WVN #440: Developer asks Wayland for break to aid Framingham project
- Dear Wayland Voter,
Some town officials have expressed sympathy for a developer's request to help him build a project in Framingham that would produce costly problems and risks for Wayland with few obvious benefits. Voters may ask why.
Also in this newsletter: Some contested races will be on the April town ballot.
DEVELOPER WANTS CUT IN MITIGATION
Years ago Wayland opposed a 665-unit housing development just over the town line in Framingham and won an agreement to as much as $1.45 million to mitigate traffic, safety and environmental impacts. Now a different developer, a Wayland resident, is asking Wayland to set much of the deal aside.
The mitigation would be paid at specified points in the approvals and construction process in exchange for building a smaller housing project just over the town line in Framingham. Developer Roy MacDowell Sr. proposes that the town forgo mitigation money in return for an agreement to a smaller project -- perhaps 350 units.
Most of the current Wayland officials and senior staff being asked to give up that detailed settlement package were not serving in town government when their predecessors and technical consultants spent more than a year studying what it would take to protect Wayland roads and water supply should a large housing project be built at the former New England Sand & Gravel site on River Path, 170 acres just off Old Connecticut Path, not far from Wayland's intersection with West Plain Street.
Could giving up the mitigation package prove unwise, risky and costly to Wayland taxpayers? There appears to be no guarantee in a stalled economy that MacDowell, the third developer, will be more likely build the housing project than the previous two. It is also not clear what kind of housing may be built. A 2003 plan called for condos.
Here's the background:
Almost a decade ago, the Framingham Planning Board held a public hearing for a special permit for the Villages at Danforth Farm, proposed under a 1989 Planned Unit Development agreement.
Various Wayland officials, including the police chief, attended sessions of that hearing, concerned about the obvious impacts the development of up to 700 housing units in that area would have on Wayland's public safety. Of immediate concern were traffic and pedestrian safety at the intersections of Old Conn Path and West Plain Street, Stonebridge Road, and the high school.
Part of the property also has been undergoing a hazardous waste cleanup under Department of Environmental Protection Public Involvement Plan regulations after the property owners allowed the U.S. military to experiment with building instant runways (simulating desert soil conditions), resulting in the 1986 accidental release of contaminants into soil and groundwater. The plume of identified solvents has been attenuating over time, while migrating towards the Sudbury River. But concentrations still exceed allowable limits. The status of the cleanup has been a Class C RAO Response Action Outcome since 2003, not yet sufficient to permit housing under DEP regulations.
Part of the protective Zone II for Wayland's Meadowview and Happy Hollow drinking water wells extends into Framingham. Monitoring to ensure that the plume and project construction activities don't degrade Wayland's water supply is essential.
Framingham officials also seek to reopen three inactive Birch Road drinking water wells which abut the NESG property in order to reduce dependency on MWRA water. Their proposal is to withdraw over 3 million gallons of water per day from the same aquifer from which Wayland withdraws water for the Happy Hollow wells.
That proposal was vetted through the state environmental process, but in 2009 the Final Environmental Impact Report failed to comply with state standards for approval, and a supplemental report is required, as it was not clear whether use of the wells would dry up the river. (See www.waylandwells.com "Other Resources" section)
Engineering studies have tried to better assess the impacts of withdrawing such a large volume of water from an already stressed river basin. Impairment of water quality and quantity in the nearby Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Sudbury River, Lake Cochituate and Dudley Pond are among the concerns.
Not only does much of the NESG property consist of porous sands and gravel, the property is transected by major transmission power lines and the replacement MWRA aqueduct running 300-400 feet below ground. It also abuts the Oxbow portion of the Sudbury River, a designated protected Wild and Scenic River. And on the east are the Pod Meadow wetlands where increased passive recreation from the project would have impacts.
Strong Wayland Response
The 2003 Wayland Town Meeting voters, with the full support of the Finance Committee, sent a strong message approving petitioners articles calling for filing a legal appeal if the Framingham Planning Board issued a special permit to National Development (Newton). Framingham issued the permit approving the construction of 665 housing units in April 2003, and Wayland appealed it.
Wayland officials and consultants then spent more than a year working to quantify the protections needed to mitigate project impacts. A legal settlement announced in January 2005 called for developer National Development to provide $1.45 million in mitigation for a smaller project (525 housing units). The estimated allocation was signed off by the Wayland Board of Selectmen on Feb. 7, 2005.
The 2005 Town Meeting voters sent another strong message, approving petitioners articles calling for all documents related to that negotiated settlement to be publicly disclosed and that mitigation monies be deposited in designated accounts to be spent as planned.
The MetroWest Daily News reported that National Development sold the 170 acres to Pulte Homes in December 2005 for over $18 million. Site plan hearings continued, but the Framingham Planning Board was not enthusiastic about Pulte's design plans for a renamed Danforth Green. Pulte proposed large, multistory, monolithic buildings often seen in other suburban U.S. locations but devoid of New England design or character. Progress slowed and then halted with the housing market collapse. The News then reported that the property was sold at a foreclosure auction in March 2009 for $11 million to an Orlando bank.
Renewed Interest in 2011
The property reportedly is now owned by a Virginia bank. Wayland developer MacDowell (Baystone Development, formerly Boulder Construction, in Weston) first expressed interest in reviving the project last spring. The $1.45 million mitigation package has been a deterrent, according to MacDowell's statements at the Wayland Selectmen's Jan. 17, 2012 meeting. Last spring the Boston Business Journal reported on MacDowell's own financial challenges.
