Protested Mugar property appeal opens; hearing extended to April

Residents and politicians at Town Hall opposing Thornedike Place on Dec. 10, 2019. / Susan Gilbert photoResidents and politicians at Town Hall opposing Thornedike Place on Dec. 10. / Susan Gilbert photo

UPDATED, March 30: As the long-delayed process to deal with the proposal at the Mugar site resumed before the town Zoning Board of Appeals on Tuesday, Dec. 10, the board unanimously agreed to extend its 180-day review process of Oaktree Development’s application ― to build six townhouses and a four-story apartment building near East Arlington’s Thorndike Field. It is scheduled to start April 14, as requested by Oaktree’s lawyer, Stephanie Kiefer.

Initially, the ZBA proposed having the schedule start Jan. 1, but Kiefer requested an extension. “It is impossible for our civil engineers to have their work done by Jan 1. To have an informed discussion, we need to account for the site changes that have occurred that engineering needs to review. It’s won’t do anyone any good if we lack the correct information we need.”

Kiefer will provide the ZBA with the completed and updated application 30 days before April 14.

No written plans

At the Dec. 10 meeting, Kiefer provided no written plans, explaining that, “This is a continuation of the public hearing. I don’t want to put up plans that will be updated with where the wetlands will be. I plan on submitting it 30 days in advance of April 14, with good information and plans.”

However, Special Counsel Jon Witten countered with, “This is a new public hearing, yet you’ve provided no visual representation of the project, and instead are relying on the 2016 project application,” and inquired whether ZBA members have access to this publication.”

“The ZBA has every right to request pro forma any documents missing from the review. Your regulations require a submission of a pro forma, and the state requirements don’t preclude a pro forma, so the ZBA has every right to make the application be complete. The applicant has had three years to perfect its application,” added Witten.

Town Counsel Doug Heim interjected, “From a legal perspective, it’s clear that the initial application submitted in 2016 is the active application. In the future, it would be helpful if the public had a better assessment of what’s being discussed.”

ZBA member Patrick Hanlon asked whether it’s possible to put these documents in more and different places (e.g., library), so they’re more accessible. “If the applicant is willing to be cooperative with that, it’d be very helpful.”

Kiefer replied, “That’s an excellent suggestion, but I’m not sure who to work with to provide that. If there’s another location in town, we can certainly provide that.”

Gwen Noyes of Oaktree addresses town officials on Dec. 10, 2019. / Susan Gilbert photoGwen Noyes of Oaktree addresses town officials. / Susan Gilbert photo

Developer’s perspective

“The townhouses and apartment building will be good for the community. This transit-oriented project is just over a half mile from Alewife station, and provides sidewalks and walkways accessible to the Minuteman Bikeway,” explained Kiefer.

“This project also provides affordable housing, with rental projects supplemental to the subsidized housing. It makes no sense to have 40B because the town did not prevail in that decision.”

Project representative Gwen Noyes said, “My husband and I are architects and housing developers, and have been developing housing for 40 years. Our commitment is to do green, affordable housing.”

Kiefer said: “This project will meet all federal and state regulations. The waiver process is evolving. We don’t know specifically what waivers are needed, but the ZBA should expect waiver requests to be updated as the project proceeds.”

Added Noyes, “We appreciate the community’s concern for the land that is subject to development. Our commitment is to maintain the wetlands as required by all state and federal environmental laws.”


However, town Special Counsel Witten asked, “You’re not going to ask for any waivers for local Arlington wetlands bylaws?”

Noyes replied: “Correct. I don’t know what Arlington has passed. I’m referring to state and federal laws.”

She added: “We will be doing a new investigation with our able consultants, and I’ve made it clear from the beginning that never in the whole planning process have we said that we’ll be working in wetlands in violation of environmental law. There’s been a lot of misunderstanding of that. Of the 17 acres, seven are out of wetlands, a delineated area that’s not buildable. Please understand that saving the wetlands is something we are committing to do ourselves. We are aware of the crying need for housing in this area.”

“However, there are trade-offs in life. I like trees and care about the environment. Building property near public transportation, where they can live without needing to drive and put more CO2 in the air is important. We appreciate that there are challenges with the hydrology of project. We’ll do everything we can do to deal with any flooding problems. We are committed to making a better place for that property, and make it accessible,” added Noyes.

