Clearcutting on Middle Rd fueled public backlash to unrelated Ruby Estates proposal

Above: A case of mistaken identity appears to have added to concerns over a proposed development in town. Residents seem to be blaming the developer of a project on Mt Vickery Road for clearcutting on Middle Road abutting one of his past projects. (images from Town GIS Map)

A proposal for the “Ruby Estates” development at 96 Mt Vickery Road has been under fire by several Southborough residents complaining about the developer’s practices of clearcutting. It turns out that the complaints refer to an unrelated development at 145-153 Middle Road. The developer of that property is now facing fines from the Conservation Commission for alleged violations related to the clearing work.

Meanwhile the Ruby Estates developer is blaming the Planning Board for the scale of his proposed development. At a Conservation Commision hearing, Michael Bartolini spun that he tried to pursue a lower impact development but the Planning Board preferred his conventional subdivision proposal. 

Below are highlights on the tale of two developments.

Ruby Estates

In advance of public hearings on the proposed 6 single-family home development, residents circulated and submitted letters to the Commission noting concerns about the development.* One of the key points letters was concern over purported clear cutting practices of the developer, Bartolini Properties.** Some letters asserted:

The devastation to this land, as performed previously by this developer, Bartolini Properties, stripping the properties completely are not only disturbing from a visual impact but also long lasting from an environmental impact. It is because of the means and methods they use in creating their developments that we can not sit back and be silent as they propose to once again decimate a large parcel of land in this town.

Another letter signed by multiple residents referred to the developer’s practice at previous projects, “razing the lots completely of vegetation and trees.”

James Bernardino of Bohler Engineering presented the Notice of Intent for the project to the Conservation Commission last week. In the hearing he told the Commission that residents appeared to be referring to a project by another developer that abuts a Bartolini project. He assured that Bartolini Properties was unassociated with the development and also disappointed by the work that was done there.

Conservation Agent Melissa Danza clarified for me that most letters appeared to have been referring to a project on Middle Road being build by Quality Framing Contractors. (It is identified as 147, 149, and 151 Middle Road. But on Town and internet maps, the parcel is shown as 145 & 153 Middle Road. Scroll down for more on that project.)

Bernardino also assured the Commission that Bartolini Properties doesn’t clearcut. He indicated they try to work their projects to take advantage of existing trees to help the properties appear more established. Michael Bartolini confirmed that the company only takes on 1-3 houses per year and tackles one house at a time. 

Bernardino did acknowledge that some of the abutters concerns about drainage were valid given the upland area of the development. However, he believed that their plans address potential impacts of erosion and sediment control. Not all of the plans were available for last week’s meeting. The commission is expected to receive materials in time for the continued hearing on January 7th.

There were concerns raised from some commissioners and their Conservation Scientist consultant about plans for the wetland buffer zone and lack of identification for what trees would be cut down or preserved. Bernardino and Bartolini asserted that although the developer had proposed a development that met all criteria and was less intrusive, the Planning Board preferred the larger development. That was a decision that puzzled Commission members who asked Danza to reach out to the Town Planner for their rationale.

The actual decision of the Planning Board was that Bartolini’s Flexible Plans as proposed didn’t comply with Southborough’s bylaws. This summer, Bartolini presented multiple versions of preliminary plans to Planning Board for discussion and guidance. Planning members determined that the amount of open space (excluding wetlands) in the plans wasn’t calculated correctly to meet bylaw requirements for the Flexible Plan which allows a denser layout than the conventional subdivision. Bartolini told the Board he believed they could waive that. Members disagreed, saying they didn’t believe they had the authority to do that, even though they preferred the Flexible Plan. (You can read the minutes and view proposed plans here.)

The development will be back in front of the Planning Board this Monday, December 14th for hearings on the development. (Click here for the agenda and here for materials.)

Given the number of letters received and a large audience logged into the meeting, the Commission braced itself on December 3rd for a slew of comments. Instead, just three members of the public weighed in. Two of them expressed support for the developer.

Ryan Barry of Middle Road said he and his family have always been impressed with Bartolini developments and their commitment to the environment. He told the Commission that the development company’s deep roots in Southborough and history of projects in town makes them exactly the kind of developer that Southborough needs.

