Sustainable Northampton: An Open Letter to the Cecil Group

Northampton’s Planning Board will hold a two-hour workshop to review the Sustainability Plan (PDF) on August 9 and possibly again later in the month. While public comments will not be taken at these workshops, the public is encouraged to email comments to Here is an expanded version of comments we recently sent to Cecil Group, the consulting group working on the plan.

Dear Cecil Group:

Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the Sustainable Northampton plan. As you may be aware, the North Street Neighborhood Association has formed to protect the quality of life in the North Street area of Northampton. At present, our major concern is that developers are being encouraged to pave over much of downtown’s remaining green space under the banner of “infill”. Besides aesthetic concerns, such development is likely to impact the temperature, air quality and flood risk in our downtown neighborhoods. This is in addition to concern for the plants and animals in these urban forests and wetlands.

On August 2 we issued a press release regarding our petition to save “significant trees” and preserve a 100-foot buffer zone around wetlands in Northampton. We would also like to call your special attention to the following articles on

The Sustainability Plan: Infill, Forests, Wetlands and Whom to Email
Page 16: Potential Conflicts…The need for infill and greater density of downtown development, including reuse of existing structures, lies in contrast to the desire of many people to live in single family homes with yards and nearby green space and to not have more development in their neighborhood…

7. Consistently apply the criteria for preservation of the environment and resources across all neighborhoods and areas…

Costs to plant saplings, $5 per tree; and for larger trees, $250 per tree. About 2.5 acres (one hectare) of forest can absorb the equivalent emissions of 100 passenger cars, and 2.67 trees absorb 1 ton of carbon dioxide.

Benefits of Urban Wetlands and Their Buffer Areas
More pictures from [the forest off North Street] show its substantial natural beauty and mature trees–this is no urban brownfield. It includes numerous edge zones between wetland, forest and meadow. These edge zones, key areas of biodiversity, are threatened by Kohl’s 31-unit condo proposal, its attendant roads and parking spaces, and more generally by a proposed ordinance to reduce the buffer area around many of Northampton’s wetlands from 100 feet to as little as 10 feet…

Buffers may provide a transition between wetlands and terrestrial upland sites. These edge environments often have a high species diversity. The quality, size and connectedness of upland habitats are important as water sources and watershed diversity. Playing fields, pathways, hydro and rail corridors are routed through buffer areas, or inadvertently serve as buffers. In many urban areas river valleys, hydro and rail lines are the most undisturbed habitats available and wild life seek refuge in these areas. Buffers should not be fixed with some predetermined size but relate to the sensitivity and function of the adjacent land scape. Buffers, often designated at 30 metres, should conform to the local landscape and its use by wild life for seasonal aspects of their life history. For example, wet seepage areas, small inflow streams, field or meadow catchment areas, or woodlots should be included as an integral component of the wetland, and the buffer in this landscape design might extend several hundred metres…

Ephemeral ponds are rarely mapped or protected and may contain a significant amount of water in the watershed. The abundance of ephemeral ponds in headwater areas buffer downstream peaks in water flow and ensure a steady supply of water long after rain falls. The loss of the water retention function of ephemeral ponds high in the watershed often necessitates downstream storm water control measures. It is much more effective to retain this upstream function than to try to restore wetland functions in downstream areas due to limited space and water volumes.

Alewife Study Group: Impact of Development on Wetlands and Flooding
…As a direct result of development on the Alewife flood plain and its low elevation, there is periodic and significant flood damage in the surrounding communities. A 1981 study by the MDC found property damage in the Alewife area to be the highest of any portion of the Mystic River watershed of which it is a part.

During flood events at Alewife, the Mystic River backs up into the Alewife Brook and Little River areas. Flood waters from Belmont also empty into this area during storm events. During the flood of October, 1996, the Alewife Brook flooded over the Alewife Brook Parkway and into North Cambridge neighborhoods. East Arlington neighborhoods adjacent to Alewife were also inundated with flood water. The Arthur D. Little parking lot was covered by several feet of flood water.

The flood event of 1996 was estimated to be a ’30-40 year’ event by the national weather service. The ‘100-year’ event would be significantly worse and could even pose a threat to the city drinking supply at fresh pond.

Development pressures will continue to pose an immediate threat to Cambridge’s remaining wetland and flood plain areas. For all of these reasons Cambridge is in desperate need of conservation bylaws….

