Northampton Redoubt: Doug Kohl reduces “footprint” of subdivision proposal due to the discovery of vernal pools in the North Street area wetlands

Daryl LaFleur has just published an article on Northampton Redoubt reporting that Kohl Construction has adjusted its proposal for condos off North Street. Daryl has kindly allowed us to reproduce his article in its entirety:

Doug Kohl reduces “footprint” of subdivision proposal due to the discovery of vernal pools in the North Street area wetlands

Concerned about public perception of his subdivision proposal thus far, real estate developer Douglas Kohl invited me to take a tour of his North Street area property in order to clarify his point of view. For about three hours on September 6 we traipsed around his forested uplands and wetlands and though he and I disagree on what constitutes “good infill,” he articulately conveyed to me his thoughts on the proposed development and what he is trying to accomplish. Below I attempt to relay his point of view.

above flora that would remain undisturbed

About a week prior to our site visit we spoke on the phone for about an hour. One thing Doug wanted to make clear, he is not building ON wetlands but rather NEAR them. He felt that this is an important distinction to make and that this has been an unfortunate misconception. He also asserted that Molly Hale, an environmentalist whose services he secured, found evidence of vernal pools on the site and that this was reported to Northampton’s conservation commission during their August 23 meeting. This was the same meeting the North Street Neighborhood Association (NSNA) reported the findings of Alec MacLeod, the scientist who delineated the wetlands boundary on the site at their behest. MacLeod’s report suggested independently that there may be evidence of vernal pools in the vicinity. Doug agreed that the wetlands boundary was adjusted slightly as a result of MacLeod’s visit. Doug further acknowledged that he did not look for vernal pools in the wetlands area initially, that his focus was on seeking the presence of vernal pools in the uplands areas only, because wetlands and uplands are categorized differently. Determining whether land is classified as wetlands or uplands is based on the types of soil and foliage contained therein and not necessarily on the presence of water that is visible to the naked eye.

Doug concedes that there are likely at least two previously unmarked vernal pools on the site that are located in the wetlands area as pictured far below. As a consequence of this discovery he suggested that the total number of units proposed would be reduced from 31 to 27. Another housing unit has been deleted on Northern Avenue as a proposed triplex will become a duplex reducing further the total number of units to 26. This would lessen the amount of impervious surface area required and he added that there would likely be fewer than five detention ponds established as well. If additional vernal pools are discovered in the spring the proposal could change further. As well if there are drought-like conditions in the winter and spring that could mean a longer delay. Doug indicated during our visit that it can take up to five years to properly delineate vernal pools.

everywhere a sign

As I drove to the west end of Northern Avenue to meet with Doug I noticed a significant number of North Street Neighborhood Association signs throughout the area declaring a “Keep it green” motto. The signs express a general resistance to the proposed development from some members of the neighborhood and appear to be catching on. I’ve noticed that they are appearing in other neighborhoods around town as are the RESIST signs that originated in the Florence section of the city recently. Doug acknowledged that the neighbors have some legitimate concerns like increased traffic, street conditions and the potential of his proposal to alter the character of the neighborhood. He said that he would have to provide the city a traffic study and that the planning board might require him to mitigate the increased traffic resulting from his development. Doug maintained that city zoning does not allow him to build single family homes in this type of subdivision and that he must use the townhouse model in order to move forward under the current site and roadway circumstances.

As we began the tour the first thing Doug drew my attention to was the fill that can be found in certain sections of the site in question. Evidently in the late 1970s bricks, mortar, concrete and chunks of asphalt among other things were deposited by way of what is known informally as the paper road. Details on this were sketchy, but apparently the city or someone contracted by the city received permission from a previous owner to deposit the construction type of debris there. Doug indicated that he could not remove this debris without permission of the conservation commission. The debris has mostly been covered over with foliage through the years and Doug is not certain exactly how much is located beneath the surface. With regards to its remediation he promises to follow all of the regulations and laws wherever that process may lead.

above cinder blocks, below bricks and other debris

below large concrete slabs, possibly discarded roadside curbing

Doug pointed out that several areas slated for housing units lack mature trees and are now covered in vines or other types of invasive undergrowth. Responding to my query Doug indicated that for years many of the abutting neighbors have been dumping their yard waste beyond their property lines onto what is now Kohl property. He was not upset by this nor could he indicate whether fertilizers or pesticides were contained in this waste, but there it was. He mentioned that many of the existing property owners maintain fairly large lawns behind their homes, lawns that could be re-forested to some degree in order to buffer their homes from his proposed townhouses. This supposedly would reverse some of the negative impacts on the footprint of the forest.

