Concord - Two petition articles on the special Town Meeting warrant have been submitted in an effort to remediate concerns regarding the process leading up to the potential construction of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail.
As drafted by Lydia Rogers and Gail Bucher, the two articles call attention to the environmental impacts of the proposed rail trail and the town’s control in a state-funded project.
As presented by Rogers on Monday night at the special Town Meeting public hearing, Article 9 is about “doing it right from the start” by completing a full environmental study before submitting the 25 percent design to the state for funding.
“The design can only be as good as the data it is based upon … before it becomes a MassHighway project,” said Rogers, addressing an audience with members of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail Advisory Committee and the Natural Resources Commission present.
In conjunction with that motion is Article 10, which would require a Town Meeting vote approving the 25 percent designs of all rail trails in town before they are sent to the state for funding.
In typical fashion, a Town Meeting vote is taken after the completion of the 100 percent design and before town money is spent.
According to Dick Waters, Monday night’s presenter for Article 10, by requiring a Town Meeting vote at an early stage in the process the town will certify that all trails are designed and built in a “high quality, open process.”
The proposed trail prompting both of these articles is a 25-mile path lying along a former rail bed between Lowell and Framingham. Almost three-and-a-half miles of the trail are located primarily in western Concord.
The rail bed runs close to White’s and Warner’s ponds and crosses the Nashoba Brook, Assabet River and Jennie Duggan stream. It also will need to weave through West Concord center to extend to the Sudbury town line.
The consultants for the project, Vanasse, Hangen and Brustlin, Inc., are working to complete the 25 percent design. Since the inception of the rail trail, concerns have been raised about the impact of the right-of-way near environmentally sensitive areas.
According to the language of the first article, “the [environmental] study shall be performed and published … in accordance with the standards of the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA).” This study is intended to include water bodies, water supplies, wildlife, wetlands, flora and aesthetics.
However, according to Natural Resources and Conservation Commissioner Delia Kaye, the town has already undertaken, or plans to undertake, several state-level environmental studies, many of which overlap with the requests of the warrant article.
As MEPA’s enforcer, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs has already determined the town does not need to perform an in-depth Environmental Impact Report, or EIR. Kaye said the project does not meet the review threshold as described in the Environmental Notification Form submitted to the state.
“That being said, the town is undertaking studies for rare species and wildlife habitat that meets or exceeds the level of detail in an EIR,” said Kaye in a separate interview.
For a typical 25 percent design, Concord sends a letter to state and federal authorities requesting information on the presence, if any, of rare species in the project area. If there are known rare species, the 25 percent design should include the necessary information.
In addition to the state requirements to be included in the 25 percent design, last summer the town of Concord also hired a Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program-approved botanist to survey the rare plant species. The report regarding the botanist’s findings is currently being prepared, said Kaye.
Additionally, said Kaye, surveys regarding a rare dragonfly, wood turtle, blue-spotted salamander and zebra clubtail will be conducted throughout next spring and summer. Local experts have identified some of these species during the public outreach process.
Although the 25 percent design does not typically include information regarding wildlife habitat evaluations, the environmental analysis VHB had prepared will include seasonal habitat use, a three-season survey of birds, an assessment of the various wildlife expected to use the corridor and a mapping of invasive species, said Kaye.
After hearing of these ongoing of planned studies at the hearing, Rogers said of the town’s work, “It’s news to me.”
This lack of communication, said Kaye, may be what prompted the article.
“I think that perhaps people are not aware of the level of detail we are studying or preparing to study,” said Kaye in a separate interview. “With that knowledge, the level of comfort that the environmental issues are being fully addressed might be higher.”
The last piece of environmental information included in the 25 percent design is the wetlands delineation.
VHB recently submitted an Abbreviated Notice of Resource Area Delineation for the commission’s review. This document essentially maps out the wetlands within the area of the proposed rail trail and is also included in the 25 percent design.
The commission is thoroughly reviewing the delineation notice, said Kaye, and the matter will likely be taken at the Nov. 14 meeting.
However, in another realm of town government two independent consultants hired by “concerned citizens of Concord” are also questioning the authenticity of VHB’s environmental study.
According to the two separate consultants, said attorney Gregory McGregor, the work performed by VHB was “done in a hurry. In other words, the wetlands were undersized.”
The consultants identified several wetland resources that were missed by VHB, said McGregor. Also, the environmental consultants allege VHB ignored some necessary documentation in regards to the identification of several perennial streams.
As the second article relative to all rail trail projects, Article 10 is an attempt to hold a Town Meeting vote earlier in the process before the submittal of the 25 percent design to the state.
The 25 percent design, said Kaye, is a conceptual layout of the trail’s alignment to determine what the project’s viability is.
“It is really an early step in the process,” said Kaye.
According to the proponents of the second article relative to the rail trail but contrary to the information provided by the Natural Resources Commission, “once the 25 percent design is submitted to the state, it is frozen,” said the article’s presenter Dick Waters.
However, said Kaye in a separate interview, “the design can be changed even after going out to bid.” According to information distributed at the hearing by the commissioner, “in no way does the submittal of the 25 percent design … mean that changes to the project cannot be made, nor does it mean that additional environmental study will not be incorporated into the design.”
But, said Waters, passing this article will ensure all decisions relative to all future rail trails will remain “where they belong — in Concord, not MassHighway.”
Elissa Brown, a member of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail Advisory Committee, said MassHighway today is more flexible and allows greater room for community context and input than it used to allow.
The standard process, she said, is to submit the 25 percent design with the selectmen’s approval to the MassHighway, who will then hold a public meeting with the Concord community.
Even after that point, “things get changed all the time,” said Brown.
According to resident Judy LaRocca, the article imposes more time to an already lengthy project.
“The citizens will eventually vote on the allocation of these funds,” said LaRocca. The floor of Town Meeting is to allocate money. It has never been the place to decide upon design details, she said.
“This article introduces the potential for extensive back and forth,” said LaRocca. It also “undermines the efforts of many experienced and knowledgeable contributors.”