A legal battle that has raged for more than a decade will continue when attorneys for conservationists and the city of Medford appear in Middlesex Superior Court on Wednesday to try to temporarily halt a $2.5 million road construction project on a parkway in Stoneham that slices through the Middlesex Fells Reservation.
Since 2009, the Friends of the Middlesex Fells Reservation and the city have called on the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to assemble an environmental impact report on a proposed housing and office development on property owned by Gutierrez Co. of Burlington and Simpson Housing of Boston. The road project is an outgrowth of the proposed development.
The property is on Woodland Road, the main artery that runs through the fells, a 2,575-acre mecca for hikers, nature lovers, dirt bikers, and dog lovers that includes portions of Malden, Medford, Melrose, Stoneham, and Winchester.
After the lawsuit was filed in 2009, it was dismissed by Middlesex Superior Court Judge Bruce Henry. But in 2011, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a part of the lawsuit should be reinstated, and sent the case back to Superior Court.
Medford’s mayor, Michael McGlynn, said the proposed roadwork would not improve traffic flow and would create logjams in Medford residential neighborhoods that border Woodland Road and lead to Interstate 93.
“This will destroy the aesthetic character and value of that road, and the traffic will jeopardize public safety. This will back up more traffic into Medford,” said McGlynn. “We want a full environmental review. We want to know what the impact will be on [Spot Pond], the trees, the wildlife, and the quality of life.”
The 33-acre site scheduled for redevelopment is one of the few private properties surrounded by the state reservation, which is managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation. Opponents say the proposed changes to the four-lane Woodland Road would choke the area with additional traffic, and change the character of the reservation and road’s setting near Spot Pond.
Proposed road changes include installing a traffic signal at the bottom of the planned development, and another on the opposite side of the road next to the pond; reducing the southbound road to one lane in front of the development; adding a roundabout at Ravine Road; and creating a lane for pedestrian and bicyclists heading north on Woodland Road.
Since Gutierrez bought the land in 2000 for $17 million, the company has submitted several redevelopment proposals and scaled back from its original plan to build a 1 million-square-foot office complex on the site, where a hospital, last known as Boston Regional Medical Center, stood for decades until closing in 1999.
In 2009, the state and Gutierrez signed a memorandum of understanding that called for the developer to pay the state $1.8 million for road improvements that the Department of Conservation and Recreation deemed necessary. At the time, state officials said they could not legally require the developer to complete a full environmental review because Gutierrez reduced the size of the project so the roads did not have to be reconstructed.
S.J. Port, a spokeswoman for the state agency, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Bill Caulder, managing director of Gutierrez, said the project would not add to the congestion on Woodland Road. He said the development would include 261 apartments and 49 town houses. In addition, the former hospital would be razed and a 225,000-square-foot office building would be built on the site.
Caulder said traffic studies prepared by Gutierrez show that Woodland Road could handle as many as 35,000 cars daily. Currently, about 17,000 cars travel along the road each day, Caulder said, with 4,700 road trips a day generated by the existing medical building on the Gutierrez property. He said the new development would add another 4,500 cars trips a day.
“With the improvements DCR is contemplating, the road can easily handle those trips with the improvements in place,” said Caulder.
Mike Ryan, executive director of the Friends of the Middlesex Fells Reservation, thinks any changes in and around Woodland Road should be subject to the same scrutiny as are required for protected lands. “The historic parkways are part of the environment,” said Ryan, who is worried that Woodland Road will eventually be widened to accommodate commercial growth.
He also said that the planned development would forever change the area.
“This is not going to be an area that will be amenable to the peaceful experiencing of nature, because it’s going to be filled with noise and congestion from the traffic,'' he said. “It will become a commercial center rather than parkland and a historic parkway.”