Friday, January 15, 2010
Wildlife protection delays Benfield 40B
On January 12, the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) continued the hearing for the 40B comprehensive permit application for the proposed Benfield Farms, a senior, affordable housing development off South Street. Applicant NOAH’s (Neighborhood of Affordable Housing) senior project manager, Mark Beaudry of Meridian Associates, spoke about the current challenges faced upon receiving feedback from Natural Heritage and the Conservation Commission/DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) on NOAH’s Notice of Intent.
The Natural Heritage Program or NHESP is responsible for the conservation and protection of hundreds of species that are not hunted, fished, trapped or commercially harvested in the state. According to mass.gov, the Natural Heritage program’s highest priority is “protecting the 176 species of vertebrate and invertebrate animals and 259 species of native plants that are officially listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern in Massachusetts.”
Beaudry said that the whole Benfield area “is part of a map where there are a bunch of threatened species. Benfield is a ‘polygon’ – an area of concern.” To the NHESP, polygons are areas that represent the extent of various natural communities of biodiversity conservation interest in Massachusetts.
The 26 units of senior affordable housing in the front portion of the town-owned parcel off South Street are located primarily in the upland area between two bordering vegetated wetlands. A loop road, walkway and parking areas fall in the 100-foot wetland buffer zone. Natural Heritage is primarily concerned about the upland, forested areas – specifically the vernal pools on Lot 4 of the building plan – and the Blue Spotted Salamander who breed in the vernal pools then walk across into the meadow land, through the lot that is intended for the soccer field.
Overall, Natural Heritage felt that the Benfield development would disturb too much upland work on Lot 1. Beaudry said that, soccer field project aside, “if we can get the disturbance down, then we’d be OK in [Natural Heritage’s] mind.” Beaudry described how they have been considering alternative designs for Benfield and feels that they can make changes to satisfy Natural Heritage without ultimately needing to move the building structure, which houses the 26 residential units.
Beaudry also said that the Department of Environmental Protection had problems with the project concerning the riverfront delineation. There are currently two areas of concern. One is the area where a brook runs under South Street and finds its way to Spencer Brook. The other potential stream is on an adjacent property. Beaudry said that when they filed their Notice of Intent with the DEP/Natural Heritage, their plans were based on riverfront areas being on the Benfield land. The stream on the adjacent property had been studied back in 2005 and it was determined that it was not a river, but today is it unclear if it is or isn’t classified as a river or a “perennial stream.”
At this point, the applicant NOAH needs to do a wetland analysis (or “riverfront delineation”) to prove that the rivers are indeed rivers and reside where the applicant says they do in their plans. NOAH also needs to perform a wildlife study on the Benfield “polygon” area to determine the level of disturbance to the indigenous species, namely the Spotted Salamander.
Phil Giffee from NOAH remains optimistic about moving forward with the project and is determined to work cooperatively with the Massachusetts environmental agencies, saying, “there may not be many changes [to our plan]. We’re just going to have to go through the regulatory process to prove that we aren’t going to do any harm to salamanders or to people. It will take a little bit more time.”
ZBA Chairman, Ed Rolfe responded to the update about the environmental challenges by saying, “if this were a football game, I think I’d call a time out. There are a lot of things at work. We have two clocks running: the game clock – the 180 days to get the hearing completed, and another clock which is to get the peer review done.”
Beaudry said that it may take about a month to work through the environmental agency concerns. Meanwhile, the ZBA and NOAH are continuing the process of securing a peer review engineering firm for the Benfield development plan.
At the next ZBA meeting on January 27 at 7 p.m., the ZBA and NOAH will be inviting Nitsch Engineering and Places Engineering, two firms who responded to the ZBA’s request for quotation and services, in order to get a better sense of the firms’ competencies and work styles determine before deciding who to retain as their peer reviewer. ∆
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