Planning Board removes tree protection articles from Town Meeting

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The Planning Board voted 7-2 at Monday’s meeting to remove both articles regarding tree protection from the 2021 Town Meeting warrant, deeming that they needed further input from developers and the real estate community before proceeding to Town Meeting. The board decided to send the issue back to the Zoning Advisory Committee (ZAC) for further discussion.

Rob Benson and Deb Fein-Brug opposed the decision.

Board member Mary Larson-Marlowe, who also chairs ZAC, gave a presentation on what the two bylaws — one a general bylaw and the other zoning, with very similar language — would entail. She explained that the bylaws came about as a result of commercial ground-mounted solar installations and sought to prevent the clear-cutting of trees for such arrays. However, Massachusetts general law prohibits a bylaw that specifically restricts solar development.

“We certainly wanted to look at this from a more town-wide and development-wide viewpoint,” she said. The primary concern was regarding the removal of older trees, particularly in residential areas.

As a protection measure, one of the things that was considered was how to measure the amount or percentage of trees that could be cleared. The calculation that would be used is called a basal area.

“Ultimately we did find a measurement called basal area that is a measurement that combines the size which is a measurement of the area of tree trunks and the number of trees into a single unit,” said Larson-Marlowe. It is calculated per acre and is determined by a cross-section of the diameter of the trees.

As per the proposed bylaw, 20 percent cutting of the basal area that exists at the onset could be cut in residential and agricultural zone, and 70 percent in the commercial and professional development zones. If the applicant agreed to replant trees elsewhere, a greater percentage could be cut.

Exemptions to the bylaw would be for any site less than or equal to one acre, any site zoned for a one- or two-family home, and any developments that use the open space land preservation development (OSLPD) bylaw, according to Lawson-Marlowe. Also included would be property in an agricultural zone, the removal of dead or hazardous tree limbs, and public works projects. Trees smaller than 3 inches in diameter also are not part of the bylaw.

One concern raised by chair Gary Trendel is that, after a home is built on a lot of several acres and sold, the cleared lot might then be subdivided and a solar array could be built.

“There’s always loopholes,” Larson-Marlowe replied.

Concern about loopholes was one issue that prevented the measures from moving forward. Another was the desire that developers and realtors be given input.

Chuck Joseph, a real estate agent and developer, said he was not in favor of the bylaw in its current form. He opposed the basal area as a measurement guide, noting it is “primarily a forest management tool.”

“I think it’s a significant misapplication of this formula in this context,” he added.

Bryan Brown, vice president of the Hopkinton Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, said the proposal seems rushed.

“What other opportunities will the town miss out on, great projects that we haven’t even thought of yet?” he asked.

In addition, the Hopkinton Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Committee submitted a letter to the Planning Board dated Feb. 25 expressing “our overwhelming opposition to the tree protection article.”

“We would ask that the Planning Board look at alternative strategies that focus clearly on solar development instead of a dangerous blanket bylaw which creates more red tape, confusion and contradictions,” the letter stated.

ZAC member Ron Foisy urged the Planning Board to “take the foot off the accelerator” and bring the bylaws up for consideration at the 2022 Town Meeting, with developer and realtor input.

Jeff Doherty said the bylaws would undercut his business. He has had a Massachusetts forestry program on his lot for 36 years. Large trees have been harvested, and the market has crashed, he said. On the other hand, firewood sales have exploded.

“If this bylaw goes into place, you’re taking away my livelihood,” he said.

Trendel said the overall idea was sound, but “the devil is in the details.” Municipal projects and forestry programs could be added and the basal percentages could be reviewed.

Mental Health part of community development

Dawn Alcott Miller, director of Hopkinton Youth & Family Services, gave a presentation to the Planning Board about the correlation between community planning and mental health. She explained that, particularly in the suburbs, young people tend to feel that the communities are not designed for them. Some factors include lack of transportation, affordable housing away from town centers, and lack of youth centers.

One aspect she thought could be brought to the concept of planning is adding in pocket parks, perhaps as a way to connect trails with sidewalks as a resting place.

“It really comes down to the look and feel of safety,” Alcott Miller explained. “Is there adequate transportation for all residents? Is the low-income housing just as nice as other housing? Or is it built in a way that creates less dignity and less sense of self-worth?”

Arts, culture, education and inclusion of people with disabilities and of all cultures were other tools she recommended to connect in planning.

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