By Eliza Rosenberry
Lined by wide homes and shady, ample lawns, Fox Run Road sits quietly in the woods at the north corner of town. To the west of the street behind houses and backyards are acres of wetlands, deer paths, and ferns. Mossy stone walls crawl through the underbrush, almost unnoticeable, and a few hundred feet back, the rail trail runs roughly parallel to residents’ property lines.
It is in this area that Bedford developer David Bernstein has proposed a new Planned Residential Development (PRD) to build new houses off Fox Run and nearby Buehler Road.
Residents in the neighborhood are broadly against the project: almost every front yard displays a “Stop Fox Run Road Development” sign, and neighbors have presented a united front at public hearings in front of the Planning Board. Concerns about the project run the gamut from traffic and conservation to the character of the neighborhood, but as the third and possibly final public hearing nears, the best course of action remains unclear to many.
The Mickel family has lived in their house on Fox Run Road since 1972. Joan Mickel recalls her late husband was once offered the opportunity to buy 10 acres of mostly wetlands behind their property, stretching north along the railroad, but turned it down — much to her family’s dismay today, as some of that land could soon be developed. Joan Mickel’s sons, Kevin and Kenny, grew up in those woods nonetheless and still maintain walking paths through the area.
The images above are (c) Eliza Rosenberry, 2016 – Click each to see larger image
“Nobody knows this property better than me,” said Kenny Mickel. He knows where the poison ivy is and where construction on Buehler Road all but toppled a stone wall during the last round of development. He can find a jagged tree that was struck by lightning, and pinpoint a wide elm with names carved into its bark 50 years ago.
The woods feel unending, but the property is actually divided into three parts. Frank Pino owns acreage to the south, Bernstein owns a piece to the north, and Billerica resident Barbara Hagan owns a final section off Springs Road. Pino and Hagan have agreed to sell property rights to Bernstein for the purposes of the development.
Wetlands limit the developable land in the parcel, but on both the north and south ends are areas which meet the Conservation Commission’s guidelines for development outside of the wetlands buffer zone.
Bernstein Development was founded in 2005, and since that time has overseen a number of large new homes on sizeable lots in Bedford, including on Wilson Road and Sweetwater Avenue, and in surrounding towns.
The Fox Run Road project as currently proposed is considered a PRD, which means homes can be built much closer together than would normally be allowed under town zoning laws, in exchange for affordable housing and other public benefits at the cost of the developer. PRDs can preserve shared open space and encourage more variety in the types of housing built in Bedford. Two recent PRDs have been approved in town: Cottages at Depot Park along South Road and Evergreen Meadows on Evergreen Avenue.
As presented at the August 30 Planning Board meeting, the Fox Run Road project would include 10 newly-built houses (eight off Fox Run and two off Buehler) as well as incorporating one existing house that currently sits on the north side of the property. Two of the homes would be affordable housing, and other public benefits could include a small park along the rail trail and bicycle access paths for the neighborhood through the property.
Bernstein is represented by attorney and landscape architect Brian DeVellis, who has spoken on behalf of the project at town meetings.
“Our goal is to set ourselves away from the McMansions and be a step above the cottages that are on South Road,” DeVellis said at the first public hearing on August 3, according to official Planning Board meeting minutes.
DeVellis has met privately with neighbors throughout the process, hoping to find areas for compromise. These conversations have continued since the last public hearing on August 30, according to multiple residents, and have resulted in some meaningful revisions to the proposal.
“The developer has been listening to the neighborhood,” said Fox Run resident Susan Grieb, who has lived there for 22 years. “I really respect that.”
Fox Run Road resident Ira Holtzman told TheCitizen that DeVellis last week invited neighbors to his office on North Road for a private meeting, where he outlined an updated proposal for the Fox Run development area that showed five houses in place of the previously proposed eight units.
DeVellis declined to comment on recent revisions to the proposal.
How the new design would affect affordable housing availability, the existing house on the property, or the Buehler development area is unclear.
Bernstein did not respond to a request for comment by press time, but in a 2015 interview with Greater Boston’s Builder + Architect magazine, he spoke about the importance of community engagement.
“The positive feedback I get from the homeowners in Bedford is especially important to me since they are my neighbors where I plan to live and work for a long time,” Bernstein told the magazine.
