The Conservation Commission at its meeting Tuesday night addressed concerns about the tree clearing off of Kimball Road in the Springwood neighborhood, noting that the town is powerless to stop it because of the issuance of a state permit by the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Chair Jeff Barnes read a joint statement from himself, Town Manager Norman Khumalo, Conservation Administrator Kim Ciaramicoli and Principal Planner John Gelcich.
“We are mindful of the concerns outlined by abutters regarding the ongoing tree-cutting work at a property off of Kimball Road,” he said. “Under state law, this work is permitted and regulated solely by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).
“We are in contact with DCR regarding this work, who have assured us this work is being done in accordance with the permit,” Barnes continued. “We urge anyone with concerns about the ongoing tree-cutting work to contact DCR Forestry directly.”
He noted that any future development on the property “would be done in accordance with town of Hopkinton bylaws and regulations.”
After reading from the statement, Barnes offered his own opinion on the matter.
“The commission, unfortunately, has no authority,” he said, “because it is a DCR forest-cutting plan. It’s unfortunate, as we said in our statement, because we really work hard to protect our natural resources.”
Barnes added that the forest-cutting plan seems “kind of like an arcane opportunity to come in and do tree cutting on a property.”
Said Barnes: “I can assure you that the commission is not happy about it.”
Abutters expressed their frustration with the site, which has a contentious past. In June of 2021, a developer presented plans for a subdivision. But attorney Matt Cote, who represented the applicant, Equestrian Realty, at that meeting admitted the land actually was going to be used for a solar array, and the application was an attempt to circumvent a proposed solar bylaw that passed at the Annual Town Meeting the month before. Because the application was filed before the bylaw was passed, the agricultural zoning for the parcel was locked in place.
Abutter Michael Cooper said it was a “pretty big shock” to the neighborhood when 60 acres of trees began to be cleared without notification to the residents. He noted that abutters had been notified in 2020 that trees would be cut down but had received no further information since that time.
He did receive the notification about the June 2021 Planning Board meeting where the two proposed preliminary subdivision plans for the property were presented. Cooper alleged that the development was proposed to “freeze the zoning and subvert the will of the town.” The subdivision plan was later withdrawn.
Cooper questioned why the town didn’t provide information to DCR when the permit application was filed.
Said Cooper: “The town should have received a letter like any of the abutters and should have been able to provide comment.”
Cooper also said he spoke with DCR Forestry Program Director Jennifer Fish, who told him that she would be amenable to receiving information about potentially amending the plan. Cooper confirmed this in an interview with the Hopkinton Independent by phone after the meeting.
A major concern of his was that the tree cutting would encroach on wetlands, and that no buffer zones were proposed.
“I understand that the town doesn’t necessarily have the authority to stop it,” Cooper continued. But he urged town officials to look into amending the permit.
Another issue Cooper brought up was a 2020 memo from former Conservation Administrator Don McAdam in which he wrote, “If there were an intent to change the land use, the permit will be void.”
Barnes told Cooper that he understood his frustration but reiterated that the town doesn’t have any authority in this case. He did clarify that trees can be cut under the permit up to the wetland boundary under DCR supervision.
If a solar farm is proposed, Barnes added, “The commission and the town will have recourse to require the property owner to do mitigation work.”
Barnes stressed that he and other town officials are “frustrated” but are hamstrung because of the state’s authority.
Ciaramicoli added that she spoke with the DCR representative on site as well as with Fish. She said she was told by Fish that the tree cutting was allowed under the 2020 permit, which did not have to be extended.
She added that because there is not an active case on file with the Conservation Commission, the Planning Board or the Board of Appeals, “DCR takes that as there not being an outward intent for change of land use.”
In response to Cooper’s query about the town doing something when the permit was filed with DCR, Ciaramicoli said her predecessor sent an email dated May 11, 2021, to DCR to ask if the subdivision application constituted a change in land use. She did not find a response from DCR to that email.
Ciaramicoli said DCR would accept requests for permit amendments, but DCR would have to approach the land owner to see if they were amenable to them. She planned to contact DCR with a letter.
Said Ciaramicoli: “I’m at the end of the rope.”
Abutter Brooke Ferencsik added that there are more appropriate sites for solar arrays than in residential neighborhoods. He reminded commissioners of a “horrific” situation last year in Wareham, where 800 acres of solar farms have either been built or are in the works, according to a Boston Globe article.
He asked if the commission could attempt to conserve the land. Barnes said the owner would have to be agreeable to selling the land at or above market rate for that to happen. Funds could be requested through the Community Preservation Committee or the Hopkinton Area Land Trust, but the time frame is far too short for action at this point.
Member Ed Harrow, who also serves as chair of the Open Space Preservation Commission, urged people to stop referring to the potential development as a solar farm.
“When we use the term ‘solar farm,’ it sounds like a very wonderful thing,” he explained. “They are not a farm. They are an industrial complex.”
Hearing on proposed tennis court continued
The other major case reviewed was for a proposed tennis court at 42 Greenwood Road. It would serve as the training facility at home for tennis prodigy Parnaz Kaur, a sixth grader at Hopkinton Middle School.
Consultant Paul McManus, the founder of EcoTech Consulting Services in Worcester, spoke on behalf of applicant Harpreet Singh, the student’s father.
In response to concerns from commissioners at the last meeting two weeks ago, he proposed moving back the stone wall. Plantings were addressed in both the upper and lower areas of the plan divided by this wall. While the lower area will include a seed mix on about 757 square feet, above the wall, native shrubs and plantings were increased to include an area in the 50-foot buffer.
A structural engineer reviewed and stamped plans for the stone wall, which would include small step-like outcroppings to help slow the flow of water, another concern raised at the last meeting.
Town consultant Joe Orzel from Lucas Environmental said he didn’t have time to review the plans, which were submitted earlier in the day. Because of this, Ciaramicoli recommended that the hearing be continued.
Member Ted Barker-Hook questioned whether the concern he raised about water running off the court and down the wall was adequately addressed. He feared that there would be a “waterfall of water coming off the court “and infiltrating the protected area.” He asked that drains be considered for the sides of the court to disperse water.
Said Barker-Hook: “Given that it seems like we have a 50- or 100-year storm every few weeks or so at this point, the only thing I see addressed is that the water will flow onto the property.”
McManus assured the commission that the tennis court land would be graded and the court would be built “with great care.” The stepped side of the wall with capstones should slow the velocity of runoff. Crushed stone will be placed to slow any water movement.
Orzel added that there would be a thin sheet flow running off the court, and the stone would help break up the concentration of water, making the drains unnecessary.
Vice chair Kerry Reed said that if issues arose, they could be addressed later.
Member Janine LeBlanc questioned why the tennis court was being considered after a previous tennis court proposal had been denied because of a violation on the property in 2020. The area had to be restabilized, she noted.
McManus confirmed that the restabilization work had been performed, and “the matter was closed.”
Added Harrow: “I am not happy with this, but I will go along with the opinions of the others.”
The case will be reviewed at the next meeting on Tuesday, May 16.
35 Parkwood Dive approved
In other news, the commission unanimously approved the application by Phosphorex to install medical equipment and an emergency generator that would allow for the expansion of the business at 35 Parkwood Drive. It was approved by the Planning Board on Monday night and previously received approval from the Board of Appeals.
Doug Hartnett spoke on behalf of the applicant. He said that he wanted to improve conditions on the site with a retrofit and cleaning of the catch basins.