Neighbors Continue to Voice Concern over Needham Children’s Center Project

November 27, 2023
• Brought in front of the Zoning Board and Board of Health, neighbors expressed fears of site contamination, traffic and perceived zoning violations.

As work on the site begins, neighbors are still seeking to limit the scope of the project, seeking to reverse the Needham building inspector’s issuance of a building permit through the Zoning Board of Appeals. The construction of a new daycare would accommodate about 115 children, but some residents say the project could also hurt other Needhamites in the process.

Direct abutter Nicole Heideman wonders how her young children, who get picked up for school at their house, will fare with the expected influx of vehicles. She moved to Needham and invested in her home, only to now fear that her view of the sky and trees will now be blocked by a commercial building.

If the project moves forward, without certain safeguards and regulations, Heideman said safety will be an issue.

“I’m honestly scared to death,” she said at the ZBA meeting Nov. 16. “I wonder, do I have to move now? I’m really worried.”

Seven families have taken action to object to the project, and their attorney Dylan Sanders outlined their myriad of grievances to the board.

The daycare facility looks to move from its current location at the First Baptist Church into a to-be-constructed 10,000-square-foot building at 1688 Highland Ave. The developer, Needham Enterprises LLC, maintains the plans are protected under the Dover Amendment, which exempts certain types of uses — including childcare facilities — from some zoning restrictions. After the Massachusetts Land Court determined the Needham Planning Board overstepped its authority in its site plan review, Needham Enterprises LLC was allowed to apply for a building permit, which it received in September.

The neighbors challenged the issuance of the permit by the Building Inspector, claiming that the plans on file don’t comply with the Zoning Bylaws, but the project’s placement on the property, expected traffic and possible environmental hazards dominated the meeting. With the significant showing at the Zoning Board meeting, the appellants were intent on not going unheard.

ZBA Vice Chair Howard Goldman said the board received at least 16 written comments, many having to do with the traffic and hazardous materials that may be on site.

One major point of contention is the history of the site, which appellants feel could result in the release of harmful contaminants as the developer breaks ground.

“The site’s been used as an excavation company, as a refuse yard, as a site for building race cars and repairing race cars. It’s been used by a (landscaper),” Sanders said. “The proposed use is a daycare center.”

Kristy Thompson, a nearby resident and environmental researcher, said the impact of certain toxins — including how they may affect genetics and lineage — is still unknown.

“If we don’t look for it, we don’t see it, then it’s not there,” she said.

Building Commissioner Joe Prondak said he believes the town’s Health Department reviewed the neighbor’s reports of possible contamination during the Planning Board’s original site plan review, but provided no further comment on the application for the building permit.

Attorney Evans Huber, representing Needham Enterprises, said any alleged contamination would be a matter for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Impervious surfaces, such as a parking lot, and adding adequate clean fill to non-impervious surfaces, like a grass area, would be the resulting remediation tactics, he added.

Huber said Needham Enterprises consulted with a licensed site professional, who said “there’s no visible evidence of hazardous materials on site.” When asked how that could be determined without a more invasive test, Huber said he was told the materials would be detectable by smell. It would be oil at the site from the race cars, he said, not a hazard like asbestos.

“This insinuation that my client is some sort of heartless person who doesn’t care about the health of children is just, it’s offensive,” Huber said.

Neighbors also brought their concerns on contamination to the Board of Health meeting the following morning, when the board considered — and subsequently issued — a permit for a septic system connected with the project. During that meeting, they confirmed that any order for testing the soil could only be issued through the MassDEP.

On traffic, Goldman questioned the impact the center may have on commuters in the morning. Drop-off will run between 7:30 to 9:15 a.m., Prondak said, and a traffic study found the center would bring 10-15 cars per hour. A driveway and queuing lane, which would hold about 10-12 cars, might ease anticipated congestion, he added.

The proposed building’s 64-foot proximity to the street was also a concern for Town Meeting member Joe Abruzese.

“The setback on these homes averages 105 feet,” Abruzese said. “I know that’s longer than what the zoning requires, but the neighborhood characteristic is to have these homes set back.”

The developer and abutters are also at odds when it comes to the 4,800-square-foot barn residing on the property. Sanders argued two non-residential buildings on the same lot violate zoning bylaws and the developer should thereby remove it. While the applicant believes such a structure is precluded by the Dover Amendment, Sanders said “it’s a regulation on building footprint, on the bulk of a project.”

Prondak said the barn is an accessory structure where the center could store maintenance equipment. Huber said that maintaining the barn does not violate the Dover Amendment or precedent set on other properties.

In response to the alleged zoning violations, Huber said some matters, like traffic and the presence of possible contamination, are addressed in the site plan review process and not within the ZBA’s authority. The board cannot simply revoke the building permit for those reasons, he said. Because the land court found the Planning Board’s site review was not appropriate, Huber said the appellants’ “only avenue” would be going back to land court. That land court decision is now under judicial appeal.

The Zoning Board continued their hearing to its next meeting on Dec. 14.

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