…Even with the best of compensatory storage schemes it is clear that flooding continues to increase where construction occurs. Therefore, it is the recommendation of FEMA that no construction occur in the 100-year flood plain and this is also the policy of the Cambridge emergency response plan. The state Zoning Act (G.L. Ch. 40A) also encourages municipalities to prohibit or regulate development on flood plains…

The weight of built structures has a significant effect on flood capacity and ought to be a factor in calculating compensatory storage. The weight of a building will compress soil so that it can no longer hold as much water…

And, finally, there has been no consideration given to area-wide flooding conditions. Until now a developer has been allowed to focus exclusively on their own contribution to flooding without an analysis of the general conditions in their area. The Danvers conservation bylaw has corrected this oversight by requiring that “hydrologic analysis shall be based on a reasonable estimate of developed conditions within the entire watershed”.

As Hurricane Threat Builds, Has Complacency Set In about Flooding?
“The Northeast is staring down the barrel of a gun,” said Joe Bastardi, Chief Forecaster of the Hurricane Center. “The Northeast coast is long overdue for a powerful hurricane, and with the weather patterns and hydrology we’re seeing in the oceans, the likelihood of a major hurricane making landfall in the Northeast is not a question of if but when…”

One lesson from [Hurricane Diane in 1955] is that bodies of water, even innocuous-looking little streams, should be accorded respect and given their space. This includes Millyard Brook, which runs close to Kohl Construction’s proposed condo de
. When left alone, wetlands mitigate flooding by absorbing floodwaters and slowing them down.

Infill sounds great on paper, but when it means paving over green space in downtown Northampton, it runs contrary to sound flood mitigation practice. The reality is that much of the remaining green space in downtown is in low-lying areas that are most susceptible to flooding. It makes sense to go along with the collective wisdom of the past 350 years and leave them undeveloped.

More Reasons Why Smart People Don’t Build Near Wetlands: Mosquitoes and Disease
Anyone who has walked around the wetlands between North Street and the bike trail can attest to its large numbers of mosquitoes in the warmer months. Kohl Construction proposes to locate 31 condo units bordering these wetlands. The American Mosquito Control Association notes the dangers of bringing people and animals into close contact with large numbers of mosquitoes…

Aedes vexans [emphasis added]
Aedes vexans can be found in many different habitats. Among these are: open rain pools, tire ruts, stormwater management facilities (this includes detention, retention and infiltration basins), dredge spoil sites, salt marsh impoundments, ditches, areas in which streams or creeks have flooded over their banks, flooded woodlands, around the edges of semi-permanent swamps and bogs that are subject to some drying down, and woodland pools or any type of temporary rain pool. Larvae do not seem to exhibit a marked preference for either sunlight or shade within these habitats. Ae. vexans is a serious nuisance pest. Females will feed in shady places during the day; however, they are very active [at] dusk and vigorously seek blood meals at this time…

EPA: Do Stormwater Retention Ponds Contribute to Mosquito Problems? [emphasis added]
Mosquito proliferation in stormwater ponds is a concern, especially when so many wet and dry ponds are in place and continue to be installed across the country. Many ponds are not properly maintained, particularly in cases where they are installed in subdivisions and other developments where the entity responsible for long-term maintenance is not clearly defined once the construction is complete…

EPA: Urban Heat Islands
Graphic depicting a typical rise in temperature from rural areas to an urban center.The term “heat island” refers to urban air and surface temperatures that are higher than nearby rural areas. Many U.S. cities and suburbs have air temperatures up to 10°F (5.6°C) warmer than the surrounding natural land cover.

The heat island sketch pictured here shows a city’s heat island profile. It demonstrates how urban temperatures are typically lower at the urban-rural border than in dense downtown areas. The graphic also show how parks, open land, and bodies of water can create cooler areas…

Heat islands form as cities replace natural land cover with pavement, buildings, and other infrastructure. These changes contribute to higher urban temperatures in a number of ways:

  • Displacing trees and vegetation minimizes the natural cooling effects of shading and evaporation of water from soil and leaves (evapotranspiration).
  • Tall buildings and narrow streets can heat air trapped between them and reduce air flow.
  • Waste heat from vehicles, factories, and air conditioners may add warmth to their surroundings, further exacerbating the heat island effect.
Gazette: “Trees add to city’s appearance, well-being”
[The July 31] Gazette gives a welcome plug for shade trees in Northampton. We say, if it’s good to plant ’em, it’s even better not to take ’em down in the first place…

“Not only do trees offer shade, they also help refresh the air, mopping up at least a portion of the CO2 pollution human activity is putting into the atmosphere…” “Despite Tree City USA Honor Northampton Planting Lags”
Ed Shanahan: As a member of the Northampton Tree Committee, I, like other members of the committee, have been frustrated by our inability to advance the cause of shade trees in this community.