When I asked about the possibility of basements flooding in the future due to their proximity to the wetlands he indicated that some of the units would have basements provided they can be “drained to daylight.” Others would be constructed on concrete slabs. He also noted that most of the units would have one garage bay located within the perimeter of the buildings on the first floor, reducing the need for surface parking by one space for each of these units. It remains unclear to me how large construction equipment can operate very close to wetlands without harming them. It appears some of the units would be located within twenty feet of the wetlands.

As we navigated the forest Doug drew my attention to the lack of human disturbance throughout the site with the exception of a couple of informal foot paths. He noted that Millyard Brook, a stream located there, is classified as intermittent which means that it does not run year round. It was dry when we observed it. He said he plans to develop about half of the 5.5 acre site leaving the other half untouched. He was flexible about the future of the undisturbed portion should he receive approval from the city for the project. It could remain on the tax rolls and privately held by the proposed condominium association with provisions for public access or it could be deeded to the city’s conservation commission for stewardship. The latest addition to Northampton’s bicycle trail network originating at Damon Road runs adjacent to his property’s border.

In Doug’s view neighborhood resistance to these types of proposals results in communities becoming “sprawled out.” He feels this is a “really good project” and he would like an open and face-to-face discourse with neighboring stakeholders. He would rather not negotiate by way of the internet is how he put it.

In general Doug would like to see more flexibility in housing types allowed by the city through its zoning regulations. Limitations could be based on square footage as opposed to the number of units proposed. He would also appreciate more flexibility when it comes to buffer zones. For example instead of a 200 foot buffer zone applied uniformly around the perimeter of a vernal pool or wetland he would like to see an adjustable zone so that he could potentially develop within 100 feet on one side of a pool leaving 400 on the other.

A successful business person, Doug Kohl operates Kohl Construction based in Hadley and has completed two co-housing developments as well as The Oaks subdivision in the Florence area of the city. He also owns and manages Thornes Marketplace on Main Street.

home to be demolished at the end of View Avenue, a private way

vernal pool #1

vernal pool #2

While we are pleased that Mr. Kohl is giving more space to the probable vernal pools, serious issues remain, including:

An area in the more elevated portion of Kohl’s property suffered flood damage from Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999. It seems plausible that many of Kohl’s units would be at equal or greater risk during similar rainstorms in the future. In general, Northampton’s Flood Mitigation Plan of 2004 asserts that leaving a 100-foot buffer zone around wetlands is a good way to mitigate flooding. A large portion of Kohl’s proposed development would encroach closer than this.

In the map below, the red flag behind View Avenue (the topmost flag) indicates a flood damage report from Floyd.

As LaFleur’s article notes, there is a good deal of fill on Kohl’s site. Some of this area may previously have been part of the wetland. The Flood Mitigation Plan discourages building on filled wetlands, saying:

Many areas of the City were developed before the passage of the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act of 1972. Historically filled wetlands are commonly related to problems with wet basements, flooding, shifting foundations and failed septic systems. Development in historically filled wetlands should be discouraged through zoning in order to protect health and safety. (p.24)
The scientific literature indicates that detention pools frequently fail. They may become silted up, polluted, algae-choked, and mosquito-filled. Northampton High School and Carlon Drive have good examples of pools that are not performing as hoped. These pools can also present a drowning hazard for children. In short, the neighbors of this project are concerned about any plan that calls for detention pools. More traditional development patterns for our neighborhood, such as detached one- and two-family homes surrounded by yards, generally don’t require such aggressive and chancy stormwater mitigation schemes.

We don’t claim and have never claimed that Kohl intends to locate a structure in the wetland itself. However, the boundaries of wetlands are often diffuse, and the boundary of this wetland is exceptionally diffuse. 50- and 100-foot buffer zones provide an appropriate margin of safety. 10- and 35-foot buffers do not.

Sustainable development is laudable, but it shouldn’t mean packing more people into the already built-up areas of Northampton than the environment can absorb.