Annual Town Meeting: Breakneck Hill dump and bylaw deficiencies

Four Articles on the Town Warrant are related to Conservation efforts in town.

Above: The Town is seeking voter support for four Articles related to Conservation. One of them is spending to meet legal requirements for cleaning up a problem behind the scenes at Breakneck Hill. (L-R photo by Beth Melo and images cropped from Carl Guyer’s YouTube video)

With all of the controversial items on the Town Meeting Warrant, there are some Articles that haven’t gotten much attention. Some of those are ones that relate to the Conservation Commission’s work.

Three Articles are the commission’s efforts to fix issues they believe exist in the current bylaws related to Conservation. But up first is a $2.5M bonding Article to remediate a hazardous dump site on Town owned conservation land.

Breakneck Hill Farm Dump (Article 9)

Article 9 seeks funding for the next steps for remediation of the Farm Dump at Breakneck Hill. The dump will be familiar to some readers based on former Conservation member Carl Guyer’s use of this blog to raise awareness about a monster at the hill. According to Town officials, the Town was unaware of the dump when they bought the parcel for $225K in 1980. Based on tests in 1992 and 2006, officials decided the dump didn’t need to be addressed. That changed over time with new standards.

Based on findings in 2019, the Town was required to enter a Consent Order with Mass Department of Environmental Protection last year. The Town recently received an updated estimate on the possible worst-case-scenario for the clean up work, based on what could be discovered. That is $2.5M. The Select Board asked if the Article could be pushed to the fall. The answer was no. Under the Consent Order, they need to pursue getting started on the work sooner.

To read the Commission’s fact sheet for voters, click here. To preview the Select Board’s planned presentation, click here. To view past coverage, click here. (For those interested in digging in a little deeper, here are the results from the historical testings: 1992, 2006, and 2019.)

Conservation’s bylaw Articles (28-31)

On behalf of the Commission, Danza has publicly promoted that three Articles they are proposing are to fix gaps in the current bylaws.

Article 29 would remove the bylaws from Stormwater and Erosion Control from the Zoning bylaws and place them under general bylaws. The intent is to remove the Zoning Board of Appeals’ and Building Commissioner’s authority to waive compliance to regulations without the approval from the commission with expertise on the issues. (Note: This wouldn’t impact 40B projects.)*

Article 30 would amend the language of the bylaw to change developers’ ability to clear land without a Stormwater Management Permit (SMP) from Conservation.

Right now, the permit requirement only applies to soil disturbance of which ever is less — 50% or more of the parcel or one acre. That means someone with a tiny lot could be required to get a permit while someone with an over 2 acre lot could clear almost an acre without one. The change would require the permit for relevant work on one or more acres, regardless of the size of the parcel.

The change also closes a current “gap” that enables developers to raze trees before even filing for an SMP as long as they don’t remove the stumps.

Current wording requires a permit for disturbing soil. According to Conservation Agent Melissa Danza, developers claim to not be disturbing the soil when they clear trees, even though the equipment used does disturb soil and contribute to erosion. That allow trees to be uselessly cleared on a parcel that never ultimately receives an SMP allowing a project to proceed. The revised wording would be changed to land disturbance. You can read all of the bylaw’s redlined changes here.

In the Planning Board’s most recent hearing on the zoning bylaw change, Danza said the only comment they have received protesting changes was from a Southborough developer. Changes he wanted weren’t in keeping with what the Commission is trying to do. (Since the developer, Jack Bartolini, is a regular Town Meeting member, I won’t be surprised if he raises those objections on the floor.)

As for Article 31, Wetland and Floodplain District, the current bylaws don’t comply with EMA regulations for Floodplain districts, which are stricter than state codes. Updating the language is required in order for residents to be eligible for flood insurance. These don’t appear to change Town processes, just codify them and better define the language to meet the Federal standards. Read redlined changes here.

*Since the ZBA’s waiving of some regulations for a Park Central project had been an issue, and a version of the 40B will be headed back to the ZBA, I wondered if this vote would have an impact. I reached out to Conservation Agent Melissa Danza. She checked with Town Counsel and was advised that it wouldn’t impact 40B projects. The ZBA would still have the right to waive certain local regulations for projects deemed eligible by MassHousing. 

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