It has all the workings of a busy quarry: The roar of explosive charges shredding apart buried ledge deposits, the deafening clatter of heavy boulders being ground down into crushed stone, and the sight of excavators and heavy trucks crawling across a barren and earth-torn landscape.
However, as North Woburnites have cried out for months now, the nine-acre work zone at 1042 Main St. by the Wilmington line is no rock pit. In fact, the hilly terrain, which at its pinnacle sits perched some 70-feet above Route 38, is situated in the middle of a residential neighborhood by Woburn's Altavesta Elementary School.
Thanks to a 2015 decision of the Mass. Housing Appeals Committee (HAC), which was upheld by the Mass. Supreme Court (SJC) last winter, those living beside the nine-acre site will be forced to deal with construction nuisances for at least the next two years as a Connecticut developer prepares the property for 168-unit apartments complex.
Labeled the "Ledges at Woburn", the proposed development has been the subject of extensive litigation that dates back nearly two decades.
Work on erecting the housing project, approved under the state's controversial Chapter 40B or affordable housing statute, technically hasn't even started. Instead, excavation and blasting contractors first need to remove some 357,000 cubic yards of ledge from the parcel in order to make way for those four apartment buildings.
Unfortunately, for North Woburnites, who have already declared existing construction operations as unbearable, the situation is likely to get worse.
Just days ago, Woburn's Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), insisting they had little power to do otherwise, okayed a new arrangement at the future apartment complex that allows Acton excavation contractor Onxy Contruction to sell freshly crushed stone to third-party buyers.
The ZBA decision essentially unravels a May ruling by Woburn Building Commissioner Thomas Quinn, who declared the proposed third-party sales as an obvious violation of the city's zoning ordinances.
"By approving a quarry and gravel retail business on the Ledges site, you have set a precedence for all future City of Woburn construction sites that will allow builders [to do the same], thereby exposing additional Woburn neighborhoods to the nightmare we are experiencing," recently complained North Woburn resident Michael Raymond in a letter to the city.
"The additional injustice to our health, safety, and welfare is unacceptable, and I am asking you to reconsider," added the abutter, a former city alderman who has tried to organize neighborhood opposition to the development.
The ZBA, drawn into the dispute after landowner Woburn 38 Development appealed Quinn's cease-and-desist order, have argued that they had little choice in the matter. Specifically, the city officials were fearful of rejecting the appeal and finding themselves back before the powerful HAC, which handles all immediate appeals of Chapter 40B matters.
Representing Woburn 38 Development, a subsidiary of Connecticut's Franklin Construction Company, Concord attorney Paul Haverty repeatedly threatened in recent months to challenge any decision upholding the building commissioner's ruling to the powerful state board.
"This is a way for us to have some control over this. If we send them an invitation to go back to the [HAC], they're going to get carte blanche to do whatever they want," said ZBA member John Ryan during an administrative hearing in October.
Chapter 40B trumps zoning rules
Under the state's Chapter 40B law, all communities in the state are required to slate at least 10 percent of all available housing units for income-restricted buyers and tenants.
In communities that fall short of that standard, builders who promise to designate at least 20 percent of a new housing development as "affordable" are granted broad authority to skirt local zoning bylaws, including community regulations aimed at protecting public health and welfare.
Years before the most recent ZBA decision regarding third-party trucking logistics, Woburn's leaders had labeled the "Ledges" project as a prime example of how developers abuse the statute in order to force overly dense and unsafe multi-family housing projects into quiet neighborhoods.
In fact, months before Franklin Construction officials demanded the rights to sell crushed stone directly from the Wilmington line property, city officials and area legislators were already asking state and federal agencies to investigate what they considered to be unsafe conditions at the nine-acre site.
In an April letter to the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection, Woburn's entire state house delegation urged the agency to investigate neighborhood concerns about potential hazards, such as the release of silica dust contaminates, into the air around the neighborhood.
The Beacon Hill pols also cited concerns about drainage and runoff impacts from the ledge removal, which project opponents say could impact a groundwater pollution plume from the Olin Chemical site in Wilmington.
"While we support accessible and affordable housing opportunities in the greater Boston area, the impact the proposed project has on the surrounding neighborhoods in terms of dust, noise, and construction on an environmentally damaged plot leads us to believe that such a project’s negatives far outweigh any perceived benefits," the legislators wrote.