A chat comment asked if the Commission would read the submitted letters aloud. The answer was that isn’t the Commission’s policy. The letters are part of the record and Commissioners have them in their packets.

Letters and comments on social media indicated that some residents are concerned about more than just the single development. Concerns are part of a wider complaint about perceived overdevelopment leading to the loss of woodsy areas in town.

One commenter during the hearing who didn’t offer support for the project was, Sara Warden of Moulton Road. She raised concerns about the impact of building on the area wildlife. She asked if the developer would schedule work to avoid big impacts during seasons that impact wildlife the most. Between the lines, the answer was that isn’t part of their general practice.

147, 149, and 151 Middle Road

Towards the end of Conservation’s December 3rd meeting, members discussed the unauthorized clearcutting on Middle Road. The project referred to is at 147, 149, and 151 Middle Road. The parcels at 145 and 153 Middle Road were combined and split into four lots through an ANR approved by Planning this summer. According to Danza, the project is being built by Quality Framing Contractors.

In July, the Commission approved a Notice of Intent for 151 Middle Road (parcel 1). [The application was on behalf of 153 Middle Road Realty Trust. Engineer Peter Bemis represented the applicant for the hearing.] Orders of Conditions were granted that included advance notice of construction, a pre-construction meeting with Danza, and installation of erosion control devices. At that time, the Commission was told that since less than 50% of the lots would be cleared, the applicant wouldn’t need to file Stormwater Management Permits. 

Since then, more than half of the lot was cleared. That includes clearing about 60% of the trees at 151 Middle Road without adhering to the conditions issued. Notified of the situation by Chair Mark Possemato, Danza reached out to inform the developer that erosion controls needed to be installed. The Commission voted to issue a Cease & Desist Order on all work on the property.

On December 10th, the Commission held a follow up meeting with Bemis. He urged for modifying the Cease & Desist Order to allow continued work just on digging the foundations and building the framework.

Bemis claimed the violation occurred in error when the developer cleared more trees than planned. He defended it as based on discovering more trees were diseased or compromised than they expected. Bemis described some 100 year old pines as “at their obsolescence period”. Given that they hadn’t been exposed to high winds in the past, they wouldn’t have developed the root structure necessary. 

Bemis noted that stumps had already been pulled but vegetation/lawn was intact.

Possemato stressed his upset that the Order of Conditions was directly violated. He was also dissatisfied with some of the controls, referring to covering on dirt stockpiles as a “Chaplin Hat” on a big pile. Bemis said he would ensure the piles were well covered.

The Chair also was frustrated that the same contractor who was aware through another project that more than 50% clearing required an SMP, cleared so much land without following the process.

Commission members discussed concern about the precedent and message that would be set. Member Carl Guyer said it would tell those that follow the rules that the time and money they spend is foolish. Bemis pushed that work still would be hamstrung and no one would want to follow in their footsteps.

After long discussion and debate, the Commission agreed to modify the Cease & Desist as requested, with stipulations about stabilizing the project and erosion control.

The project is scheduled to come back to Conservation for SMPs in January. Bemis was warned that continuing work comes with financial risk, since the permits could be denied.

Commission members discussed issuing fines for the violations. They have yet to reach consensus on how much is appropriate. With their zoom meeting scheduled to end before, the Commission decided to table the vote on the amount of fines to the January 7th meeting. 

*Danza informed me that about 10 letters were received by the Commission about Ruby Estates. Some were signed by multiple households.

**[Editor’s Note: I should note that I own, live in, and write this blog from a house that appears to have been part of a Bartolini development built in the late 60s.]

Updated (12/12/20 9:34 am): A commenter’s question pointed out that I wasn’t clear enough under the section on Middle Road about who the developer is. I added more information there along with more clarification around the Order of Conditions that was violated.

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2 years ago

“Bernardino also assured the Commission that Bartolini Properties doesn’t clearcut.”
Two words: Cain Circle.

Not to mention the misrepresentation on affordability. Units that were supposed to sell in the $400ks now selling for almost $700k.

2 years ago
Reply to  Unconvinced

Cain Circle is not a good example of Mr Bartolini’s work as it was all field to begin with. Look at Foxhill dr and see how many trees he left there,

2 years ago
Reply to  Alan

I remember a lot of trees on that property. There are pictures of it on the open land foundation Facebook before development and it’s pretty wooded.

