ConCom Leery of Motive for Restoration Alternative

            Some Rochester Conservation Commission members think Jose Arujo is just trying to save money, while another commented that Arujo’s plan to make good for illegally clearing trees at the old Boy Scout camp is disingenuous. Still, if you set aside the initial aversion to Arujo’s proposal to put 5.3 acres under a conservation easement in lieu of cramming hundreds of trees in the restoration plan, the commission has an opportunity to preserve some environmentally-sensitive land, advised Conservation Agent Laurell Farinon.

            After identifying yet another 60 trees that Arujo cleared in and around the wetlands without a permit, engineer Rick Charon determined there was no more room for more trees, given that Arujo’s restoration plan already includes 150 trees and 200 shrubs with its mitigation ratio of 4:1. Furthermore, Charon said, “It’ll be very difficult to execute. It’s very difficult to water these things.”

            On March 19, he introduced a last-minute alternative that includes a conservation easement that Charon says will restrict future encroachment of the shoreline of Leonard’s Pond, in exchange for fewer tree plantings.

            On the 24 acres of land at 15 Elizabeth Drive, half of the 40,000 square feet where the trees were cut are in the wetlands buffer zone, and 5,000 of those square feet are within the 25-foot no-disturb zone. Charon said Arujo will replant the trees and shrubs from the original plan and also extend the wetlands buffer zone out farther to include two isolated bodies of water identified as possible vernal pools, preserving a total of 5.3 acres in perpetuity. One acre that was cleared would be loamed and seeded – clover, most likely, Charon said.

            “[This is] a three-part proposal,” said Charon. “Rather than planting hundreds of trees … it does something that’s probably a lot better – it preserves this area … of shoreline along Leonard’s Pond … and prevent any future development. We think, long-term, it’s a better solution.”

            Charon continued, “At this point here, we’re trying to see if we should continue on this planting plan, which is beginning to look more and more unachievable and impossible to execute properly, and [replace it with] something that takes and preserves what really is the natural part of this lot.”

            On the 5.3 acres, Arujo would allow walking trails for future owners of the property to use, but the easement would not allow for public use; rather, the easement would be attached to the property deed and remain under the ownership of the individual.

            “I think it’s something which, if the commission had money to buy this property several years ago, [you] probably would’ve been happy to do something with the whole area, perhaps,” Charon said. “But you have the opportunity to grab half of this and put some control over it and block something away for the town for the future.”

            The easement would preserve the shoreline Charon said would otherwise be “nibbled away” over the years by development.

            Commission member Daniel Gagne wasn’t impressed.

            “That’s not very valuable land to be doing that in anyways (sic),” said Gagne. “I mean, putting a conservation restriction on something that really couldn’t be used for building much is not too much of our concern. It’s in the buffer zone,” Gagne said. “It would be very difficult to get anything built in there anyways (sic).”

            But, according to Charon, Arujo could indeed develop parts of said area and create access to the pond front.

            “To me, it’s a nice opportunity to [establish] pristine land control,” said Charon.

            “I don’t know if that’s pristine in the area where he (Arujo) drove through and was knocking down trees left and right,” Gagne countered as Chairman Michael Conway next to him smiled, amused.

            And as for “protecting” the pristine land, commission member Chris Gerrior pointed out, “There was protection. The whole reason why you’re here is there was protection on it, so saying that this is gonna give it protection?” Gerrior continued, “You keep on saying that it’s not physically possible to put trees,” but Arujo is proposing a house inside where he cleared, he said. “It’s disingenuous to say that there is no room when there is room.”

            “Do you want retribution, or do you want to put something in protected status?” asked Charon.

            “If you’re gonna present something to the board and you’re gonna say you don’t physically have the room to put stuff, then you should physically not have room to put stuff, not have the room to put stuff,” said Gerrior.

            Charon suggested, had Gerrior sat in on a meeting when this was discussed, he would better understand the situation. But Charon conceded that Arujo could add an additional 25 trees, if needed.

            “So there is some room to put trees,” said Gerrior unrelenting.

            Yes, Charon agreed, but why would the commission want Arujo to plant trees in an area where he will later propose removing to develop the land?

            Farinon asked the commission to pause, as perhaps the commission wasn’t seeing the proverbial forest for the trees.

            Conservation easements such as this might not be as common as other easements, she explained, but the ConCom can stipulate what can and cannot occur on the 5.3 acres if it adopts the idea.

            “This [easement] is in perpetuity, so it’s going to outlive all of us, which is kind of an interesting proposal,” said Farinon. “This is something that’ll be attached to the deed.”

            She continued, “It really is a unique area, as far as having this area of bordering vegetative wetlands adjacent to the pond.

            Farinon suspects that those two small isolated pools are likely certifiable vernal pools, she said, but being outside the 100-foot buffer zone and smaller than 5,000 square feet, they aren’t fully protected.

