Conservation Commission Ponders St. Michael’s Land Wetland Proposal

Behind Bedford High School, the “A Field” abuts the St. Michael’s land

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

Although the Conservation Commission members present at the public hearing on August 5th were unanimous in their desire to move forward with the long-delayed St. Michael’s athletic fields project, the specifics of a wetland replication proposal presented to them by the Department of Public Works and Oxbow Associates were deemed insufficiently detailed to receive approval.

Conservation Administrator Elizabeth Bagdonas also expressed particular concern on two points: First, how the funding for the mitigation plan and the funding for the project would be handled, and second, how the sequencing of the funding, the filing, and the project work itself would unfold. Additionally, abutters from Abbott Lane voiced dissatisfaction on several points, including public hearing notification, fairness, and wetland encroachment.

Broadly, the background of the issue is this: Of the 6 acre parcel formerly owned by St. Michael’s, 0.8 acres are wet land. The Town purchased the land in 2001, specifically to expand the center-of-town campus and with an eye to creating additional playing fields. However, wetlands were subsequently discovered on the property, halting progress on the field expansion plan until the acreage could be further assessed.

Once the situation was understood, it became apparent that were the Town to adhere to the original plan of creating two full-sized playing fields, wetland buffer zones would be encroached upon. As a way around the problem, the DPW developed a wetland mitigation plan,offering a land-swap as a remedy. The trade would release the0.8 acres of the St. Michael’s parcel for field development and place the same amount of Page Field acreage under wetland restriction instead, thus allowing the athletic field project to move ahead.

[Note: In a follow-up conversation with Bagdonas, it was ascertained that a provision exists, at the discretion of the Conservation Commission, allowing for “direct replication”—in other words, as swap, of wetlands. Because the section of Page Field under consideration is not currently categorized as wetlands— but clearly is of a wetland type— the two parcels are comparable.]

To sweeten the deal—and make it unlikely that any future developers could point to this mitigation as a precedent to leverage approval for their own projects— the DPW has proposed to not only trade control of wetland on the St. Michael’s land for control of wetland on Page Field—representing a 1-for-1 swap—but has also proposed to put other land parcels under conservation restriction,increasing the swap to what was described at the meeting as “a 50-to-1 ratio.”The DPW had already received a green light from the Selectmen for this plan on June 30, 2012.

[To read The Citizen’s report about the proposal to the Selectmen, see ]

The other parcels involved in the proposed trade include:

  • Pickman Meadow: 2+ acres off Dudley Road, described by Oxbow’s Dan Butler as “a grassland habitat, adjacent to the Great Meadow Wildlife Refuge and the river corridor….Upland habitat in Middlesex County in the town of Bedford has a lot of attributes. Bedford at one time had a lot of fields [but today this kind of land is rare].”
  • 36 acres of the former Princeton Property at350 Concord Road. The addition of this property to the conservation land inventory creates a desirable linkage between existing conservation parcels.

Regarding the size of the proposed trade, Butler said, “We realized we needed to come up with a fairly magnanimous mitigation plan that would overcome the impacts….We wanted to equal that and then trump it by several orders of magnitude….”

Also, according to Butler, the St. Michael’s land is considered isolated wetland and is not connected to any water system. “We first looked at this in 2007. There was a suspicion that this was a vernal pool site…but we went back in the spring of 2008 and 2009 and the only thing we found besides a few stray mosquitoes were some Collembolan springtails. No amphibian colony, no amphibian egg masses, no fairy shrimp.”

DPW Director Rich Warrington added, “Overall, we feel the St. Michael’s project is in the overriding public interest. There are essentially no other parcels around Bedford that could be used to satisfy the demand for athletic fields, especially land that is contiguous to the town campus….One thing that the town prides itself on is having all the Middle School and High School athletic fields accessible by foot from the schools…. [The town campus is] a real jewel for the town.”

But abutters on Abbott Lane disagreed with the plan to convert the wooded parcel into playing fields. First, Michelle Saber reported that she has never received written notification of the Conservation Commission’s public hearing, and, on those grounds, reserved her right to appeal any ruling. She also questioned whether conditions for a variance could legitimately be met, particularly the exception that establishes that no other reasonable alternatives exist to disturbing the wetlands and natural habitat adjacent to her property.

Another Abbott Lane resident, Dan Coyne, identified himself as the original developer of the Abbott Lane subdivision. Coyne felt that exceptions to rules were being made by the town in this instance that had not been available to him when he was trying to build the Abbot Lane neighborhood. “This is a question of equity….We were shown no deference on wetlands that were not on our property, but on the adjacent town property. In fact, they became a thorn in the side of the development. [The same buffer zones] that were so carefully preserved then are going to be erased now. The same town [that preserved them] is coming forward to recommend that we wipe them out.”

