January 14 2020

Letter to the Editor: Burlington’s Most Controversial Issue of the 20th Century

By: Phil Gallagher

The following is a letter/editor from Phil Gallagher. Gallagher has been a volunteer in local access cable television for the past 38 years, 20 of those years serving as the BNEWS anchor. He submits the following editorial for your review:

The most controversial issue in Burlington in the 20th century?

That issue was the landlocked land.

Before I pontificate on this subject let me first establish my credentials as both an observer as well as an active participant. During this entire episode, I served as the town moderator from 1981 to 1983 and from 84 to 90 as a member of the board of selectman. In 1982 I began volunteering in local cable television hosting Issues in Burlington, Editor's Roundtable, Around Town and Topics. This gave me access to all the major players in the town government and the business community and the opportunity to “interrogate them” as events unfolded during this historic period.

It occurs to me to bring this piece to you because many of the significant players in this saga have passed on. Board of selectman members Jim Melchionna, Jack Leahy, Dick Wilde, Bob Roberto and Virginia Mooney, Planning board members Frank Baxter and Al Laing. And town meeting members Margaret Vaccaro, Harold Dulong and Loretta Canning have all left us.

It would be interesting to hear different perspectives or opinions from some of the remaining players who have intimate knowledge of this tumultuous period. Bob Mercier, Bob Hogan, Bob Buckley, Millie Nash, Pat Angelo, and Dr. Eddie Weiner are names that come to mind

It was tumultuous because the town was literally bursting at the seams. Up until the late '70s the town had been largely a manufacturing Center. Early companies were Spray engineering, RCA, Transonics, High Voltage, Tech Weld, Raytheon and many smaller manufacturing firms in Northwest Park. As we enter the 80's Burlington is rapidly redeveloping and now has the Lahey,Marriot, Burlington Woods,, American Landmarks. Vine Brook Plaza and others under construction.

Before we get into the heart of this issue it is important to first establish a baseline of the underlying mood of the community at this time. A large and growing number of voices were being raised regarding the speed of development and the significant impact it was having on water quality, sewer, traffic, and infrastructure. The boards were not listening.

A cadre of town meeting members led by Margaret Vacarro, Loretta Canning, Anne Rowe, Millie Nash, Pat Angelo, and others were constantly bringing up these issues at town meeting. Strangely enough what broke the damn of citizen resentment was a report on January 21, 1980 on water quality from the League of Women Voters. This came after two wells were shut because of naturally occurring iron and manganese and “other” contaminants..

By October of that year, Margaret Vaccaro had sprung into action and was proposing a $95 thousand dollar appropriation to trace the source of contamination in the well field. The Ways and Means Committee and the Board of Selectmen supported postponing this article indefinitely. Margaret was having none of that and convinced the town meeting to overturn management objections and the article was subsequently passed.

In management defense, I would mention that Proposition 2 ½ had been passed and management was dealing with significant budget impacts.

Metcalf and Eddy won the contract and what they found stunned the community at large. The source of contamination was found to be a major sewer main leaving Northwest park located roughly 100 yards from the well fields in the Great Meadow. Several manufacturing companies, primarily printed circuit board manufacturers were dumping (illegally) their effluent directly into the sanitary sewer system. This would have been a Boston Harbor problems except for one major item.

The chemical content had dissolved the cement asbestos-lined sewer pipes and the effluent was flowing over what was now bare earth before it entered the remaining pipe. This event knocked out 50% of the town's water production. If this wasn't bad enough two other events added to the misery.

Metcalf and Eddy by drilling hundreds of testing wells that not only was a contamination plume entering the fields from the West but also from the Southside. The primary source of this was discovered by accident.

Bruce Silverman had acquired High Voltage and had completed one building at the Van DeGraaf site and had now completed a negotiation to sell the main High Voltage building in what would have been the largest single transaction in Burlington's history. If you look at that building and its topography you can see that it is located at the crest of the hill on the Southside of 128. Water flows down the hill from that site along Wheeler road and collects in the wetlands in front of what is now the Hilton garden. It then follows a course under 128, the Mall and flows via Vine Brook into the well field at Great Meadow road.

In the course of doing due diligence before closing on the purchase, one Christmas eve the buyer decided to do one last test. That test was to drill a test well in the center of this giant building adjacent to a large degreasing pit. High Voltage machined large components for the electric industry and used a pit the size of a small swimming pool to remove machining oil from the piece.

They were required by law to reveal what they found and we could hardly believe it. The test well produced pure trichloroethylene, you guessed, a solvent used primarily in degreasing. But how on earth was it in this large a concentration?

Well, they had a drain in the bottom of the pit which illegally flowed directly into the sewer system. The problem was that frost heaves had separated the pipe from the drain and now the outflow went directly into the ground.

These two events resulted in a 7 year-long battle between the Town and DEQE as plaintiffs against a number of Potentially Responsible parties. (PRP's) in Northwest park and on the Southside

You know that old axiom that trouble happens in threes? Well about this time The town of Quincy filed a suit against the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, on December 17, 1982, on the grounds that the beaches and waters of Boston Harbor were polluted, by the illegal dumping of an estimated 3.5 billion gallons of pollutants in that year alone.