Each year, the city removes more dead or hazardous trees than it replaces, leaving a net decrease in the population of our mature shade trees…

…we have been working with the Planning Board and its staff to encourage better tree planting in new subdivisions with recommendations covering the protection of existing trees and rules and guidelines for replacement trees…

…developers, both residential and commercial, often regard landscaping and tree requirements as an unwarranted expense, not as a benefit to the quality of life to the city’s inhabitants…

Community Tree Ordinances and Bylaws for Massachusetts Communities
Northampton has been designated a Tree City USA, in “an awards program that provides public attention and national recognition for local commitment to community trees and forests.” However, a number of cities such as Springfield and Lexington have stronger protections for trees than we do.

Irony of Infill: You Have to Drive to Enjoy Nature
A key assumption built into infill is that walking access to amenities associated with civilization takes priority over walking access to nature. If developers are permitted to aggressively pave over green spaces downtown, more residents will be compelled to drive if they want to enjoy parks and woods. Most likely their overall time spent in ‘unbuilt’ environments will decrease.

Moreover, if downtown neighborhoods are hotter, uglier, more crowded and more polluted, this will discourage people from walking and biking through them as they do now. Contrast walking down King Street with walking down North Street.

Northampton Redoubt: “North Street area citizens join together”
Situated close to a wetland area, the project calls for the creation of five detention ponds to handle the storm water run-off that will be created by adding asphalt and buildings to an area where impervious surfaces do not currently exist. The project proposes to eliminate part of a forest that supports Northampton’s urban ecology. Comprised of three and four bedroom market rate units in the $300 thousand range, the development will add significant traffic to well traveled North Street, a narrow two lane road in poor condition lacking sidewalks along certain stretches and without any crosswalks or lane markings. According to the city’s website North Street carries from 5,000 to 10,000 vehicles daily. At eight vehicle trips estimated per vehicle, if the sprawling single use subdivision averages two vehicles per unit, about 500 new vehicles trips per day will be added to an already congested street. This doesn’t account for service vehicles and visitors…

There was much enthusiasm on display at the barbecue, tempered by concern for the future of the neighborhood. Some questions raised to ponder:

  • How much development is not over-burdensome for the existing neighborhood?…
  • Will the city hear concerns and agree with them?
  • Why does city leadership value open spaces in the outlying areas of the city more highly than open spaces near downtown that add to the quality of life of residents?…
Daryl LaFleur: North Street Area and Urban Ecology
Constructing homes in the downtown area near existing services, infrastructure and public transit makes sense. However, the Urban Land Institute’s report on Springfield [PDF] suggests removing decaying buildings and creating more green spaces in Springfield’s downtown area as a way to enhance that city’s quality of life and lure people back to downtown. Springfield would like to create, on a larger scale, what Northampton currently has and one need only walk around downtown Springfield and observe the lack of urban green patches to understand why. Similarly, despite all of its problems, the Big Dig in Boston aims to add parkland and green recreational areas in an urban environment for the same reason, to improve the quality of life for inhabitants and give business owners a reason to stay put.

The Nature of Northampton: Henry James and Tracy Kidder
Tracy Kidder: In fact, continuity is one of the things I like about New England. I grew up on Long Island in the 1950s, and the place where I was raised has essentially vanished. It was bulldozed. For me it’s reassuring that my “replacement” home has changed less. In fact, we know that over the last 150 years quite dramatic changes have occurred—almost every tree was cut at one time, for example—but the landscape has returned in many respects to the way it was in the early 19th century.

Infill is laudable when it reclaims already-paved surfaces, urban brownfields and dilapidated buildings. However, we are less enthusiastic when acres of downtown green space are on the line. We encourage you to give the ecological priorities of the Sustainability Plan more weight in those cases.