2 years ago

Beth, for clarification, under the subheading “145, 149 and 151 Middle Rd.” in the second paragraph, “Earlier this year, the developer…” are you still referring to Bartolini Builders or a second developer?

2 years ago

“ Bemis pushed that work still would be hamstrung and no one would want to follow in their footsteps.”
Maybe I don’t understand the process of building homes in Southborough and selling them for lots of money but I suspect that as long as there is a square inch of buildable property in town there will be developers lined up to find a profit.

These guys screwed up a little, whined, and then got their way in the end. Sure they are on hold but all they have to do is threaten legal action, Aldo’s ears will prick up, and the town will jump into another stupid situation that could have been resolved by paying attention and issuing fines. I think if the developer were fined then it would make other developers think twice about breaking the rules, not if they should build.

Can’t wait for the permitting process and why is that separate from the “demolition” process that I assume we are currently in for this project?

Sharon R.
2 years ago

The title of this article may not be completely accurate. The town residents raised concerns of the town starting to lose its woodsy nature and become overdeveloped, with an example being the recent build prep on Middle Rd. It became a larger discussion. The speculation on 96 Vickory is that all homes proposed are very close to wetlands at a higher elevation, making it a non-ideal location for the proposed lots, and the impact to vegetation and wildlife.

2 years ago

If people think this is a problem (not ntending to imply that it’s not), just wait and see what will happen on Newton St. and Framingham Rd. once the EDC gets their rezoning bylaws passed. All those trees on Newton St, that open unused field on Framingham Rd that was once a farm…just sayin’…it’s about more than nice little shops…

Julie Connelly
2 years ago
Reply to  Interested

Interested, the zoning bylaw which BOS, Planning Board, and EDC are working on jointly affects the Downtown Business Village District. It does not encompass Framingham Road or Newton Street. BOS is discussing tomorrow night so if you are “interested” and have questions that may be a good place to start.

2 years ago

I do not understand the venom that comes from so many toward builders? They build the houses we all live in. And profit is literally 10-20%. Very reasonable. They pay your and our taxes as well. They own the land, if you owned it you could do what you wanted within reason. The project on Foxhill is very nice.

2 years ago
Reply to  mike

Obviously. This is also about too much of the open lands being impacted in Southboro and not much is being regulated here. There’s a balance between building within reason vs finding loopholes to build in not the best situations (i.e. within all buffers of conservation land, surrounded by other homes, etc.) Especially if you’re a builder that lives in-town and cares about the town and its residents that you live alongside.

2 years ago
Reply to  mike

Mike, your question is a worthy one to ask and I have been pondering it since yesterday. I really think what it comes down to is “some bad apples.” While there definitely are upstanding people in construction who know their business well and possess good and honest morals, there are those who are more concerned with lining their pockets than following the rules, codes and regulations. This is unfortunate and must surely make life difficult for the good guys.
You are right, Foxhill is very nice, as are all our hills; Pine Hill, Breakneck Hilll, Strawberry Hill, Chestnut Hill, Hilltop, Hillside, View Hill, Oak Hill (did I leave out any of our hills?). We are also fortunate to have many Lanes, Roads, Drives and Circles (I can’t think of any Aves, do we have any Avenues in town?) that are beautifully laid out with thought and care. This doesn’t happen by chance. It’s the product of hundreds of years of careful planning, coordination and cooperation that has produced a lovely place to live and raise a family.
I think that at this time in our town’s history,
many residents are nervous that we will loose our unique character of being a rural town in a metro area of the state. Case in point, the very many newly installed street signs on Main St. which are ugly, distracting for the driver and very, very city like. But that’s a different topic for another day…

Al Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  Interested

Many of our roads were never “Planned” they just happened. My road, for instance, is pretty much a paved farm lane. So, a fair bit of our “rural character” is not the result of planning but the decisions of individual property owners acting according to their best interests with little or no participation by the “Powers that Be”.

As for our “Rural Character” it is time for us to face the obvious, we are not a rural community. We are a suburban bedroom community located at the intersection of 2 of the regions major highways and bisected by another. We have a substantial industrial and commercial tax base that runs the gambit from technology to food processing to finance.

