MIDDLESEX - With the fallout from near continuous construction activity spreading to the far corners of Stoneham, community leaders say utility companies have been delivering more chaos than public services as of late.
Acknowledging a failure to adequately safeguard community neighborhoods from a massive Mass. Water Resource Authority (MWRA) pipeline project, which will continue into the summer of 2020, Stoneham's Board of Selectmen intends to overhaul local permitting rules governing utility company work.
In order to implement new neighborhood safeguards and mitigation requirements, town officials will convene a special Town Meeting in June.
The voluminous package of street-opening and grant-of-location rules won't impact the MWRA project, in which a redundant water main is being placed under local roadways from Stoneham's southern border by Spot Pond to the northern edge of the community in Reading.
However, town officials hope the voluminous 50-plus pages of new regulations can be enacted before electricity distributor Eversource submits a formal requests to break ground on another massive infrastructure undertaking.
That proposal entails burying a high-voltage transmission line across major thoroughfares that connect the town's opposite east and west borders with Woburn and Wakefield. The public utility, which in February obtained state permission to proceed, had originally planned on breaking ground on the project this summer, but with the neighboring communities of Woburn and Winchester fighting the plans, the timeline is now uncertain.
"The town has become a minor version of the big dig," complained Selectman Caroline Colarusso earlier this spring, referencing the glut of ongoing and proposed public construction work. "The sprit of the [Town Meeting] article is good…I would have liked to have had this in place before the MWRA project, but better late than never."
"I like the idea of having these bylaws, especially now with Eversource coming though. They're aimed at looking out for the residents," said Selectman George Seibold.
Based upon the bylaw proposals as written, all cable providers and utility companies would have to adhere to the following new guidelines before breaking ground on any major project:
• Adhere to new noise limits, which prohibit construction-related activity from emitting for longer than two hours more than 60 decibels of sound during the daytime hours and 45 decibels after 7 p.m.;
• Install sound barriers or screening when those new thresholds, which are scaled based upon the duration of noise, might be exceeded based upon newly required baseline testing;
• Pay a pre-calculated surcharge based upon the estimated value of the land or street being used to facilitate the permit applicant's provision of services;
• Submit payments for road restoration or other repairs to town infrastructure being impacted by grant-of-location work;
• Furnish proof of minimum liability insurance coverage standards for contractors;
• Allow the municipality to revoke, withhold, or impose conditions, including stipulations governing the kinds of construction materials being used by a utility provider, upon right-of-way permits;
• Require petitioners who propose work valued at more than $1 million to reimburse town department heads and their professional staff for the official review of the plans;
• Repair or foot the bill for any damage to abutting public or private property, including to residential front yards or driveways.
• Fill out paperwork that identifies the parent company or affiliated corporation responsible for the project, lists contacts from that organization, describes the nature of the planned work and how it will benefit local customers, and details the full scope and extent of the proposal.
Learning from past mistakes
The new Town Meeting initiatives are being proposed after the Board of Selectmen, as well as a number of other municipal managers, have struggled to respond to a series of issues and gaffes surrounding the MWRA project.
For over a year now, citizens living along Oak Street, an approximate mile-long residential side street that stretches from the Reading line to Elm Street, have begged town officials for help in dealing with nuisances arising from the MWRA pipeline project.
And as the quasi-public water provider has moved beyond that area to dig trenches along back roads heading to Montvale Avenue, the complaint focus has moved right alongside the heavy excavators and work crews.
MWRA Executive Director Fred Laskey and other managers from the quasi-public water provider have hosted multiple public forums and appointed a field representative to deal directly with those complaints, but town officials and residents alike have constantly complained about a lack of communication about road closures, detours, and unannounced work activity.
Just weeks after the excavation began, town officials realized Albanese D&S, the Dracut-based contractor hired to perform the work, had been illegally stashing materials and equipment on a vacant home lot zoned for residential uses.
After being booted from that location, neighborhood residents began complaining that excavators and sections of the 48-inch water mains were being abandoned each night on public roadways. In a last minute scramble, the contractor made arrangements to stage equipment along I-95 and in Wakefield, but due to continued logistical concerns, it also continued to lay out materials along the project route.
Town officials, despite a near decade of talks with the MWRA over finding a mutually-agreed upon staging site, later advised frustrated residents to be patient, as forcing work crews off-location would only delay the length of the overall timeline.
Besides those nuisances, the Board of Selectmen has also fielded numerous calls about much more serious impacts, such as pest and rodent infestations, residents finding blasting-related and drilling-impact damage to home foundations and walls, an incident in which an emergency generator failed and flooded several basements, and issues with front lawns, driveways, and gas line connections being crushed and broken-up by heavy construction vehicles.
During a series of public forums, local residents have also sought help managing problems with constant traffic backups, confusing road detours, issues with blocked access to their own driveways, and regular temporary water service interruptions.
This spring, as the MWRA project flipped the project to the opposite side of town by the vicinity of Spot Pond and the Melrose line, Oak Street residents — instead of seeing their quiet roadway repaved and restored as promised — awoke to find excavation work resuming.
"We're not trying to make any excuses. It should have been done right. We knew we'd have some leaks, but nothing of this magnitude," Laskey told the Selectmen last month. "We're getting close [to finishing up our repairs]. We have a couple more sections to test."
The MWRA executive has assured the Board of Selectmen the Oak Street contract will be completed by this coming September.
In contrast to to the work being done on the Reading side of the community, the second phase of the pipeline work is expected to cause disruptions along some of Stoneham's busiest thoroughfares, including Main Street, North Border Road, and Woodland Road and Pond Street by Stone Zoo.
Earlier this winter, the MWRA's contractor, trying to limit its impact along those commuter zones, obtained a special permit to stage materials on a wooded site by the old MDC pool.
Had the planners rejected the special permit application, the Dracut contractor warned it would be forced to utilize the initial staging area by Route 128 and the Reading line. Though the other materials storage site will not be shuttered, having access to just that location would require work crews to travel down the entire length of Main Street to get to the construction zone.
"We all have to deal with this, and we've been dealing with it for the past year in the north side of town. It's been awful," said Planning Board member Daniel Moynihan of the last minute request. "I think it's a valid effort to mitigate the effects of this project."