WINCHESTER - This week, the Select Board approved two peer reviews from Weston & Sampson and BSC concerning The Vale project located in Woburn at the site of the former Atlantic Gelatin factory and on the Winchester line at Sunset Road.
The Vale will consist of office and retail space, restaurants, a hotel, senior living, and 197 proposed housing units abutting Sunset Road. Overall, the project covers 77-acres and owner Leggat McCall Properties LLC wants to turn the site into a mixed-use development.
Redevelopment of the site will occur in a phased manner, according to Town Engineer Beth Rudolph, with different applicants responsible for the various components of the project build-out. The project has been reviewed under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act and the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs issued a certificate on the Final Environmental Impact Report for the project last fall.
Winchester outlined several issues with the potential development including impacts to the character of the adjacent Sunset Road, downstream flooding and stormwater impacts, traffic impacts, improved pedestrian and bikeway amenities, and emergency access to the site.
Although the board debated the merits of these peer reviews, with Select Board member Amy Shapiro questioning their usefulness, they ultimately voted to support one from Weston & Sampson on possible stormwater/flooding issues and one from BSC, a consulting firm, on potential impacts to wildlife.
While it may not seem like much, Conservation Commission member David Miller admitted they don’t have many “arrows” in their “quiver” to impact the outcome so the town needs to use the ones it has.
“We can use (Sunset Road) as an arrow, so don’t let go of it,” he implored the Select Board, speaking to the neighborhood’s objection to both using their road for access to the site and the potential flooding issues that could ensue.
Combined, the peer reviews could run the town north of $40,000. That’s a good amount of money, but, as Rudolph pointed out, it pales in comparison to the $25M the town spent on flood mitigation projects all over town.
“We don’t want this project to erode the work we’ve done (in that area),” the Town Engineer said.
On the other side, Shapiro noted how the town right now has no leverage, so she worried the money “might go for naught.”
When it comes to the Weston & Sampson review, the engineering firm acknowledged to Town Manager Lisa Wong they’ve attempted to complete a site visit, but have been unsuccessful. Rudolph, though, suggested they could finish the review without it.
“Absolutely,” she answered about whether the review would be meaningful without the site visit. “99 percent of the work involves reviewing plans.”
She added how technology allows for a virtual site walk, anyway. Plus, as the Town Engineer noted, the engineering firm could still visit Sunset Road, which she recommended.
As for the other review, Miller said he received it from BSC regarding potential losses in wildlife and nature. He talked about the potential loss of carbon as a result of needing to cut down so many trees and not replanting.
“How would that affect the environment?” Miller wondered.
Chair of the Conservation Commission, Zeke Nims, said he fully supports a natural resource assessment to quantify the impacts.
With Sunset Road the town’s “one arrow” as Miller stated, Winchester hopes to have Woburn use Forest Street as the access road due to it being more of a main road. Rudolph also noted the part of Sunset Road that abuts the project is private. However, she stated that shouldn’t matter when it comes to whether or not Sunset makes for a usable access road.
“Forest Street access is the lesser of two evils,” Select Board member Susan Verdicchio admitted, calling Sunset Road a narrow cul-de-sac. “I hope (the developer) makes it clear they aren’t seeking access to Sunset.”
She added how the neighborhood doesn’t want any access from their street. Chair Michael Bettencourt suggested limited access exists on Sunset Road for emergency vehicles.
While the town participated in previous Woburn meetings and proposed to continue participating, if the peer reviews don’t generate much in the way of change, Winchester may only have the option of appealing left.
“Hopefully we don’t have to appeal,” the Town Engineer said, adding it will be beneficial to have these peer reviews containing professional opinions to offer Woburn and the developers.
Bettencourt acknowledged the town needs the reviews to get some of the leverage it doesn’t currently have. As Rudolph noted, without constructive dialogue between Winchester and Woburn, appealing remains the last option. And while the board feels the project is moving quickly, it doesn’t appear their goal includes shutting it down (as an appeal would likely do).