'Let's start with brand-new info'

Bob Engler, an engineer with SEB, a civil engineering and ecological services company recently brought on board, said, “Another three years has passed since the initial application. Let’s start with brand-new, current information.

“Our first task is to take an ecological survey of the situation and the property lines. Our goal is to complete the field work as soon as possible, and the survey and wetlands assessment by early January. This will enable us to create a new baseline plan to confirm or dispute the original findings in the 2016 proposed development to see what needs to move.

“If our new work confirms that our 2016 data is accurate, not much needs to be changed. If it’s not accurate, because things change over time, then we’ll start the civil engineer piece in early-to-mid-January. We need at least 6 weeks, then give the board 30 days to review that. We’re cognizant of the questions and issues raised back in 2016, and looking to answer those questions as we methodically perform our role.”

Scott Thornton, a traffic engineer, said his firm expects to go out and get new data, and provide an updated traffic study. “The 2016 data is not relevant any more. We’ll use the same general format from the initial study, which we’ll incorporate into our document.”

ZBA member Hanlon asked, “In the traffic studies, there was a transit share of 28 percent. I’m wondering whether in the updated study that is still a fair assumption.”

John Hession, a civil engineer, replied, “We can put in some type of sensitivity to determine the transit share. We expect to have fairly good data for the assumptions.”

Town opposition

An estimated 50 Arlington residents showed up at first. With some holding signs in the Town Hall lobby before the meeting, they made their opposition known. Upstairs, an estimated 70 crowded the Lyons Hearing Room.

Select Board Chair Diane Mahon, said, “The Select Board unanimously and steadfastly opposes this project. The wetlands are viable and necessary for all Arlington residents and businesses. This disastrous project will have a detrimental effect on the town.

Clarissa Rowe, head of the Coalition to Save the Mugar Wetlands, thanked Noyes for getting new consultants. “They’re first-class people. However, we live here and I’d like to take you there at 8 a.m.,” referring to the rush-hour traffic. “We know you’re concerned about environmental issues, and the definition of wetlands and flooding is complicated.

"A lot of groups are supporting us. We’re very lucky to have tonight state Reps Dave Rogers and Sean Garballey.”

'Now suffering'

Emma Murphy, a Lake Street neighborhood resident, said, “I’m now suffering. Getting off at the Route 2 exit ramp at rush hour can take me more than an hour to get home. Having 28 percent more cars terrifies me. Will the effect of the influx of more people on the MBTA, when the T’s infrastructure today cannot support its ridership, be looked at?”

An East Arlington resident who did not want her name used reported that she said, "Until now we have not heard a credible reason for this [development], besides corporate greed. This will be detrimental for our community. Traffic is already bad, and this will make it worse. As well as for the environment, which teenagers all over the world are now protesting. This would be your legacy, and you should be ashamed of it."

One speaker from the audience mentioned the need for more housing, but was neutral about the Mugar project. Michelle Shortsleeve said, "We need housing, and I hope the ZBA will take this need and look for a solution, and consider public access to the wetlands. I hope the ZBA considers affordability."

Brucie Moulton posted to the Facebook page for the Coalition to Save the Mugar Wetlands: “Putting any housing in a flood hazard area should be off the table as we deal with worsening climate change impacts. It’s a financial loss waiting to happen.”

John Yurewicz said, “The applicant says this site will benefit our community, but they don’t live here. On Lake Street, fire, police, and ambulance vehicles are already choked getting to our community, and these people are suffering now. To put in apartments with 300 more cars, we’ll suffer more. We’re going to lose trees and wildlife habitats, and have increased flooding in our basements and our streets.”

George Michael Hakim asked the developer’s team whether they live in East Arlington and have flooding issues in their homes. No one responded.

 The project, opposed by the town since 2015, had been tied up in court since 2016. A ruling in October led to the ZBA hearing.

Oct. 23, 2019: Mugar property appeal delayed to December

Nov. 15, 2018: Sides at Mugar hearing dispute affordable-housing data

This news summary, by YourArlington freelance writer Susan Gilbert, was published Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. It was updated to correct a name and to add quotes. It was updated Dec. 17, to add a quote. It was updated March 30 to change a quote and remove a name.