Just weeks after that letter was shipped off, Woburn's building commissioner discovered Onyx Construction ad posted advertisements that invited landscapers and other aggregate materials customers to purchase their products directly from 1042 Main St.
In a subsequent cease-and-desist order hand delivered to Onyx and Woburn 38 Development officials, Quinn declared the sale of crushed stone — even if the arrangements solely involved the pickup of those products — as akin to running a quarry or retail sales operation.
Each of those businesses, the building commissioner insisted, were prohibited uses within the underlying residential zoning district.
In June, Haverty, on behalf of the North Woburn landowner, lodged an appeal with the ZBA. As part of that challenge, the Concord attorney, who specializes in Chapter 40B law, contended the HAC's 2015 decision superseded Woburn's zoning code and granted his client the right to sell any stone processed on the site.
However, the ZBA, demanding the lawyer highlight a single sentence in the HAC decision that granted those rights, scoffed at that argument. Instead, Haverty turned to the second portion of the appeal, which asked the ZBA to sanction the rock sales by modifying the comprehensive permit for the apartment complex.
During the course of the ZBA deliberations, which lasted five months, the city officials learned that the two-year timeline for completing earthworks operations at the site was considerably behind schedule.
Based upon the developer's calculations, only 30,000 cubic yards of materials had been carted away from the site since last April. Because Onyx Construction lacked additional heavy dump trucks, Haverty insisted that slow pace could delay the site preparation schedule out by a year or longer.
Specifically, in the 2015 HAC decision, the state officials had estimated it would take 233 working days to complete the blasting and ledge removal operation. However, under the revised timeline, that first phase of work would have reportedly taken as long as 496 days.
"There is absolutely a benefit to getting this [earthworks activity] over with. To just limit it to Onyx trucks, we'd be tying their hands and this would go on for years," ZBA member John Ray lamented during a City Hall meeting earlier this fall.
"As long as there are conditions on this that can be enforced by the building commissioner, I'm comfortable saying it's not a substantial change," ZBA Chairman Margaret Pinkham later agreed.
A losing track record
The city's contentious history with Woburn 38 Development dates back to 2011, when the profit-restricted entity announced it had purchased the rights to a comprehensive permit for a Chapter 40B project approved six-years earlier.
Those initial permits had been issued in 2006 to Burlington developer Anthony Santullo, whose so-called "Woburn Heights" project was similarly the subject of a legal dispute that wound its way to the SJC.
Before executing that agreement, Woburn 38 Development appeared before the ZBA in 2011 and again in 2012 to ask for permission to spread out the housing in multiple buildings.
When pitching the revised proposal, company representatives argued the development would be much more aesthetically pleasing than the Woburn Heights version, which entailed the erection of a 65-foot tall L-shaped high rise on the elevated site.
Yet, by spreading out the project into additional buildings, the applicant significantly increased the need to blast out and remove ledge and other debris on the site.
Considered the most objectionable aspect of Santullo's proposal, the Woburn Heights project would have required the blasting and removal of some 120,000 cubic yards of stone from the elevated terrain at 1042 Main St. However, the modified proposal introduced to the ZBA in 2012 more than doubled that blasting activity and tripled the overall materials removal estimates to 418,000 cubic yards of materials.
To remove such a vast volume of ledge, blasting crews over the next two years will setting off as many as two daily controlled demolition charges, each containing the equivalent of 2,000-to-2,500 pounds of TNT. Contractors will also use heavy machinery to crush and grind an estimated 357,632 cubic yards of materials.
In October of 2012, the ZBA rejected "The Ledges" petition after concluding the proposal sought to turn 1042 Main St. into an active quarry. The city officials deemed that venture as being proposed as a way to boost profits, rather than to facilitate the underlying housing development.
In their decision, the local officials concluded the modifications would seriously disrupt residential abutters lives and create a myriad of public safety concerns.
In May of 2015, the HAC overturned the ZBA's denial and ordered the city to issue building permits for the project within 30 days. The city in turn appealed that HAC to various upper courts.
Towards the end of 2017, the city learned the Mass. Appeals Court, the state's second-highest judicial body, would not entertain a review of the land court decision. In Feb. of 2018, the SJC also refused to intervene and upheld the 2015 HAC decision.