Most residents on Fox Run Road have lived here for decades, raised families, and seen the town grow and change around them.
“Maybe that’s part of the quietness,” said Barbara Kovall, who has lived on Fox Run Road for 38 years.
Until now, the sleepy street on the Billerica border has been largely immune to change. But as home prices climb, population increases, and Bedford’s public schools remain some of the best in the state, development follows. In a 2013 Massachusetts Audubon Society study of development rates across the state, Bedford ranked 59 out of 351 towns.
“The most important factor is to be diligent about community character and aesthetics,” former Planning Director Glenn Garber told the Citizen upon his resignation earlier this year. “Growth can be accommodated while still safeguarding community character.”
The characterization of their neighborhood is top of mind for many Fox Run Road residents, who worried about the effects of overdevelopment in town and on their quiet street.
But from there, residents’ concerns diverge. Some think the Fox Run development could worsen their already poor water pressure (though the Department of Public Works has stated it would not). Others worry about traffic on a narrow street already used by some as a cut-through for Springs Road.
Abutters are concerned about maintaining the serenity of their own wooded lots, and have spoken with DeVellis regarding appropriate buffers and trees to keep their properties private.
“It affects the view, and it affects, I think, the value,” said Holtzman, whose property backs up against the proposed development. “The problem is that if the proposal is not approved, the developer can do whatever they want by right.”
That is, if the PRD is not approved by the Planning Board, Bernstein could build a regular subdivision with four large homes, no accommodations to the neighbors, and limited Board oversight on the same parcel.
At the last public hearing, attendees saw sketches for such a subdivision, and many felt the house and lot sizes would be more in keeping with their neighborhood than the PRD.
“Instead of one acre to one house, it’s five houses all of a sudden,” said Joan Mickel, in describing the proposed PRD, which she views as crowded compared to the neighborhood’s current feel.
But other residents aren’t so sure. If there’s going to be a development, say some, they understand the value of a PRD.
“I would be far more supportive of the project if there was affordable housing.” said Brenda Kelly, who has lived on Fox Run Road for more than 25 years, after some consideration.
“This is a lovely neighborhood,” Kelly continued, and went on to say that she would welcome affordable homes for new families on her street.
With the next public hearing looming, many residents remain unsure where they stand.
“It’s hard to know,” said Holtzman.
On September 27, the Planning Board will hold its third public hearing for this project, and chair Jeff Cohen indicated that depending on the plan presented by the developer, Board members could be in a position to make a decision at that time.
The Board will look to balance impacts on the town and the neighborhood from the PRD with public benefits and accommodations from the developer.
Though Cohen declined to comment specifically on an open proposal before the Board, he told TheCitizen that generally, when considering the public benefits that projects offer, he will look to whether a proposed development meets various goals put forth by the 2013Bedford Comprehensive Plan.
This document outlines a variety of planning goals for Bedford, including a wider range of housing types; residential development in keeping with the feel of the surrounding neighborhood; and–with PRDs in mind–preservation of natural space and enhancement of community character, “particularly in less developed residential areas in the northern and western parts of town.”
DeVellis has suggested that the proposed homes on Fox Run would appeal to new families and older residents. But neighbors and some Board members have pushed back, saying that three-bedroom units would attract families with multiple children, thereby creating a larger impact on crowded Bedford schools and on the neighborhood.
“We take the school overcrowding issue very seriously when reviewing residential developments,” said Cohen, though he clarified that the Board can’t deny a project because school-aged children may live there.
The Board’s recent PRD approvals — in May 2016 for Evergreen Meadows, a 17-unit PRD on Evergreen Avenue, and in October 2015 for Cottages at Depot Crossing, a 9-unit PRD along South Road — included access paths to the nearby Minuteman Bike Path, some preserved open spaces, and affordable housing, as well as some concessions to neighbors.
At the last public hearing for Fox Run on August 30, Planning Board members gave early indications of their opinions on the project. Some sympathized with neighborhood concerns and others spoke to the values of a PRD over a conventional subdivision.
“Change is inevitable, and I agree with somebody being able to maximize their property value,” said Board member Lisa Mustapich in her concluding statement, but “when I’m looking at weighing the public benefit of these units… I still need to be sold on what that benefit is.”