Conservationists seek changes in Tasty Top plans to protect wildlife, environment


Staff Writer

Published: 03-12-2023 7:20 PM

EASTHAMPTON — While much of the discussion on the proposed Sierra Vista Commons has been centered around affordable housing and traffic, volunteers from Pascommuck Conservation Trust worry about the environmental impact of the massive development on the 30-plus acre property.

Though the mission of the nonprofit is to protect, preserve and conserve significant natural resources in Easthampton, members of the city nonprofit are not opposed to development in the city. They are, however, opposed to the project’s proposed footprint and how it’s laid out.

“We just think there’s a better way, one that respects the land and indeed the entire community,” said Marty Klein, a longtime member of the trust’s board.

In response, the trust has proposed an alternative plan, highlighting some of their environmental concerns and laying out possible solutions, such as reducing the plan’s footprint and consolidating the proposed 10 apartment buildings into taller buildings at the front of the property.

The trust proposes that thet back acreage, which it deems prime farmland and important habitat, be put into an agricultural restriction program or have a conservation restriction placed on it, said Klein.

“We think the current plans could be smarter,” he said.

The proposed $26 million to $30 million residential and commercial center is one of the largest developments ever proposed in Easthampton. Plans for the 33-acre site on Northampton Street include an approximately 9,000-square-foot Roots Learning Center, a 7,000-square-foot Roots Gymnastic Center, 10 three-story apartment buildings with 180 units, two sit-down restaurants, three mixed-use retail/office buildings with apartments above, and two 13,600-square-foot mixed-use warehouse buildings.

The portion of the property closest to Northampton Street previously included Easthampton Golf driving range, a two-story barn, a one-story garage, a two-story residential structure with a stone foundation, an enclosed gazebo and the former Tasty Top ice cream stand.

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However, the back of the property has remained undisturbed by development and includes farmland, wetlands and forest, down to the critical habitat of the Manhan River, which has been a focus of the trust’s work for decades, said Klein.

“We wish that before these plans saw the light of day — when there were conversations with the housing people primarily in the city and the developer — that the conservation community had asked to join into those conversations,” he said. “That would have at least given us an opportunity to talk about alternatives that were more protective of the environment.”

High-quality habitat

The Gazette recently joined Klein and Gerrit Stover, volunteer conservation adviser to the trust, on a recent tour of the Edward J. Dwyer Conservation Area. At 35 acres, the property is the largest of Pascommuck’s 17 protected properties, which total around 200 acres.

One proposed building in the development is about 400 feet from the main trail through the conservation area, directly across the river and in sight and hearing of visitors, said Stover.

The property, he said, includes a section of the Manhan River corridor, which is recognized by the state as having “high-quality” terrestrial and aquatic habitats for state-listed species.

“Although only a portion overlaps land regulated as ‘priority habitat’ for state-listed species, all of the property except the Northampton Street frontage serves as a refuge and critical route for other wildlife traveling through the city from the Connecticut River and Oxbow to undeveloped areas to the northwest, including protected land on Park Hill and beyond,” Stover said.

The city does have a zoning ordinance pertaining to the protection of the Manhan River, according to City Planner Jeff Bagg. The Manhan District applies to any projects within 100 feet of the top of the bank and applies to the entire length of the river throughout Easthampton, he added.

“The project conforms to this section since the project is outside of this area,” said Bagg.

The Conservation Commission is also reviewing the project’s compliance with the city’s stormwater ordinance. To be granted a permit, the developer needs to meet a series of detailed requirements that protect groundwater and the Manhan River.

Stover said area residents have observed deer, bobcats, bears, coyotes, and beavers on the property. He noted that the developer’s application does not include a wildlife or plant census of the property, a survey for state-listed species, or analysis of the potential impacts of severing the wildlife corridor.

With the addition of so many impervious surfaces, Stover also noted that litter, silt and toxic runoff into the Manhan, as well as increased penetration into natural areas of invasive plants, were also of concern.

