Mugar Wetlands 2012

The local organization Coalition to Save the Mugar Wetlands has officially discontinued its appeal of a specific decision concerning Thorndike Place, proposed nearly a decade ago, in 2014, for Dorothy Road in East Arlington. But that does not mean that the fight – including legal angles yet to be pursued – is over.

The Mugar Wetlands in East Arlington is a 17-acre habitat to birds and animals including turkey, foxes and deer, according to the coalition’s website. That website says, in part, “The [proposed construction] site consists of 17 acres. All but 1.5 of these acres are in the FEMA flood zone. The developer proposes building on 7 of these acres, including 5.5 acres in the floodplain. Floodplains act as a sponge for nearby groundwater and storm water. If this ‘sponge’ is paved over, the floodplain will no longer serve this essential purpose, and the water will flood into East Arlington neighborhoods.”

Thorndike Place is intended to be a four-story apartment building (43 studio units, 58 one-bedroom units, 23 two-bedroom units) plus six two-family townhomes. Opponents note that this project would provide no direct access to Mass. Ave. or to Route 2 and that this would increase traffic on nearby Lake Street – already overcrowded during rush hour.

Over the past decade, the coalition, along with the wetland’s abutters, have vehemently opposed this construction, intended to be designed and built by Oaktree Development of Cambridge.

The now-abandoned appeal had focused on the project’s environmental impact on the local neighborhood. The coalition’s website states that “Arlington Town Meeting and the Select Board do not support this development and have worked for decades to protect this parcel. Neighborhood residents have spent approximately $18K in legal fees and need to raise an additional $50K to prepare and present our case in court.”

In late 2021, although the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) approved the project, several abutters sued both the ZBA and the developer, which appealed to the Superior Court, thus delaying the lawsuit.

Rationale for coalition decision

Determining the specific detrimental effects on the wetlands would require hiring engineers and other independent experts to conduct hydrology testing to ascertain accurate ground water levels, the coalition website says.

Moreover, the most recent legal motion filed to gain access to the site to conduct the necessary testing was shot down more than three years ago. In October 2019, the state's Housing Appeals Committee denied it, based on a determination that the town of Arlington did not meet the 1.5-percent statutory minimum for affordable housing.

Given this anticipated expense to continue with the lawsuit, and the coalition’s own perception of its reduced odds of success, its members decided to discontinue that appeal.

Background

During the Feb. 7, 2022, Select Board meeting, board member Steve DeCourcey said that Arlington’s ZBA “put in place several conditions on the site, one of which is to test the groundwater.”

He continued “I find it disappointing that the applicant said they were going to do something – and now challenge this decision. It behooves us a board to see what potential enforcement actions there are. If this is the route that the applicant wants to go down, we should be talking to the Conservation Commission to see what actions they can take to get compliance on the clean-up.”

Developer’s stance

Oaktree has completed dozens of projects, mostly but not exclusively in Cambridge, where it is based. The closest one to Arlington likely is Lexington Place Condominiums on Waltham Street near Mass. Ave. in the Lexington Center neighborhood.

Oaktree describes itself this way on its website: “For more than 40 years, Oaktree Development, LLC, and its predecessor Unihab, has specialized in the design and development of innovative, multi-family, mixed-use, mixed-income, high performance and transit-oriented (TOD) projects.”

Oaktree's response regarding environment and traffic concerns goes along these lines: “Thorndike Place will provide long-term environmental benefits by preserving 10 acres as conservation land that is otherwise unusable and spruce up the area.”

That plan, designed by a civil engineer, would reduce area flooding, not increase it, the company says, and would include the construction of environmentally “good” buildings. The relevant portion of the website currently says, “Still in the planning phase, Thorndike Place is a land conservation and housing project in Arlington, MA. Located a short walk from the Alewife T Station along the Minuteman path, Thorndike Place will be a Smart Growth example of transit-oriented, energy-efficient, mixed-income housing with easy access to both natural and retail amenities.”

Oaktree also has in the past mentioned ways to improve the nearby traffic flow on Route 2 but has provided no specifics.

Coalition’s plans; Select Board member response

The coalition now maintains that it will continue to educate the community on the issues and the process and, in this endeavor, seek to prevent the project’s advancement, reserving the right to challenge the development in other forums.

And that could include new legal contentions.

Clarissa Rowe, one of the coalition’s founders, says the group group’s lawyer, Daniel C. Hill of Hill Law, Boston, has attempted to stop the development. The firm’s website – it can also be followed on Twitter/X – describes it as specializing in Massachusetts land-use, environmental-protection and municipal law.

Money to pay attorneys could come from the fact that the coalition so far has received nearly $22,000 through crowdfunding. Moreover, the coalition website continues to request donations.

The coalition’s leaders say that the town’s Select Board could take the lead in stopping development and wants it to find a way to either obtain the necessary funds or to again negotiate with the developer, says Rowe. The Select Board previously tried to negotiate with the developer, but to no avail, she said.

“We hope to appeal in front of the Select Board in September to come up with the next steps,” adds Rowe.

Contacted earlier this month, Select Board member and immediate past chair Len Diggins told YourArlington: “The understanding is that there will be an update [provided] to the Select Board at a meeting in the near future. At that point, we’ll likely hear various board members weigh in on the matter. The earliest that [this] update will take place is at our next meeting, Sept. 11.”

Coalition seeks political support

Meanwhile, the coalition is asking those who share its views to express concerns about Thorndike Place to relevant leaders; these include Select Board members, Town Meeting members and local state legislators.

Select Board Members:  https://www.arlingtonma.gov/town-governance/boards-and-committees/select-board

Town Meeting Members:  http://www.arlingtonma.gov/town-governance/town-meeting

State House:

    • Senator Cindy Friedman—This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
    • Sean Garballey—This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
    • Dave Rogers—This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

Dec. 22, 2021: Neighbors file lawsuit against ZBA, Mugar developer


This article by YourArlington freelancer Susan Gilbert was published Sunday, Aug 27, 2023.