Debris litters the area in September 2023A portion of Mugar wetlands in mid-September 2023 as viewed by this article's author and this website's editor. / Susan Gilbert photo

Arlington’s Conservation Commission unanimously voted to seek a peer review particularly addressing hydrology and to later conduct a site visit of the Mugar wetlands at its Sept. 21 public meeting.

This vote was in response to the Thorndike Place applicant's recent notice of intent under the Wetlands Protection Act. The applicant has been trying for eight years to build a complex in East Arlington near the boundary with Cambridge.A peer review is a process by which something proposed is evaluated by a group of experts in the appropriate field. A notice of intent is an application a developer files outlining the proposed work including methods to protect any wetlands.The Conservation Commission's mission is to protect and manage Arlington’s wetlands and conservation lands.

Thorndike Place is a residential complex initially proposed in much larger form in 2015 on the Mugar wetlands, a forested, 17-acre habitat to birds and other animals adjacent to Dorothy Road. No structures are on the private property, and no one officially lives there, though homeless people are known to gather there and, as can be seen from the accompanying photograph taken last month, leave numerous items behind.

The Select Board has long opposed this development due to the already flood-prone existing adjacent neighborhood.  Even more vehement has been the grassroots group Coalition to Save the Mugar Wetlands, which had a Town Day booth last month and has a Facebook page, a GoFundMe campaign, an online petition drive and, at least until a year ago, an alliance with the Arlington Land Trust -- but which had no obvious organized presence at the Sept. 21 commission meeting,  For some history about the controversial Thorndike Place, click here>>

Chair describes history, permit conditionsMugar Wetlands in 2012 as pictured on the website of the Coalition to Save the Mugar Wetlands.

The commission's chair, Susan Chapnick, said that it has already worked with the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) and a peer consultant to make recommendations to protect the town’s wetland resources, implementing Arlington’s stringent local conditions.

“We wrote eight letters to the ZBA over the past several years. It’s been an extensive process and ended with a comprehensive permit issued in 2021. [A comprehensive permit is issued to a developer who proposes to build housing in which at least 25 percent of the units are affordable to low-income residents.] Since then, we’ve been in and out of litigation, and the comprehensive permit stands. The applicant is now coming to the Conservation Commission with a Notice of Intent under the Wetlands Protection Act.”

Chapnick continued, “A comprehensive permit has specific conditions, and our implementing regulations are stricter in many areas than the state regulations. State regulations require a 1:1 flood compensatory replacement in a flood plain; Arlington requires a 2:1 replacement, which has been met. So far, there are no waivers, and the bylaw or its implementing permits for the wetlands have been approved.

“These conditions comport with the local regulations. The plan has three requirements: detailed landscape plans, plantings in jurisdictional areas and an invasive [plant] management plan. These were not fleshed out during the [prior] process but are included in the Notice of Intent that the applicant provided for this hearing.

“The comprehensive permit requires tests to evaluate the groundwater elevation, which the applicant did in May 2023. The town hired a peer reviewer, Whitestone Associates, Inc., who also did testing. The resource areas under the state’s Wetlands Protection Act are regulatory floodplain and bordering lands subject to flooding, as well as a 100-foot buffer zone to the wetlands,” said Chapnick.

Developers defend recent work

Developers and their advocates say that the proposed project actually protects and improves wetlands. Stephanie Kiefer, lawyer for Arlington Land Realty, LLC, the corporation managing the proposed Thorndike Place, said the ZBA’s permit approved six duplex-style townhouses and a 124-unit apartment building, which includes parking and landscaping.

“The development site comprises approximately five of the 17 acres, leaving 12 acres for conservation, and the proposed work is limited to the vegetative wetlands,” Kiefer said. “We’re providing two times what’s required under state law.”

Scott Oran, managing partner and founder of Dinosaur Capital Partners, Newton, which advises real estate clients, said, “Thorndike Place is responsibly balancing the regional need for housing and open space. Oaktree Development, LLC, Thorndike Place developers, are extraordinary developers in building housing, with 35 years’ experience in and around Cambridge. They are innovators in modular housing, care for the environment and are eager to work collaboratively to create something here.”

Improvements, compliance described

Oran continued, “Numerous changes have been made since the project was first proposed, and the current project received unanimous approval by the ZBA in 2021. Between 2016 and 2021, significant changes were made: a 40 percent decrease in rental units, a two-thirds reduction in parking -- and 12 acres are now permanently protected,” said Oran.

He said the development as now proposed also includes mixed-income rental homes for active seniors aged 62 and older and will be built on just 11 percent of the wetlands, enhancing future conservation. The parcels will be 12 acres, twice the size of the adjacent Thorndike Field.

“The Minuteman Bikeway creates a safe and direct way for commuters to access the Alewife [Red Line] train station. Arlington desperately needs more housing, and these units are designed with state-of-the-art materials and protect open space and natural resources. We have the ZBA’s approval, and there’ll be no construction in any vegetative wetlands area or development within 25 feet of the wetlands.” 

