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Council moves past environmental issues, but concerns persist

By GORDON VINCENTnews@woburnonline.com

Woburn - With the environmental issues finally addressed, the City Council last night turned the focus of a proposal for 147 townhouses at Winning Farm to the project itself. Approval was not the slam-dunk it was with the city's Planning Board two weeks ago, however. During the 90-minute public hearing, the council heard concerns about possible drainage problems and buffer zones on Canterbury Road, and a warning from the leader of Neighbors Opposed to a Polluted Environment (NOPE), a citizens group which has fought the project on an environmental level for the past six years.

 

"There's no doubt in NOPE's mind there's going to be residual contamination" from the removal of a landfill on the site, said Lexington resident Paul M. Newman. The council eventually sent the matter to its Special Permits Committee for review. The project is also subject to an order of conditions from the city's Conservation Commission, which was granted by then appealed by NOPE to the DEP's Wetlands division. The appeal is pending.

 

Landfill

Local attorney John McElhiney, representing Burlington developers Gary Ruping and Robert Murray, said the Winning Farm townhouse project was essentially the same as that was proposed last year. The petition was withdrawn in December after a number of council members said they were uncomfortable voting on the special permit without a final draft on the landfill removal procedure from the Department of Environmental Protection. That happened this summer, and the townhouse petition was re-submitted last month. "We're taking away the bad stuff," said McElhiney, referring to the construction debris the developer and land owner claim is at the site. Some neighbors claim the fill is carcinogenic sludge dumped from the Alewife area when the MBTA's red line was extended, but there has never been any confirmation of that type of contamination from either the DEP or the Board of Health.

 

The developers also agreed to all but two of 14 provisions from the city's Board of Health, including paying for an on-site observer of the city's choosing to monitor the removal of the fill. "There's between 80,000-85,000 cubic yards (of fill), and all of it is going to be tested and cleaned before it gets put back into a hole," said Board of Health Agent Jack Fralick. Fralick added there would be extensive testing for asbestos, and measures would be taken to try to mitigate the dust that is kicked up by the testing and construction. "Every bucket loader will have to have a microscopic analysis," said Fralick. The Board of Health will also receive at least bi-weekly reports from the on-site observer, as long as the fill removal process lasts. Council members were generally satisfied with the Board of Health's endorsement of the landfill removal operation. "I'm thrilled (the Board of Health has) signed off on it," said Ward 7 Alderman Stephen Braese, whose district includes Winning Farm. "It's been a major mystery and I'm glad we're getting it cleaned up. "Now we can move forward to the merits of the plan," added Braese.

 

Townhouses

McElhiney reminded the council the project will be built in phases, in 4-5 unit clusters, on half of the 60 acres of the farm that lies in Woburn. Under unique townhouse zoning regulations that were essentially devised in preparation for the project, the other half of the land will be deeded to the Conservation Commission, for passive recreation. McElhiney noted the developer will set aside about 15 parking spaces for the public, to access walking trails on the part of the farm that will be controlled by the city. He noted the city's parcel will be contiguous to the open space portion of the farm which lies in Winchester. The town bought the land and sold part of it to Salter Health Care, which is planning to build an assisted living facility. "This is not an isolated 30 acres (the city will receive)," said McElhiney. "It also abuts Shannon Farm, which gives the city a few options down the road, should that property ever some up for sale." He estimated annual tax revenue from the townhouse project at around $300,000, about the same amount as the debt service on one of the city's new elementary schools.

 

Townhouses, McElhiney said, would have little impact in the city's school system since the residents typically do not have children. Impact on the sewer line that runs through Horn Pond would be assuaged by the city's requirement that 10 gallons of sewage be removed for every one gallon that's added. As for mitigation, the city is due about $420,000. The developer is expected to pay about $150,000 for drainage improvements designed to improve the drainage situation on Canterbury Road and Exeter Drive. Asked by Braese if the drainage improvements were over-and-above the mitigation requirements, McElhiney said he hoped the city would make an exception. "We were hoping you would involve that in the $420,000, since we were in here well in front of the zoning change," said McElhiney. "There's a sense the rules were changed midway through the process." He added the mitigation ordinance allows exemptions for a developer to be credited for "doing something else for the public good," namely removing contaminated fill.

 

"But if you want to be mean-spirited, then that's your call," said McElhiney. Braese suggested the developer at least consider paving all of Canterbury Road and Exeter Road, rather than just a portion of the latter. He also suggested funds from the project be set aside to clean the former Tarky School site so Gillis Field at the Reeves School could be moved there. The Reeves School playground, which also temporarily accommodates students from the "White School At Four Corners," then could be expanded. "It wouldn't cost the taxpayers any money, and we'd get a playground," said Braese. Also, McElhiney admitted to the council there were some issues with access of emergency vehicles that have to be worked out with the Fire Chief before the permit is granted.

 

Support from charities

During the public hearing portion of the meeting, several representatives from local charities spoke in favor of granting the permit, claiming the money used from the sale of the land to Murray and Ruping will be used to support their programs. The will of William H. Winning mandates the farm must be used for the benefit of the area's destitute children. About seven years ago, Winning Home, the trust that controls the farm decided the best way to serve that need was to sell the land, invest the money and donate the proceeds to local charities. "We've already gotten a substantial donation from the sale of the Winchester parcel," said Mark Salvati, of the Woburn Council for Social Concern.

 

"That money (from the sale of the Woburn land) is going to benefit the city in some way, shape or form." Rick Metters, of the Woburn Boys & Girls Club, said Winning Home was one of the leading contributors during a recent fund drive, and has always been a "great supporter" of the club. Bruce Murison, Executive Director of the Mission of Deeds, noted the council has found itself with a rare opportunity to approve a special permit "that will benefit the less fortunate." Paul Meaney, of the Woburn Business Association, noted the 30 acres that will be deeded to Woburn "will be a big plus for the city." He also noted the developers have "hung in there" when others might have given up on the project.

 

Canterbury Road

Four of the six of the residents who spoke in opposition live on Canterbury Road, which borders Winning Farm. Most of the concerns centered around runoff from the property flooding residents' backyards. There were also issues about the 10-year time limit on the project and how to keep dust from flying. "I get very upset with people who think 10 years of construction is acceptable," said Canterbury Road resident Barbara Doherty. NOPE spokesman Newman spoke at length, warning the council that the version of the project that is before them is not likely the one that will end up being built. He said the DEP and the state Office of Environmental Affairs has concerns about the reduction of buffer zones, the impact of flooding, storm water runoff, and sewage removal. "If the state is requiring them to enlarge the buffer ... there's going to be some re-arranging of the project," said Newman. Newman noted that while the Board of Health was satisfied with the landfill removal procedure, NOPE did not share the same level of comfort.

 

As for Winning Home's charitable works, Newman said he had an opinion that was different but did not share it with the council since he did not believe the forum was an appropriate one. Maura Drive resident Constance Otradovec noted 147 units would worsen an already troublesome traffic problem on Lexington Street, in the proximity of two elementary schools. "It's already fairly challenging to get out," she said. Ruping rebutted some of the drainage concerns by claiming the Winning Farm project would not add any runoff. "We're not going to solve all the problems (on Canterbury Road), but were are going ameliorate some of the problems that are there," said Ruping.