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Chelmsford Planning Board Meeting, Feb 22, 2023: Full of FIREWORKS

Well, if you missed this week’s Planning Board meeting, you missed one for the record books. It was an emotional roller coaster ride, with unexpected bumps, turns, and loops. But, we may be one step closer to a resolution.

Secret Meetings?

Just before Robert Buckley representing The Davis Companies was about to begin his presentation, Board Member Annita Tanini raised concerns about two meetings that Davis Companies had initiated with Planning Board members on Wednesday, February 15, 2023 and Tuesday, February 21, 2023. Tanini stated, “The meetings are not uncommon…However, there was a request for the four remaining Planning Board members to come in on Tuesday to have a discission. I believe that is considered serial meetings on the same topic.” She then deferred to Town Attorney Paul Haverty. Board Member Tanini also stated she reported the incident to the Attorney General’s office for Open Meeting violations.

Mr. Haverty stated the potential violations were brought to his attention just prior to the meeting tonight, and that he believed what transpired violated the “spirit” of the open meeting law. Mr. Haverty stated the board members should self-report the violation to the Attorney General’s office.

When board member Tim Shanahan asked how the Board ended up in this situation, Community Development Director Evan Belansky stated, “At the end of the day, this lies with me. I apologize. I was not aware of that interpretation of the law. I don’t have exposure to that extent of the law.” He even further stated that no members of the board were to blame. In total, three members were present at the first meeting, and two members and an alternate were present at the second meeting. Planning Board Members Annita Tanini and Michael Walsh did not participate in either of the meetings.

WOW. I didn’t get the invite either, guys – what’s up? You got my email address, right?

A New Truck Access Path

Another shocker: Jonathan Davis, CEO of The Davis Companies, made his first appearance. I would assume he felt his presence was necessary. When Davis finally started their presentation, the proposed changes were even more drastic than before. Mr. Buckley presented an alternative plan for the contentious truck access road. Beginning at Apollo Drive, it would abut the backyards of a few houses on Monmouth before turning sharply to the right halfway through the parking lot and continue towards Riverneck Road. This was done to create a distance from the houses, when in reality it only saved 1 house along Monmouth St from a truck road in their backyard. Additionally, the new design created a large island of land whose fate was not discussed.

Oh, and they further restricted the hours of operations from 5am to midnight, down to 5am to 11pm. Wow, thanks, guys. How generous!

Truck Confusion

To make the situation even more chaotic, Davis proposed all deliveries were to use Apollo Drive – not just the Class 8 tractor trailers as outlined in all their documents thus far. When board member Deirdre Connolly asked Davis for an estimated number of trucks per day, Davis could not provide a consistent, clear answer. Davis thought it would be 150 trucks compared to 400 truck round trips stated in their traffic study. Additionally, Connolly had concerns about trucks leaving the facility. She wanted to know what guarantee was in place that trucks would leave the facility via the access road instead of turning onto Riverneck Road. A Davis representative stated, “They will be required to leave that way” and further explained signage, curb cuts, and video monitoring would restrict trucks from turning out of the property.

Davis did admit that the total vehicle count to use the fire lane would be greater than 80. He appeared to indicate 800 but suggested that number included all vehicles, not just class 8 tractor-trailers. Your guess is as good as mine as to how many of those 800 would be non-class-8 trucks. He did, however, confirm that only 15 employees would work at this 250,000 square-foot facility.

Let me get this straight 40 class 8 tractor-trailer truck round trips, 15 employees, but a total of 800 vehicles? I’m not a mathematician, but something doesn’t seem to add up.

A Straw Poll

Then, the meeting got even more intense. Planning board chair Mike Raisbeck initiated a straw poll to get a sense of where the planning board stood on this project after a year and half.

The room was silent.

Mr. Raisbeck stated that usually the Chair votes last, but that in this case he would go first. He had a quite detailed prepared speech and followed up with a YES vote.

He said he expects some (presumably angry) emails about his vote. With his board seat up for grabs in just over a month, a loud YES vote here was a bold move.

Mike Walsh offered to go next and quickly fired, “I’m a no for this project.” The room reeled with joy, as many applauded. Walsh offered many reasons why his was a NO, including building size, location, traffic, social and economic impacts on the neighborhoods, etc.

Paul McDougall was up next and agreed with Walsh, adding a second NO to the poll. He reiterated problems with building size, hours of operation, and overall disruption to the neighborhood.

Tim Shanahan went next with a YES. For some reason the room was UN-surprised. He made a comment to the effect of “It’s not perfect, but I think it can be fine-tuned.” Sure, Tim. Maybe we can call you later for that tuning.

Next, Deirdre Connolly fired a NO vote. She listed a boatload of reasons why, including broken promises to neighbors from prior Planning Boards.

Nancy Araway prefaced her vote with an emotional, detailed speech as the community held their breath. She finished with a NO vote, followed by gasps from the audience. She defended her opposition simply by stating that the residents don’t want it near their properties.

Erica Clifford, via Zoom, claimed she was on the fence, and ultimately abstained from voting.

Planning Board Members Walsh, McDougall, Connolly, and Araway certainly earned the community’s respect for their courageous NO votes, showing true support for the community and dedication to preserving the integrity and character of our town.

That’s right, the straw poll results are in –  Davis received (2) YESES, (4) NOS, and (1) ABSTENTION. If this had been a real vote, the project would have failed. For this to pass, a super majority of 5 yeses would be needed.

Please, Just One More Chance!

At this point, Chairman Raisbeck called for a 5-min break. Once the meeting resumed, Mr Cantalupa from Davis said that they found themselves in a “fairly difficult situation” with “a lot to digest.” He said that if they made some of the changes being suggested – building size, use, hours of operation – then there would be a “significant financial impact to us.” He requested the Planning Board to continue to the next meeting so that they could come back with a different plan.

Then things got a little heated. Walsh suggested shutting the whole thing down by taking an official vote here and now, claiming that Davis wouldn’t be able to change much in only 2 weeks that would get them to 5 favorable votes. Shanahan strongly disagreed, and the Board Members argued against and over each other for a minute. Finally, it was decided to give Davis another two weeks for the official vote. But Walsh warned, “At the end of the next meeting, if nothing’s changed, we’re making a decision.”

Shanahan suggested we owe it to Davis. Really? Do we really owe it to Davis? What about the community? I guess forget about us, forget about the people that have been dealing with this night and day, the fear of their homes and backyards being overrun by tractor-trailers in a warehouse for the last nearly one and a half years.

A Message From the Residents (or 20)

At this time, the meeting was opened to the public. It was like the fire was started, and that room was hot! Many respected community members spoke and offered extremely valuable input probably too much to process. One major highlight was a scaled model of the development brought in by 2 residents, along with scaled houses, people, and an 18-wheeler. It had a big effect being able to see just how gigantic this project is, and just how close it would be to residents’ homes.

Many other residents spoke up about inconsistencies in the Davis Companies plans, issues with jake brakes, exhaust, wetlands, water mains, removing trees on sandy soil that might cause homes at the top of the hill to become unstable, and much more.

Although the project hearing was continued until March 8, 2023, the community felt that their voices were heard and that hope is coming.

The full meeting can be watched here.