Engineer talks flooding mitigation measures

Civil engineer Dominic Rinaldi said the project’s extent or grading has not changed. “We’ve made changes only in landscaping, the woodland areas and stormwater management, and now provide compensatory storage areas. We’re complying with what Arlington requires: two of them, each two cubic feet.

“We’re also increasing this territory’s total flood storage volume. Instead of using state landfall water data, we’re using higher rainfall amounts than what the state requires. Small infiltration systems are being added under the townhomes, each sized to fully contain 100-year storm drainage. On the rest of the site – such as parkways and driveways – catch basins and storm drains will catch any runoff,” added Rinaldi.

Rinaldi said that a peer review from Whitestone Associates of the infiltration systems shows that they exceed all state-required stormwater standards. This project will also provide woodland restoration.

“It’s currently overgrown, with not-so-great trees. We’ll work with the town to take out the bad trees and invasive species and plant appropriate trees and shrubs. This will create a potential wildlife habitat and make it a healthier and more sustainable woodland and conservation area,” said Rinaldi.

Commission members, town officials ask questions

Commission member Mike Gildesgame inquired whether the trench drain going into garages is sufficient to prevent flooding. Rinaldi answered, “The trench drain to pick up stormwater runoff is outside of the floodplain, and floods are not expected to go up there. It’s not a particularly large area that it’s protecting, and discharges straight into a water-quality unit.”

David Morgan, the town of Arlington’s environmental planner/conservation agent, asked whether stormwater drainage would last the duration of the buildings. “It needs to be maintained into the future. Otherwise, we potentially may have no stormwater protection system, and more storm events would raise the groundwater level. I’d like to see, even though we can’t have it, groundwater monitoring based on increased precipitation and sea-level rise.”

Rinaldi replied, “We followed the Stormwater Protections Act and provide at least two feet of elevation. It doesn’t take into account any future changes to the ground. As part of the process, we need to do stormwater groundwater monitoring analysis.”

Chair seeks, gets vote

Chapnick said this might be an issue to deal with in the future and asked about the tree replacement plan. “This application is under the 2018 regulations, which had different replacement requirements.”

Kiefer responded, “The comprehensive permit was submitted in 2016, so we’re subject to those regulations.”

Rinaldi said, “We’re trying to create a healthier, more sustainable forest edge in the restoration area.”

Chapnick requested a peer review to help with this part of the project. “It’s pivotal to the Conservation Commission that the habitat be improved in this area.”

The Conservation Commission unanimously voted for to request a peer review of the forest restoration.

Residents voice concerns about planned tree replacement

Jennifer Griffith: “Groundwater is a real problem in east Arlington, and has already happened. People on Dorothy Road had basement flooding in recent weeks. Unfortunately, it looks like this project will go through because it’s based on inaccurate groundwater levels, and this area has significant wildlife, including coyotes and deer. What will keep the stormwater management system working in the future, not just when it’s built?”

Elaine Lyte: “Storm drains are inadequate during heavy rainfalls.”

Jeff Lindholm: “Is there a follow-up to this project? If, after the project is finished, there’s an impact to our property, what happens then? Does the town do something, and does the project have any contingencies? It’s hard to get basement insurance, and the street has flooded twice in the past nine years.”

Kiefer responded: “The project design includes stormwater management that conforms to state requirements, which is a step up for this neighborhood that currently has no stormwater management. There has to be faith in the process that regulations have been promulgated. We’ve met Arlington’s requirements and are doubling that.”

Lindholm: “If you’re that confident in your design, I’m behind it.”

Sarah Augood: “Flooding has been a huge issue in this neighborhood. I appreciate the diligent work that the applicant has done in surveying the area, but what happens when the land is cleared, and there are no trees or compensatory water? Has the number of trees to be removed been determined? Some trees are enormous, 40 to 50 inches in diameter, and drink a lot of water. When removing them, and before saplings are planted, what will happen to all that water? Are any water mitigation policies in place until the new trees are planted?”

Rinaldi responded: “The number of trees to be removed is in the Notice of Intent. The replacement number is 400. Although not factored into the stormwater management, more trees will be planted because the replacement trees are smaller.”

Oran said that trees are being cut down on only a small part of the entire site.

Chapnick summed up the meeting by saying, “I’ll ask the applicant to provide standards to identify the wetlands. We’re looking for observations of the wetlands’ hydrology. We’ve requested the wetland delineation information, wildlife habitat report, number of trees proposed to be replaced, and also the construction phasing, including any compensatory flooding. We’ll have the town engineer review this project; the Conservation Commission will write an email clarifying justifying the peer review, and schedule a site visit.”

 Sept 13, 2023: Mugar Wetlands issue being considered by town Conservation Commission  

This account by YourArlington freelance writer Susan Gilbert, who also took the lead photograph, was published Oct. 2, 2023.