On Jan. 30, the selectmen invited several concerned residents to meet with current officials and the developer. MacDowell proposed to reduce the number of housing units to about 350 and to leave areas near the river and Pod Meadow undeveloped - - if the project could be made more financially feasible. He also mentioned protecting about 67 acres near the river with a conservation restriction. Wayland's conservation administrator said that the nearby wildlife refuge would likely be interested in such efforts.
The Framingham Conservation Commission was unable to issue permits when the bank did not submit adequate information, despite clear direction from the Commission and hearing continuances. The denial of the Order of Conditions in 2010 was appealed by the bank, and the ConCom prevailed in Superior Court in a December 2011 decision. The bank announced last month that it has appealed that decision. The ConCom has yet to be able to review the project's impact on the acres along the river and the wetlands. The direction of that process could improve if a new developer planned to protect rather than develop near those sensitive areas.
The Jan. 30 Wayland selectmen's discussion ran longer than planned, with residents urging the board to hold onto the protections that took more than a year to negotiate. Those concerns are no less valid today than a decade ago, they said. While the proposed smaller project could generate less traffic, the signalization at West Plain Street was already designed via a public hearing process using $50,000 in mitigation funds, and it still warrants construction. MacDowell is offering to build it.
There have been pedestrian fatalities on Old Conn Path and West Plain Street since the settlement was reached in 2005. The signal at Wayland High School is already built, but the overall cost of other roadway mitigation is now higher.
Any developer picking up this project also faces traffic mitigation and other infrastructure commitments in Framingham. Residents want a signal at School Street and Old Conn Path in Framingham. Meanwhile, several Wayland selectmen said that evening that they would not reduce the mitigation intended to protect Wayland's drinking water.
At the Jan. 19 Framingham Planning Board hearing, the town planner described the degraded condition of the property. It is wide open, not secured, with urban construction debris in various locations including wetland resource areas. He described dumped barrels, vehicles, tires, asphalt, and other materials while characterizing the property's condition as "absurd" and "unacceptable." He indicated this is not new, and that the owner should do something about restoring the property to a natural state. A technical consultant concurred with the presence of inappropriate materials on site that "need to go" given the Birch Road Zone I, the river and wetlands. That public hearing was continued to April 12.
MacDowell agreed the property is an eyesore that begs to be cleaned up and said he is willing to reconsider redeveloping it (disclosing he has it under purchase agreement) if something can be done about the cost of the mitigation package. He is also talking about relocating the project's River Path main entrance and making it more attractive.
Last Thursday, the Framingham Danforth project was a discussed agenda item at the Wayland Planning Board, without MacDowell present. Given the history of the property, and the uncertainties that lie ahead, Wayland officials have been advised by residents who worked on the 2005 settlement not to give up the underlying public safety protections set in place by their predecessors.
At their Feb. 13 meeting the Wayland selectmen discussed Roy MacDowell's Feb. 9 email essentially asking the town to forgo the cost of the remaining mitigation, except for the construction of the West Plain Street intersection.
MacDowell's proposal omits numerous line items, including the following, spelled out in the February 2005 mitigation allocation document: "National agrees to grant an easement for Wayland to install and maintain a monitoring well on National property until such time as both Wayland and National's LSPs (Licensed Site Professionals) jointly advise there's not any material risk to water quality in Zone IIs of Wayland's public water supply. Until the easement is terminated National will refrain from installing an irrigation well in an area of concern to Wayland."
Also missing from MacDowell's proposal is funding for public safety improvements at impacted Stonebridge Rd. and Main St/East/West Plain St. intersections, Pod Meadow conservation area management and protection, on-site LSP during project construction, monitoring well installation, and initial groundwater sampling.
Town Administrator Fred Turkington and Selectman Joe Nolan encouraged the Board to provide financial relief to MacDowell, with Turkington contending that some of the January 2005 mitigation package was fluff (Turkington did not begin working in Wayland until September 2005). The Board indicated a willingness to negotiate with MacDowell based on getting new information, including a new traffic study.
In this unstable real estate market, one thing is certain. No matter what gets built at the NESG property, it will present impacts and risks to Wayland. From 2003 to 2005, the selectmen negotiated and then signed the Danforth settlement agreement. It appears they have the authority to amend the mitigation package. Right now the Town of Wayland has $1.45 million in hard-fought legal protections in place based on empirical data.
The selectmen's Policies and Procedures guidance manual posted on the town website includes the following basic principle: "Overall, the Board has broad responsibility for the safety and well-being of the town."
Voters may ask the selectmen: Why should Wayland assist a developer whose project would still present a variety of costly problems to town taxpayers and give up the already negotiated protections?
-- Linda Segal
CONTESTED TOWN ELECTION RACES
On election day, April 3, Wayland voters will be asked to choose candidates on three boards: Board of Selectmen, Recreation Commission, and Housing Authority.
The candidates for selectman are: Susan Pope, incumbent; Douglas Leard, former selectman; Christopher Brown, current chair of the Board of Public Works; and Ed Collins, a former member of the Planning Board.
The Recreation Commission sees two incumbents being challenged. Brud Wright and Stas Gayshan, current commissioners, are facing Mark Lucier and Gary Carvalho.
A single, one-year position on the Housing Authority is being sought by Jackie Ducharme and Laurie Hojlo.
New faces to fill vacant slots are Cynthia Hill for Board of Health, and Bob Goldsmith for Board of Public Works. Goldsmith was previously a member of the Conservation Commission and serves on the Surface Water Quality Committee.
-- WVN Staff
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor