From a environmental perspective, it has been very gratifying to see the town mostly unified in opposition to this proposed development. At the recent Planning Board meeting (March 20, 2017, a continuation of last month’s (February 27th) meeting), residents and Board members continued to raise insightful and valid concerns, ranging from the locations and impacts of blasting, the duration of the construction, the lack of willingness to compromise on the part of the developers, to a general sense of disbelief that the units will appeal to local, downsizing retirees (or, according to the proponent’s own estimates, mostly still employed 55+ residents). Repeatedly, town residents expressed concern and downright outrage that such an enormous proposal is being considered for an already strained aquifer (think cumulative effects, along with Paddock Estates, and the unknowns of future climate change and drought). Several people have reflected on the fact that the entire development will be clearcut before blasting and building can begin: acres of hardwood and pine trees that are hundreds of years old, holding topsoil that prevents erosion and flooding, supporting wildlife from coyotes, to fishers and foxes, from salamanders, to pileated woodpeckers… all lost.
Some residents have wondered what documentation of this wildlife exists, before it is wiped from the landscape. Unfortunately, all that is required is a wetlands delineation (to be provided by the project proponent, and checked by the Conservation Commission) to mark the boundary of the wetlands, in order for the development to adhere to the state’s Wetlands Protection Act (WPA). To check for the presence of rare or endangered species, the applicant is only obligated to consult the State’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species (NHESP) Atlas for Estimated and Priority Habitat in order to confirm the presence or absence of any species that would be protected by the state’s Endangered Species Act (MESA). The proponent did confirm that the area is not mapped for rare species. However, this step does NOT equal proof of a confirmed absence of rare and endangered species. On the contrary, it merely means that no one has checked, and if they have, no rare species were found. (Notably, any available data would be years out of date, since the NHESP Atlas is only published every couple of years.) In fact, and as I stress in lectures to my Conservation Biology students, it is difficult, if not impossible, to prove the absence of anything. To my knowledge, I am unaware of any systematic wildlife surveys having been done on the Town Center zoned property. So really, we don’t know that there are no rare amphibians burrowed under the leaf litter in the uplands; we don’t know that there are no rare ancient turtles lurking below the mud. What we do know, per the NHESP Town Species viewer, is that the following MESA-listed species do occur in the Town of Boxborough:
Eastern Box Turtle (SC, 2014)
Blanding’s Turtle (T, 2012)
Blue-spotted Salamander (SC, 2009)
Wood Turtle (SC, 2002)
(SC is ‘Special Concern’; T is ‘Threatened’; date is the most recent observation submitted to the state)
So how do we discover what we may be about to lose?
We already know from basic knowledge of the ecology of the site and neighboring woods that numerous large charismatic species reside in these woods (see images above of foxes, fishers, and coyotes – taken on a contiguous property). It is also clear from the location of large areas of wetlands on the property that these wetlands and associated aquatic species (salamanders, turtles, frogs, aquatic invertebrates, etc.) will be heavily impacted by the runoff from lawns, pavement and other impervious surfaces, the pool, sewage treatment, etc.).
But beyond considering what we can see, or infer, with our own eyes / observations, the state has a clear path for assessing overall environmental impact. Primarily, these considerations fall under ‘MEPA’, or the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, enforced by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA). The assessments come in the form of an ENF (Environmental Notification Form) and (if required) a subsequent, more extensive EIR (Environmental Impact Report) – generally provided as a 2 stage process with a ‘Draft EIR’ and ‘Final EIR’. According to the ENF, which has already been submitted, the proposed project will alter 136 linear feet of bank (permanent), 471 square feet of Bordering Vegetated Wetland (temporary), 371 square feet of Land Under Water (temporary), and 128,844 square feet of Buffer Zone associated with a stream crossing and sidewalk extension.
Furthermore, because the development will create 10 or more acres of impervious area (in our case, there is a predicted alteration of 32.98 acres of land, with a total of 12.14 acres of impervious surface), and exceeds the ENF review threshold of 25 acres of land altered, as well as construction of new sewer mains on half mile or more in length, it is subject to a Mandatory EIR (pursuant to 301 CMR Section 11.03(1)(a)(2) of the MEPA regulations (***see ENF Certificate from the State here, EEA #15624). The project will also require Water Supply Permits from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) and is subject to the MEPA Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions Policy and Protocol. (We’re hoping to provide another blog post to summarize these processes, too.)
The project also will be reviewed by the Boxborough Conservation Commission, to assess its consistency with the Wetlands Protection Act (WPA), the Wetlands Regulations (310 CMR 10.00) and associated performance standards, including storm water management standards. According to the ENF Certificate, the Boxborough Conservation Commission issued an Order of Resource Area Delineation (ORAD) on August 17, 2011, which confirmed the locations of the Bordering Vegetated Wetlands (BVW, 471 square feet), which is valid until August 17, 2018. It is my understanding that the Conservation Commission will not review the project in detail until the EIR is submitted and approved via the state’s MEPA process.
There is no timeline for when the applicant needs to submit the Draft EIR, but once it is submitted and part of the public record, the public has 30 days to comment. It will be made public here http://web1.env.state.ma.us/EEA/emepa/emonitor.aspx, and we will post it on this site as soon as it becomes available. For more information, Purvi Patel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the MEPA analyst working on this project. The project proponent has requested a streamlined process (i.e., that only a single EIR be required, rather than a Draft EIR and Final EIR). However, it appears that the MEPA analyst(s) will not honor that request, based on the scope of the project and because information was omitted from the initial ENF.
As for what information we can expect to see in these documents, the ENF Certificate requests that the proponent should quantify the total amount of land alteration, including types and locations of all land changes. The Draft EIR is also supposed to provide a comprehensive evaluation of all steps that will be taken to reduce the amount of land alteration, including reducing roadway widths and use of pervious pavement for low intensity parking areas and sidewalks. The ENF Certificate also outlines standard detailed requests for reduction in water use (including drought tolerant ornamental plants and limitations of nonessential outside watering), sustainable building options, and greenhouse gas emissions reduction.
In sum, there is plenty of encouraging language from the state regarding its expectations of how new developments should minimize environmental impacts, particularly with regards to sustainable building, greenhouse gas emissions, etc. But the simple fact remains: even if the developers took all those recommendations to heart (unlikely, given their fiscal focus), a development of this scope with 100 housing units, amenities, and all the associated pavement, roads, bridges, and parking spaces is going to have an enormous impact on our natural resources.
The wetlands on the site, although “protected” by the Wetlands Protection Act, will never be the same. The wildlife will disappear, and the precedent will have been set. Inch by inch, acre by acre, the development of one beautiful landscape after another will forever eliminate and fragment habitats, and forever change this town’s character – not to mention all the planning that has gone into the ‘Boxborough 2030’ master plan that is just brushed aside (also a topic for a future blog post!). It is so vital to think of cumulative impacts – even beyond our town’s borders: aquifers do not know boundaries, nor do wildlife. But if we are concerned about “death by a thousand cuts” we should be very concerned about this enormous gash.