The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 3, 2006


Town Meeting bows to salamanders, moves Benfield housing to field near South Street

Environmental consultant Brian Butler of Oxbow Associates describes state regulation over protection of rare species habitat. (Photo by Midge Eliassen)

Would the desire of a blue-spotted salamander to live on the Benfield Land derail the will of thousands of Carlisleans to move ahead with affordable housing? On October 30, a Halloween-bedecked crowd voted for a compromise by approving Article 3. The result is a new configuration for the Benfield development that preserves salamander habitat by moving the buildings to a spot along South Street.

In 2005, the town had approved a Master Plan for Benfield which maintained the vista along South Street by placing the housing far back (Parcel 2) and putting open space by the street (Parcel 1). The new plan swaps the two, and puts the housing close to the street, a configuration opposed by some neighbors. The land was purchased in 2004, using $2 million in Community Preservation Act funds, for the purposes of developing affordable housing, locating a ball field, and preserving open space.

Salamander find prompts special concern

Russ Dion of the Benfield Task Force noted the discovery of a blue-spotted salamander on the land triggered the need for approval by the state's National Heritage Endangered Species Program (NHESP). An examination turned up two vernal pools whose protection zones encompassed the area in which housing was to be located. The blue-spotted salamander is a species of "special concern," the lowest rung on the protected totem pole. The low status does not reduce the need to provide 300 feet of protected and 800 feet of semi-protected area from vernal pools, where the salamanders breed.

Brian Butler of Oxbow Associates, environmental consultants to the project, said the NHESP considers it the developer's responsibility to "avoid, minimize, and mitigate" damage to endangered species. Moving the ball field into the protected area was acceptable to the NHESP, which felt this was a low-impact use, particularly as the salamanders are active at night. Once this alternative was accepted, the NHESP would not consider Carlisle's original plan, which would have put housing, used 24 hours a day, within the salamander zone.

John Winslow of Winslow Architects pointed to several advantages to the new housing location. Costs will be reduced due to "gentler topography" and less road (the Housing Authority's Alan Lehotsky later noted a savings of $500,000 with the change). Even if a road is later built for the ball field, it can be of lesser quality. Access in the middle of the frontage will be will be far better. "It's been a juggling act with a tremendous number of constraints," said Winslow, and the plan satisfies most criteria for the site.

Winslow noted the front parcel includes four acres, of which two are buildable. He envisions about three "farmstead" groupings of house, shed, and barn-like structures, designed to fit in with the neighboring housing. Each building would contain between one and four housing units.

Selectman Tim Hult said the 26 Benfield units will give the town a two-year moratorium from Chapter 40B, which would otherwise allow a developer to circumvent town zoning. Add in the affordable housing being developed on Concord Street and "we have three years to start playing offense rather than react defensively" to dense developments.

Questions from the audience indicated some skepticism about the need to take drastic measures for salamander protection and presented arguments on both sides of the housing debate.

Margaret Darling of West Street wondered whether there is "an ongoing process for documenting the continued presence of the blue-spotted salamander?" (Responded Moderator Tom Raftery rhetorically, "Where can you buy a blue-spotted salamander?")

Butler advised, "Accept this and move on," noting "disproving the habitat of an endangered species in a reasonable time frame is highly unlikely." The project would be held up until salamander season returns, and considerable expense would be required to monitor the habitat. In the end, the presence of salamanders might be confirmed, or, complicating things further, "we might find a secondary rare species."

Butler responded to a follow-up question about the possibility the species would be dropped from protected status by noting it takes many years for this to happen. For example, the spotted turtle was first proposed for delisting in 1991 and finally removed in 2006. "I would not be holding my breath," he added.

Ray Kubacki of South Street wondered if the state would waive the requirement to protect salamanders to advance affordable housing. "I personally don't believe we've approached state government at the highest levels," he said. But Butler noted he had been involved with many big projects that had gone through the same hoops "and if you think there aren't political connections in a $100 million project." He added "No matter the project, I haven't seen the process sidestepped."

Impact on neighborhood feared

Several audience members questioned the density of the proposed housing and reopened the question of "Why Benfield?" Frank Rigg of South Street said the neighborhood is "being asked to carry more than our share" and wondered, "Why is the solution [to 40B] to drop a dense settlement into one of the prettier parts of town?"

Kubacki, a former member of the Benfield Task Force, noted the state gives the salamander 300 feet whereas the housing is "now going to be 100 feet from neighbors." He questioned "jamming 26 units onto two acres," adding, "This is worse than a 40B." Hannelore Munson of Wildwood Drive, noting that the families occupying these units may draw more heavily on water resources than do occupants of senior housing, said, "I must say I'm very concerned for abutters."

Others tried to reassure neighborhood concerns. Steve Pearlman of Baldwin Road, who identified himself as an abutter to Malcolm Meadows, noted the similarity in density and the fact that many neighbors opposed that too. Now, he suggests, "Take a look at Malcolm Meadows on Stearns Street. I think it's an attractive development and it saves conservation land." Tim Eliassen, who lives at Malcolm Meadows, added, "It is very pleasant living" and endorsed the idea of concentrating housing to save open space. "Having neighbors close by is a pleasure," he added

The Housing Authority's Lehotsky responded to the concerns about density, pointing to Village Court in the town center which is 18 units on two acres with no buffer or open space. He noted the state and federal funding authorities smile on density. David Freedman of the Planning Board countered the "fairness" argument, noting Benfield is "a small step on a long journey" to affordable housing all around Carlisle. And with Village Court, "the center carried that burden for 30 years."

Controlling our destiny

The audience applauded the statement by Jay Luby (Woodbine Road) that proceeding with affordable housing on Benfield "allows us citizens of Carlisle to control our destiny." Nick D'Arbeloff of Russell Street added that if developers are not restrained, "The number of units that are going to hit this town is astronomical" as developers add three market-rate units for every affordable one. "Far better we should do it with pure affordable units."

Selectman John Williams presented statistics that, if 40B is the vehicle for reaching the affordability target, 600 new units will be required, adding 39% to current housing stock. Lehotsky cautioned against complacency, noting that market-rate units at Laurel Hollow (Rocky Point) sold for over $700,000 each, "a very good incentive for developers" to come to Carlisle.

Asked what would happen if the measure failed, Lehotsky pointed to the map. "There's a tiny trapezoid in the corner. We could build a seven-story building there." Convinced they truly were backed into a corner, Town Meeting voted 219 to 38 to approve Article 3.

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito