By Nancy Arsenault
In a unanimous decision Tuesday night, the Board of Selectmen denied Bob Collings’ request for an earth removal permit to reduce the size of a hill situated at the end of his grass runway, located on his property along Barton Road. Collings had stated that removal of most of this hill would improve the safety of planes taking off and landing from his private airstrip.
As Selectmen closed this final night of a multi-week public hearing, attended by a full house of residents each session, Selectman Chair Charlie Kern urged the Board to begin deliberations immediately and come to a decision. Within 30 minutes, the Board delivered their response, following the public reading of a statement submitted by Town Counsel Jon Witten. Witten’s interpretation of the applicable bylaw and the earth removal permit application process concluded with a recommendation to deny the request.
Witten reminded Selectmen that if an earth removal permit is to be considered specifically under the landscaping exemption, as requested by Collings, certain criteria must be met. Witten stated that the criteria to be met include: earth removal must qualify as landscaping for an existing use, cannot be part of a commercial operation and the applicant must demonstrate that the earth to be removed cannot be utilized in other places on the property. The Selectmen are required to satisfy two findings within the landscaping exemption, in order to consider such a permit. Selectmen also stated to the crowd that the Board “may” issue a permit if criteria is met, but no one has a right to the permit, or the requested exemptions, even if all criteria are met by the applicant, in accordance with the wording of the bylaw.
It was noted that the application made to the Town on March 20 did not originally address the need for a landscaping exemption, and was later amended to apply for the permit through this exemption, explained Selectman Kern.
It was the definition of landscaping that most riled the townspeople and abutters in the audience, and also was something that made the Selectmen uncomfortable. “I don’t consider this a landscaping project,” said Selectman Tom Ryan. Selectman Brian Burke commented, ”The applicant has not demonstrated beyond the burden of proof that this is a landscaping project.” Selectman Don Hawkes added, “It is very far-fetched for this to be considered landscaping.” Selectman Jim Salvie questioned if an application to cut down Wachusett Mountain could be construed in such a way as to be considered landscaping, if this hill removal could be considered the same.
The testimony of neighbors, who attended multiple weeks of this public forum, was also strongly considered by the Board. “We had the obligation to listen and gather information,” said Don Hawkes. “ I considered what is in the best interest of the town and what is the nuisance factor of this project. I disapprove due to the massive disruption to people’s lives.”
That disruption factor was addressed by Collings at the start of last night’s hearing when he proposed reducing the scope of the project. Where he had earlier planned to truck out 150,000 cubic yards, he now would only remove 70,000 cubic yards from the site. Another 30,000 cubic yards would still be removed from the hill, but would be kept on the property in other locations. He also reduced the time frame of the removal from a maximum three years to one year. That one year would be achieved by a 6-day work week, increasing truck trips to 10 per day from an earlier 6-8 per day for the longer time frame, according to his estimates. He would be reducing the excavated area from 240,000 sq. ft. to 180,000 sq. ft. He estimated that this constituted a little more than 2.6% of the mass of his property, making the comparison that it was like taking up a 2.5 sq. ft. area from a typically-sized house lot. He also proposed building a berm and temporary brush screen to shield the abutters to the truck haul road from noise during the removal period. “I would be doing the minimum landscaping to achieve the runway safety zone,” he explained.
Despite this reduction in the project size, Selectmen were not convinced that was enough to satisfy the surrounding neighborhood. “Yes, it would be concentrated into one year, weather and conditions permitting,” said Jim Salvie, “ but for the neighborhood, that would be quite a year. And how effective is a large berm? I know what the visual effect would be.”
Selectmen had asked Collings after the last hearing to address placing the earth entirely on his property, addressing an existing consideration of the application. Collings illustrated an area that he could place the earth, but it would require “removing nearly every tree on the property,” he said, building up mounds at least 20-22ft. high. This area was on the newly acquired 22-acre parcel to the south of his existing property. When asked by Selectmen why he could not spread the earth throughout his 92-acre property, Coillings replied that the other acreage has existing uses that could not accept such storage.
While the Board denied the permit, the project does not die for Collings. Selectman Tom Ryan remarked that Collings does have the right to cut away the hill and move the earth anywhere on his property, without intervention or conditions being set by the Town, aside from regulations that may be enforced by the Conservation Commission. “We have no jurisdiction over what he wants to do on his own property,” he stated.
Collings had said that to contain the project on the property would keep all of the truck traffic within the local bounds, increase the screening operations on site and actually increase the noise as trucks would not only be loading at the site but also moving and dumping it on the property, all within the Lake Boon neighborhood. Logging noise and traffic created to clear sites to store the earth would be additional.
After the decision, Collings did not have a public response as to what his future plans will be. Town Administrator Bill Wrigley said, “I would like to commend the Board for their thoughtfulness, thoroughness and fairness in conducting this hearing. In my 22 years here, I have not seen a hearing held by the Board of Selectmen that carried the weight of this public hearing.”
On Wednesday, July 9, the Planning Board opens its public hearing session to address the construction of a new museum building at the Collings Foundation.