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Judge clears way for Middlesex Fells development

Posted by Alix Roy  April 6, 2010 10:04 AM

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woodland.jpg

The project site off Woodland Road in the Fells.

A Middlesex Superior Court judge delivered a ruling on Friday that will allow a proposed mixed-use development in Stoneham known as Langwood Commons to move forward without undergoing environmental review.

The judge invoked a long-standing supreme judicial court decision that the court did not have the right to second-guess an administrative decision that was reasonably made. As a result, the court let stand the decision of state Environmental Secretary Ian Bowles not to require the developer to seek state permits in the development of the project, which is surrounded by a state park.

Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the Friends of the Fells, said on Tuesday that his group would appeal the court's decision.

"Naturally we're disappointed," he said. "We had hoped for a different result but this is a complicated area of the law."
 
The Gutierrez Company, which is seeking to build the mixed-use development on a former hospital site in Stoneham at the center of the Middlesex Fells Reservation, has been embroiled in legal battles with the state and various environmental groups for a decade. The mayors of Melrose and Medford, joined by Friends of the Fells, sued state environmental officials last June for failing to use their authority to require the developer to apply for state permits to perform roadwork necessitated by the project. Such a process would have triggered an environmental review, the lawsuit stated.

Instead, state officials reached a deal with the developer to pay the state $1.8 million for two rotaries and other traffic changes needed. At the time, they said the state did not have authority to require an environmental review since the developer had agreed to cover the cost of all improvements.

“Although MEPA is an important tool for review of environmental impacts caused by private projects proposed in the Commonwealth, I have no legal authority to compel MEPA review of such projects unless they require a Permit, and Land Transfer or Financial Assistance, regardless of the magnitude of their potential impacts,” Bowles wrote in his decision. 
 
Greg Peterson, an attorney for the developers, praised the judge's decision on Friday not to “second guess” Bowles' decision.
 
"It's wonderful news,” he said. “After 10 years of process and litigation around this project in terms of state environmental impact review and state historical review, it's nice to have clearance blessing a pretty tough decision by the secretary of environmental affairs.”

The proposed development initially included 405 housing units and 225,000 square feet of office space at the former hospital site on Woodland Road in Stoneham, overlooking Spot Pond. According to a website devoted to the project, the buildings will be designed according to LEED standards and Smart Growth principals, which will “mitigate any impacts the development may have on its surroundings and the community.”

Last June, the developer sold off six acres of the site to the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority for construction of a covered water storage tank. As a result, 95 units were eliminated from the plans, resulting in a new total of 310, which Bowles said would "significantly reduce traffic volumes and other environmental impacts" at the site.

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