Milton’s Town Farm Faces Development Pressures

American chestnut sprout clusters lost if 34-acre property is developed

By JOYCE ROWLEY/ecoRI News contributor

MILTON, Mass. — The town’s Conservation Commission will discuss a proposed wetlands delineation of the 34-acre Town Farm property at its June 10 meeting. Developer Pulte Homes of New England LLC has submitted an abbreviated natural resource area delineation (ANRAD) for the banks of an intermittent stream and bordering vegetated wetlands associated with two potential vernal pools.

The developer is under a $5 million purchase-and-sale agreement with the town that would allow 23 single-family homes to be built on 30 acres of what was formerly used as the town’s “Poor Farm.” No work in the wetlands is proposed at this time.

However, the Conservation Commission has hired Ivas Environmental to review potential impacts to wetlands and wildlife habitat from soil borings Pulte Homes will perform as part of its investigation of the property. The soil borings are proposed along the centerline of a 2,000-foot-long road entering the southern end of the property, from Unquity Road.

Ivas also was tasked with reviewing a natural habitat assessment prepared by the developer’s consultant, New England Environmental Inc., and conducting a natural habitat inventory of all 34 acres. The report includes recommendations on protection of wetland habitat and species before and during construction.

‘Island in suburbia’

What might be most exceptional thing about the property is that it’s the last of its kind in the area, according to local resident Tom Palmer, a naturalist who visits the site regularly. Informal trails loop down to Unquity Road and to Pine Tree Brook, the largest tributary to the Neponset River. Palmer had hoped that the Copeland Family Foundation, a local nonprofit, would buy the property so public access to the pools and woods would be protected.

“The history of Milton is of large estates being broken up for residential use,” Palmer said. “This is one more episode of that. I become a whole lot less interested in the town of Milton as it becomes another residential suburb of Boston.”

The Ivas Environmental report refers to Town Farm as “an island in suburbia.” It is fairly unlikely that wildlife is using the property as a migratory connection since most of the adjacent property has already been converted to residential uses and golf courses, Palmer said.

A major concern is keeping a pathway open between the two vernal pools, since the proposed roadway runs between them. Ivas has suggested that a tunnel and guide fence be placed under the proposed road to prevent loss of wood frogs, spotted salamanders and other amphibians indigenous to the site.

The vernal pools and adjacent wetlands may also serve as an important nesting area for migrating songbirds that breed in New England but winter in South America, according to Ivas Environmental — particularly since so much of the former habitat has become suburbanized.

One interesting find by both companies was that there were larger-than-normal American chestnut trees on the property. Ivas found one with a 7-inch diameter at base height (dbh) American chestnut “sprout” in the proposed roadbed. New England Environmental found several stands of sprouts.

Amercian chestnut trees were wiped out in the early part of the 20th century by an invasive bark fungus. The devastating loss to eastern forests was costly and what few seedlings came up didn’t survive long. But those that do survive may be resistant to the fungus. The Ivas report noted that the property’s sprout clusters would be lost if the site is developed.

The report also found a black oak nearly 4 feet in diameter at base height (dbh) in the roadbed toward the end of the proposed road.

“It’s a beautiful area,” said Judith Darrell-Kemp, acting co-chair of the Conservation Commission. “This area is in a much more preserved state.”

As the members review the environmental reports, the commission will have a better idea of what to avoid. The Massachusetts Historical Commission has also shown an interest in the property, according to Darrell-Kemp.

Storied history

A 40-acre “woodlot” was bequeathed to the town in 1701 by Lt. Gov. William Stoughton, the Massachusetts Bay Colony magistrate known for presiding over the Salem witch trials. Stoughton’s will donated this land for the benefit of the poor. The town’s selectmen were appointed as trustees, and for more than 300 years they have administered the property.

But the land didn’t lend itself to cultivation. Steep slopes, wetlands and boulder fields take up much of the property. By the mid-19th century, the site held three buildings for the poor: a men’s almhouse, a stable and the “pest house.” Small fields were cleared for sustenance farming. Later, 6 acres were sold to the state when the Blue Hills Reservation was created.

More recently, the Board of Selectmen used revenue from nonprofit tenant rentals to fund fuel assistance and housing costs for the poor through the Milton Residents Fund. After evaluating its options, the board decided to sell the property and put the proceeds into an endowment fund for Milton’s poor. In January, the purchase-and-sale agreement with Pulte Homes was finalized.

Three months later, Town Meeting approved revisions to cluster development regulations in Milton’s zoning ordinance, making them more flexible. Clustering reduces the amount of land needed for marginally developable land.

Town planner William Clark said Pulte Homes would likely take advantage of the flexibility in parking and other site features, although the ordinance allows Pulte to opt out. If the homes are clustered under the new regulations, 10 percent of the 23 units would have to be made affordable.

But even with clustering, it may be hard to fit 23 homes on the property, Palmer said.

“A traditional subdivision will let owners decide how much lawns would be built and woods removed rather than clustering houses to protect common areas,” Palmer said.  “What we’re looking at is marginal improvements to mitigate the impacts. Will the pools be able to function when the surrounding woods are cleared?”

He also wonders what they’ll do with the boulders, some of which are 15 feet tall. “How many are they going to have to blast away to build houses?” Palmer asked.

The Conservation Commission has reschedule a field walk originally scheduled for June 7.