Coyne continued that he realizes a number of different town Boards have to weigh in on whatever projects or developments occur in town, but he feels as though two separate sets of rules were being applied.

Returning to Saber’s question of whether there were reasonable alternatives available to encroaching on wetland buffer zones, Conservation Commission chair Tim Gray asked Warrington whether there were, indeed, other places in town where athletic fields could be created. “Are there or are there not alternatives and how do you guys assess that?” he asked Warrington.

“We originally proposed artificial turf on Sabourin field [the football field] back in 2007, but we’ve had a bit of a rocky road—because of the cost—to say the least,” Warrington replied. “That would have given us much more utilization of that field….Even with that, we need fields….We’ve looked all around for land. We’ve developed the South Road fields; we’ve added and reconstructed fields all over the community to bring all the fields up to a par level of play. And at this point, we know we [still] need more fields.”

Next the floor was taken by members of the Outdoor Recreation Area Study Committee (ORASC) who were in the audience. “There’s nothing like this parcel in town, end of story,” said Jim Harrington of ORASC.“The reason is because of the proximity to the schools.”

As a former member of the Conservation Commission, Harrington added, “The trade-off [the 50-for-1 proposal] is fantastic. Any time Conservation can put a positive stamp on a project like this and get something [offered] in return is unique….The bottom line is: We need the space, we need the fields….Unfortunately, it affects some abutters, but that’s what happens when you buy next to land that’s town land—you don’t know what the town will do with it….This kind of opportunity is not going to come before us again.”

ORASC chair David Sukoff, rose to speak about what the committee is discovering as it composes a comprehensive report to the Selectmen on athletic field conditions and usage. “Right now, we’re studying the alternatives. We’re at the stage where we say that the demand for field space in the town exceeds the supply. The comprehensive plan we’ll provide will include what our options are to meet the demand. Right now, everything—including the St. Michael’s land—is on the table. We need to know if this is an option….The only other space we’re looking at is Princeton Properties, but it’s not contiguous to the schools. We’re under the assumption [the Princeton Properties] could hold two or three fields.” Sukoff’s colleague,Harrington, pointed out, however, that part of that acreage would need to be set aside for parking, so it might not ultimately accommodate as many fields as the size of the parcel would imply.

Members of the Conservation Commission, weighing in with their opinions on how to proceed, unanimously agreed that the standard for overriding public interest had been met, given the information provided by the DPW and ORASC members. The discussion then turned to funding and sequencing concerns.

“The only problem I have is the flow of events with approving the whole thing, but I think what the DPW needs to do is get the funding for the field design as well as [for] the replication. Based on that, we can then issue the order of conditions. The replication funds need to be part of the funding for design,” stated Conservation Commission member Andreas Uthoff.

Like Uthoff, Chairman Gray worried about “lining up all the various approvals to ensure that the conservation restrictions and the replication happen and are funded and we don’t just end up with fields and no restrictions.”

Member Steve Hagan said that he saw two big concerns: The first is that the conservation restrictions are approved but the fields never get built; the second is that the fields are built but the replication of the wetlands is never done at Page Field.

Member Art Smith, Adrienne St. John of the DPW, and ORASC’s Harrington all made the suggestion, in separate lines of argument, that the Commission issue the requested variance, but include conditions that must be met. That way, the project could move forward. Selectman Mark Siegenthaler called it a “chicken and egg” scenario since certain components hinge on others and the sequencing and timing are delicate.

Speaking in favor of moving ahead, Smith said, “I don’t understand why we can’t do this. It occurs to me that what we’d be doing is opening the door to the possibility that this will happen. Once the door is open, everyone gets their ducks in order, and they end up coming back to [the various Boards]….Am I wrong? A variance opens the door; the structures are in place; the permitting process is in place, so they have to go through it all and get all of what we think we want before we grant the appeal….I’d like to open the door.”

“I think Art has identified the fundamental problem,” said Hagan. “This is a question for Town Counsel. If it’s that straightforward, we should do this.”

Added Harrington, “You folks [the Conservation Commission] are asking yourselves whether you will follow your own rules. This is one part of the town [working] with another. This is not a private party where you’re going to have to chase somebody down to get compliance. This is the town doing what it wants to do because it’s on both sides of the barrel.”

Gray responded, “I don’t think anybody in this room doubts that if Rich and Adrienne promise something will happen that it will happen. But as you know, the way Town Meeting works,there’s no guarantee that just because Rich and Adrienne go and ask for something, it will happen.”

Awaiting advice from Town Counsel as well as the completed Fields Report from ORASC, which is due within the next three weeks, the public hearing was tentatively continued until  the September 26thConservation Commission meeting.

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