The basic problem was during peaking rainy and snowmelt periods, the sewer system was completely overwhelmed and the MDC simply opened the gates and let everything flow into Boston Harbor. Quincy took umbrage over the fact that all manner of material including sewerage and other toilet debris was collecting on their beaches.

This is significant because the courts now prevented this practice. So during these wet periods, the sewer line from Burlington down to Deer Island became pressurized and raw sewerage began flow into the streets downstream from us and ours as well. This was significant for Woburn because like us their original sewer trunk design passed right next to their water supply.

When this happened Woburn would call in a panic and Burlington relieved pressure in the line by using three huge pumps to relieve the pressure by dumping sewerage directly into the Vine Brook. A brook that empties into the Shawsheen upstream from the intake pipe we use to fill our reservoir!!!

Now that the mood has been set we can move onto my central assertion that the taking by eminent domain of the Landlocked Land was the issue of the 20th century.

In 1985 a new majority led the Board of Selectmen and those three selectmen had specific goals in mind, solving the water and sewer cases, initiating a building moratorium, protecting Mary Cummings Park and taking the Landlocked Land by eminent domain.

The basic strategy, which was devised to value the land, was based on history and the law, as we knew it at the time. Although it was a huge parcel and zoned commercial-industrial the town assessed and subsequently had always taxed the property at such a low value $810,000 because there was no access and it was broken into 35 separate pieces with ownership claimed by many different entities some of which are unknown to this day. On the East side the property was bordered by a limited access federal highway Rte. 3, on the South by 128, on the west by a conservation strip taken by Lexington and finally it was bordered by residentially zoned land in Bedford. The access was blocked from Bedford primarily by the difference in zoning. https://www.landlockedforest.com/history.shtml.Additionally, the property owners had been compensated in 1950 when Route 3 landlocked them.

In the middle of the taking process, I got a call from Brian Curtin, the Treasurer/Tax collector who informed me that a rather notorious land speculator was in his office trying to pay back taxes on a number of abandoned parcels. In Brian's eyes, this could mean only one thing, someone was putting together a development proposal.

Sure enough. In the midst of the eminent domain process came a development proposal of 2 million square feet from a Texas developer by the name of Cadillac Fairview. Had the proposal come before the eminent domain effort it may have had more impact in stopping the takings momentum. However, the developer's last-ditch effort at town meeting was to no avail by a 61 to 11 vote as was their effort to win a town-wide referendum. Once these two events occurred the developer was left with two options, to attempt to overturn the taking or dispute the value.

In a rather humorous aside, during the eminent domain debate, the frontman for Cadillac Fairview, Kerry Hunnewell, described the town as "xenophobic" apparently because they dare oppose his lofty plans. Well shortly thereafter, the company went bankrupt and most of their holdings were sold off to a company called Prentiss Properties. My definition of Xenophobia at the time was “fear of being poisoned by my faucet.”

Attempting to overturn the taking on its surface was pointless. The developer could already see by the result of the referendum that the voters would be hostile to any attempt to develop the property. This hostility was primarily driven by the number of growth-related problems the town was facing at the time. With only the value left as an option, the developers were faced with the challenge of convincing a jury what the highest and best use might be under the conditions that existed at the time the property was taken. This is where the story takes a bad turn because just as the case was being prepared for court, a little known state statute made itself known in the town of Burlington. It is commonly referred to as anti snob legislation and the comprehensive permit, its effect was to completely overturn local zoning and ram through extremely dense residential development with virtually no local control whatsoever. Part of the Dukakis for president legacy, this particular piece of social engineering turned out to be the sole reason why Cadillac Fairview won a significant judgment in court.

Sure enough, when it came time to argue the merits of the case, Cadillac presented to the jury a picture of a socially concerned developer who simply wanted to bring to Burlington a development which would meet the state requirement to provide affordable housing in Burlington and that snobby town had attempted to thwart their enlightened efforts by taking their land from them. Whatever defense the town put up relative to the history of the parcel or access to it was simply overcome by the developer's referring to the town's lack of affordable housing. This particular aspect of the landlocked land saga will go down in history as a great mockery. Legislation that was passed presumably to assist people in the area of affordable housing was ultimately used to fatten the wallets of land speculators.

It may be worthwhile to note that at the time the Cadillac Fairview proposal was made, the town was without fifty percent of its water production from the main well field because of chemical contamination, the sewer system was like a geyser, and the water distribution system pressure was barely enough to get a decent shower. This mattered not to the court as access had been established by buying a home on Reeves Road in Bedford and the 40B legislation allowed crossing residential land from one town into another.

The end result was a ten million dollar judgment negotiated down to 8.6 million. There was a silver lining however as we unified a 276-acre parcel of pristine forest land that was now ours and we settled one contamination case (which included some of the eminent domain case winners) for 10 million dollars which built the water treatment plant.




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