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Springwood residents seek answers after tree-cutting begins without warning to town

by | May 2, 2023 | Featured: News, News

Public officials joined Springwood neighborhood residents in expressing surprise and frustration last week regarding a state-approved permit allowing a developer to cut down 60 acres of trees with no prior notification to the town, with concerns that a solar array was planned for the property.

The work started in early April, abutters Brooke Ferencsik and Michael Cooper told the Hopkinton Independent on April 25. There was no notification to abutters about the activity, they said, and they found out about it when they heard the cutting machines at the property behind Kimball Road.

“It’s been a frustrating couple of weeks,” said Cooper, noting he found out when he drove by the property and heard the saws. “What’s extra frustrating now is that we’re at a point where we feel powerless to stop it.”

Added Ferencsik: “For two weeks, we’ve been seeing heavy equipment going down the street. And neither the residents nor the town was given any notice.”

On April 24, the town released a joint statement, which Conservation Commission Chair Jeff Barnes read at the April 25 Conservation Commission meeting. The statement was from himself, Town Manager Norman Khumalo, Conservation Administrator Kim Ciaramicoli and Principal Planner John Gelcich, and it explained that the tree removal is being done legally under a state permit administered by the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

“We are mindful of the concerns outlined by abutters regarding the ongoing tree-cutting work at a property off of Kimball Road,” Barnes stated. “Under state law, this work is permitted and regulated solely by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.”

During that meeting, Barnes and Ciaramicoli noted that the state permit supersedes town policy, and town officials are basically powerless to stop it.

Cooper explained that he has been doing a deeper dive into the permit’s history and has communicated with DCR representatives about the project. He was concerned about what he considered a change of use to the land.

“It’s really frustrating for me because I was the one who reached out to Mike Dooley and Forestry Program Director Jennifer Fish, his supervisor at DCR, before anyone,” Cooper said. “I gave Kim [Ciaramicoli] their contact information. When I spoke to [Fish], she certainly seemed more open to amending the permit. But that was not the impression I got from what Kim Ciaramicoli said at the Conservation Commission meeting when she spoke about writing a letter to DCR.

“I want it to be a pretty strongly worded letter — not a request but a demand,” Cooper continued. “To me, I think the town has some responsibility here. I feel like they are just throwing up their hands.”

He added that he approached a worker on the site to ask about the activity.

“I spoke to the foreman on the project, and he wasn’t pleasant,” Cooper said. “He said, ‘Anything I can cut, it’s coming down.’ ”

Continued Cooper: “It doesn’t seem like we have any legal options to stop the cutting. But there will be potential hurdles when and if a solar farm is proposed. No one is benefitting from this situation here except the property owner.”

Developer called out before

This has not been the first activity regarding the property where transparency was called into question by town officials and residents. At a Planning Board meeting on June 7, 2021, what was initially presented as a preliminary proposal for two subdivisions at the property (then referred to as 190 Ash Street) was admittedly planned to be used for a solar development project, according to Matt Cote, the applicant’s attorney.

“The end goal is solar,” Cote said at the meeting.

The subdivision proposal was essentially a means to freeze the agricultural zoning designation for the property before the anticipated approval of a solar bylaw, which passed at the May 2021 Annual Town Meeting, creating tighter regulations on such developments. However, the subdivision proposal was withdrawn a few months later.

“The red herring here is that the solar developer, BlueWave Solar, left that meeting with their tail between their legs,” Ferencsik said. “They were caught, and they knew it.”

“It’s like they just stole the zoning,” Cooper added. “My thing is why was the clearing permit not pulled and voided at that time?”

“This woodland area has abundant wildlife, and the wetland there is ostensibly now under duress or will just be gone,” stressed Ferencsik. “When we think about the potential impact, we have to wonder if this is what we want residential areas in Massachusetts to become. There are many other viable options for solar farms that don’t require impact to wetlands or open space.”

At the Conservation Commission meeting, Barnes clarified that the clearcutting can only be done up to the wetland boundary. If a project is proposed for the site, remediation work would need to be performed to compensate for lost vegetation.

State representative questions process

Cooper and Ferencsik said they reached out to state Rep. James Arena-DeRosa after learning of the DCR permit to see if any actions could be taken to stop work or amend the permit, and he has been responsive to their inquiries.

Arena-DeRosa emailed that he has had “ongoing communications with constituents and Hopkinton town officials” as well as DCR and its legal team to see what could be done. He was informed that the tree-clearing activity is “legal under current law.”

“However,” he said, “I find it particularly disturbing that under the state agricultural permit, property owners are not also required to have some consultation with the local community and neighborhood about the plan and some amelioration.

“I know we need to be cognizant of property owners, and they have rights to use their land within the law,” Arena-DeRosa continued. “But as a new member of the Agriculture Committee, I intend to look at a few things. For example, if someone gets a permit for activities under agriculture land, OK, fine — but shouldn’t the land have to then stay under that category for a set number of years? I don’t like that they can immediately turn around and develop the property. But per DCR, that is currently allowed.”

Cooper said the developer’s intentions to continue with a solar array are clear. They were articulated in a March 2021 letter to abutters, which he offered to provide to Ciaramicoli during the Conservation Commission meeting.

Planning Board Chair Gary Trendel said in an April 24 interview that the town has not seen any applications regarding proposed development on the site, and that the Planning Board is not able to take a position on the tree clearing.

“We can’t assume what their intentions might be,” Trendel said. “Although given their past track record, there is some concern. But anything they propose today will have to conform to the solar bylaw.”

What the Planning Board can do, he added, is work on strengthening solar regulations. Measures would include screening and setback requirements to protect abutters.

Town seeks plan for future issues

At the Conservation Commission meeting, members proposed future actions to protect woodland areas from this type of development. Ideas included seeking Community Preservation Committee or Hopkinton Area Land Trust funds to purchase wooded parcels that potentially could be developed.

Conservation Commission member Ted Barker-Hook noted that last year he spearheaded an effort to implement a tree-clearing bylaw as a member of the Zoning Advisory Committee, which he now co-chairs. He initially proposed creating a solar overlay district, but this effort for tree protection did not move forward because it was not fully fleshed out at the time.

“We are beginning to talk again about how we can get together a tree protection bylaw that could be proposed for Town Meeting a year from now,” he said.

Fellow commissioner Ed Harrow, who is the chair of the Open Space Preservation Committee, said he and other committee members have been “wandering around Hopkinton looking at parcels and trying to come up with avenues to acquire them.”

Ciaramicoli noted at the Conservation Commission meeting that the commission soon will confront the issue of clearcutting land for another proposed project that will come before it in the near future. She did not cite the address.

The Hopkinton Independent reached out to BlueWave Solar and the DCR for comment regarding plans for the land and the timeline of the issuance of the permit. No response was received by press time.

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