In addition to impacts to the Manhan, Stover and Klein also spoke of depleting what they considered “vital” farmland. The property outside of the floodplain and stream corridor consists of 21 acres of “prime” farmland, as designatedby the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has what’s considered the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for producing high yields of food, feed, forage, fiber, and oil seed crops. It also contains 4.9 acres of state-designated “farmland of statewide importance” for the production of food, feed, forage, fiber, and oil seed crops.

“This is an area that has not had a lot of visitors,” said Klein. “To suddenly have probably hundreds of visitors a year, once people are living there, is just going to degrade that habitat.”

Bagg did confirm that the property does contain farmland soils, but noted that the city does not have any ordinance that protects farmland.

Of its 8,704 total acres, Easthampton contains 3,433 acres designated as “prime farmland soils” and 1,677 acres designated as “state and locally important farmland soils,” according to the 2021 Open Space Plan.

Change of plans?

In addition to the environmental concerns, the trust questions whether the plans are the best use of the property’s zoning.

The proposal falls within two zoning districts: residential-suburban and the Smart Growth Overlay District, which by state law encourages the creation of dense residential or mixed-use zoning and the development of and access to deed-restricted affordable housing.

Klein and Stover contend that all of the housing and commercial development could be shifted into the Smart Growth district, while still maintaining at least 46 affordable housing units and a total of 197 housing units.

“At the very least, the project could be kept well away from the river and most of the farmland and the real core of that wildlife corridor untouched,” said Stover. “The current plans cover the entire parcel, except for areas not buildable because of physical or regulatory constraints.”

In doing so, they also feel there’s an opportunity to create a public rooftop viewpoint of Mount Tom.

Stover and Klein acknowledge they are not experts on development or infrastructure projects. However, Klein says he has 22 years with the trust and worked on the original master plan committee for Easthampton and the city’s open space and recreation plan, and Stover has been active in the land conservation community for three decades and holds a master’s degree in land resources.

“We’ve always stressed the importance of protecting important natural resources here and we feel this project poses a real danger to some of the most sensitive habitats that we have in the city,” said Klein.

The project’s applicant, Frank A. DeMarinis, owner of the property, which is registered to Tasty Top Development LLC, did not respond to requests for comment by presstime.

The development appears to meet the core Smart Growth provisions, which are flexible, with the aim of allowing mixed-use and affordable housing, said Bagg.

“There are some design elements that still need to be addressed but the proposal in that section of the project appears to meet the base standards. A final line by line review of the project compared to the standards is not yet complete,” he said.

In May 2022, the City Council approved a zoning amendment changing the permit requirement from special permit to plan approval for projects that include 15% affordable housing.

Bagg said that this was a recommendation in the 2021 Housing Production Plan to aid in the accepted goal of reducing barriers to constructing more housing units. That plan also studied the property since it was actively being marketed for sale and identified the property as suitable for housing or mixed-use development given its size and proximity to goods and services and public transportation.

The core requirement in the city’s ordinance is the number of units allowed, which requires 5,000 square feet per lot.

“Based on that calculation, the maximum number allowed is 158 units, which is what is proposed in that area,” said Bagg. “The other main requirement is that no building contain more than 18 units or is taller than three stories, which the proposal complies with.”

As a comparison, for projects that do not include affordable housing, a lot area of 15,000 square feet per unit is required which reduces the maximum number allowed to 52 units, he said.

“Therefore, the proposal including the affordable units is actually more dense than would be allowed otherwise and is in line with the goals of the housing production plan and the general principle of building housing close to goods and services,” he said. “Both the permit requirement and the additional units are incentives to build affordable housing because, generally speaking, more units are required to offset the costs of the units with rent below market rate.”

Another factor related to the city determining the plan’s compliance is the fact that the project is proposed to be completed in phases over at least five to eight years, which means the Planning Board and Conservation Commission are evaluating the project even though it will be developed over time, said Bagg.

In the meantime, the traffic issue and mitigation of impacts of the development remain under discussion. The Planning Board voted to obtain an independent peer review of the traffic study that was submitted to the city by the developer, which will be paid for by the applicant.

The board selected Northampton engineering consultant Stantec to review the study. Bagg says the consultants will appear at the next public hearing, Tuesday, March 21 at 6 p.m. to discuss their preliminary review.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at]]>