            “My ears perked up because of the opportunity to protect a nice area … along the pond, wildlife habitat, and a couple of areas that are beyond this commission’s jurisdiction,” Farinon said. “This is truly something that he’s giving up,” since Arujo could indeed add more houses there.

            “We have to think beyond the present owner to future owners,” said Farinon. “People are gonna want to get to that area; they are within their rights to apply to do something within 25 feet, so there is a good amount of potential useable area within this … area, including the potential to protect two probable vernal pools that would fall outside the loophole of our jurisdiction.”

            Conway said he wouldn’t approve a restoration plan in principle without a formal proposal, and Gagne joined him in steadfast resistance.

            “This [easement] is not something that a town can ask an applicant to do,” said Charon. “I know it got under your skin that he cut those trees – nobody likes to see that, but I think you have to move beyond that if you can.”

            Commission member Maggie Payne said she could support a plan like this, but Charon was reluctant to submit a finished plan and waste any time preparing one if the commission refused to consider it.

            “Mr. Arujo wants to redeem himself,” said Charon. “He’s made … an offer that is a worthy offer.”

            “And he’s gonna leave himself a nice wide open yard area that he’s already cleared without our permission,” Gagne interjected, “and he’s concerned that planting all these trees is going to be extremely costly and loam and seed is going to be considerably less expensive, and abandoning this piece of property to be no longer used … but is not that much usable land, is gonna save him a bunch of money on trees.”

            “You get to a certain point where people … begin to think of other remedies,” explained Charon, adding that if it went to court, the judge might ask why the ConCom refused the deal.

            “How can you defend turning that down to plant trees in an area that can be cut by a future owner?” Charon said. “How do you defend that? To me, that’s indefensible and I don’t think it’s in the interest of the town. I’m a town resident,” he said, “So I’ll say that if I was from Mattapoisett, I would shut my mouth on that issue, but I’m a Rochester guy.”

            Cutting off Charon, Conway said, “By the time it gets through Superior Court, we’ll be old and gray.”

            “He (Arujo) won’t spend any money on this though,” said Charon calmly, “he’ll spend it on the attorneys – you won’t have your trees. That’s how these things get ugly.

            “He’s trying to make a good faith concession,” Charon stated.

            Conway proposed a motion that, “in principle,” the commission would entertain the proposal only when there is a “full-blown” restoration plan – “But that doesn’t guarantee that the commission will vote for the restoration plan.”

            “That’s fine,” said Charon, “we want to pursue that.”

            “He can then present it to us to see whether or not we like it,” said Conway.

            After Charon left, Farinon said she would investigate the two pools, but, again, cautioned the commission.

            “It’s important to note that it won’t be certified if it’s not within a jurisdictional area,” she said. “That’s why you need to understand this proposal. It’s outside of a buffer zone area, they’re not 5,000 square feet in size – they’re not protectable as they are right now.”

            Still balking, Gagne said the commission should stop considering last-minute additions and changes to plans that aren’t submitted by the 4:00 pm deadline the Wednesday prior to the meeting.

            Conway agreed, adding that the ConCom also reserves the right to deny a request for a continuance.

            “If the paperwork is not there to review in advance, it won’t be discussed,” said Conway.

            Also during the meeting, the commission issued a Negative Determination for Matthew Demanche’s after-the-fact Request for Determination of Applicability for a 900 square-foot paved basketball court that was constructed three years prior at 4 Sparrow Lane.

            The basketball court was built within the 100-foot buffer zone, according to the 1999 wetlands delineation. Demanche, however, said when the basketball court was built, there were no wetlands to be seen.

            “The wetlands … [appear] to be very outdated and, to be quite frank, I’d like to understand a little bit about that and how often conservation goes out to the properties, surveys it, [and] readjusts different things,” said Demanche. “There is no wetland back there. I understand it’s classified as that – I apologize that the basketball court went in. I’m looking at, obviously, just closing it out because the structure is there.”

            Farinon replied, “I would agree with the assessment that the wetland looks like it’s changed over time.”

            Demanche’s request for a certificate of compliance will be addressed at the April 2 meeting.

            The Certificate of Compliance request for Decas Real Estate Trust, 15 Cranberry Highway, was continued until May 21 at the request of the applicant to allow for the construction of drainage improvements.

            The Notice of Intent hearing for Sofia Darras, 565 Rounseville Road, to install a new drainage system to comply with stormwater standards was continued until April 2 at the request of the applicant.

            The Notice of Intent hearing for REpurpose Properties for a 22-duplex age-restricted residential development on Rounseville Road was continued until April 16, as the revised site plans had not yet been submitted.

            The next meeting of the Rochester Conservation Commission is scheduled for April 2 at 7:00 pm at the Rochester Town Hall.

Rochester Conservation Commission

By Jean Perry

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