What we don’t have is wide scale logging operations, farms with 300 HP tractors, hog operations, dairy farms, dying hamlets, seasonal businesses, and schools with limited curriculum’s. All characteristics of rural communities.

I think the work done on Rt 30 is a substantial improvement over what it replaced. It is time to stop pretending we are something we are not and deal with the reality of what we are, a well to do suburban community sandwiched between Boston and Worcester.

2 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

I was trying to help someone feel better, lost on you I guess.

No parking signs in Boston and Worcester don’t face on coming traffic. They face the street.

I’m well aware of how the cows contributed to the making of many New England roads.

Why do you feel obliged to respond to my comments? Just stop.

2 years ago
Reply to  Interested

Fair enough and thank you for pointing that out.

Longtime Observer
2 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Amen. Thank you. 100%.

This is a suburban bedroom community. It is adjacent to major highways and a rail station that allow people who work in finance, biotech, marketing, etc. to commute to urban areas. 94% of workers are employed in white collar jobs, according to Wikipedia. We need to stop pretending that we are something that we are not.

As for the agricultural sector, it is largely abandoned. We might currently be able to consider ourselves a rural town if residents still wanted to work in the rural sector. That is not the case.

Stewardship of the belties fell by the wayside several years ago. The Capasso family decided to stop farming many years ago, and they have been unable to find someone who wants to farm the land. Chestnut Hill stopped farming in the 1960s. It only developed into its trendy current “farm” form (an outdoor experience venue with CSA subscriptions and and food truck/craft beer events so popular with McMansioners) thanks to The Trustees, which is decidedly not a Southborough organization. (This is not a knock on Chestnut Hill’s current operation; I enjoy it as much as the next person, but it is *not* an example of a Southborough farm thriving; it is an example of an opportunity taken by a business as a result of a Southborough family choosing to abandon agriculture a half century ago. And that organic farm that was supposed to thrive at the former Stonybrook golf course? What happened to that farming endeavor? It seems abandoned to me. It seems most Southborough people perhaps want to claim a label of rural without doing the work of a rural economy.

What IS the case is that many residents would rather see woods than new houses in the sightlines from their home windows, because the former is better for home values. Wanting to see woods is not the same as wanting to actively live a rural lifestyle.

What IS the case is that many residents want excellent schools, which benefits their own children and keeps their home values up. Farming or other rural businesses don’t provide a tax base for top-notch schools.

There is nothing wrong with being a prosperous bedroom community. But let’s call a spade a spade. People want to limit housing development to keep home values high and maintain some exclusivity of community. Pretending that we are rural is a specious argument. Let’s focus on environmentally and economically sound development, not clinging to a long bygone and false sense of identity.

2 years ago
Reply to  mike

They didn’t build my house.
But they dropped their 55+ “affordable”homes right across the street like a dump in the night. Adding to the charm of Southville going for $700K. What an eyesore and it never would have existing if it wasn’t for the family connections in town government.
Some of us have good reasons to be unhappy with developers and with the town bodies that enable bad stewardship.

2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew

I hear you.

Kelly Roney
2 years ago

There’s another clearcut at 15 Strawberry Hill Rd.

2 years ago

Just wanted to point out a conflict of interest: Ryan Barry of Middle Road worked for Bartolini (John’s company, I believe). Therefore, his comments should be recused.

Wolf Hill Farm
2 years ago

In response to Longtime Observer, Wolf Hill Farm is still an operating farm. We are coming off a very busy season with our cut-your-own Christmas trees and honey and are looking forward to plant sales in the Spring.

Longtime Observer
2 years ago

There absolutely are farms and businesses rooted in agriculture in Southborough. There are households that keep chickens, goats etc. I do not mean to suggest that there are not any such operations here. They are by far the exception to the rule, however.

The vast majority of Southborough’s residents work in white collar service sector jobs elsewhere, so bedroom community is a far better term for the character of our town.

Suzanne Leeds
2 years ago

I am across the street from these 3 proposed houses and my farm raises chickens for eggs that I sell and also raise bees here. I am small but I am a farm. I hated to see them knock down my neighbors barn and house. I think they should have left more trees. Trees are important for erosion, beautify the environment, make shade and help provide oxygen. I have been here 40 years and this house has been a farm for many years my, house 165 years old, so long time.

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