggested the Selectmen now "Take time and explore all options before we go forward." Juergen Lemmermann of South Street agreed. Gordon Munson of Wildwood Drive suggested the town "look over the conservation land and find the cheapest to build" and arrange a swap." Task Force member representing the neighborhood, Sarah Hart of Fifty Acre Way said a swap should be considered, "Look at the big picture and put it in the best possible place."
Any housing site has abutters
Tim Hult responded fervently, "Rushed? We've been at this three years! We are economically pressed to do something." He pointed to the Coventry Woods 40B abutters as "another group of people just like you impacted by a development," adding, "Because of the laws that prevail, we must have a plan for affordable housing and must move forward with that plan. If we don't control the [40B] process with development of our own, the alternative is terribly intrusive projects."
He continued by dismissing the idea a swap is viable. "I'd like to believe there is a magical place that's cheaper, easier, with no abutters. But no solution is perfect for everyone in this town." He said if another property were targetted, "I guarantee another roomful of people" in opposition.
John William, Selectman member of the Task Force also responded heatedly, "I'm not a 40B advocate" but "we are legally bound to do it." He said there is not an idea that hasn't been explored, from swap, to build less, to change the plan. "I personally have asked all those questions. It's not fair to say those haven't been asked." He added, "I am totally frustrated with this, totally frustrated." He noted a swap for conservation land is not possible because of the state laws covering change of use.
Let the town decide
Bill Tice summarized the views of many when he said "Let's bring it to the town. That's where I'm at." Speaking to Stevenson, Hult added, "You always say you take great faith in the wisdom of Town Meeting to make the right decision." But Stevenson worried people will be critical of the process: "Would the town have purchased the property" if they had known about this change ahead of time? Responded Hult, "Then the town will say "no." Added Ballentine, "And nothing will happen. It will be defacto conservation land with maybe a ball field."
The vote to put the article on the warrant passed with three aye and one nay vote and Alan Carpenito abstaining.
© 2006 The