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Middleton gets state to back off plan to clear-cut trees

Dennis O’Brien and his wife, Cheryl Dyment, near trees that were to be cut.

Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe

Dennis O’Brien and his wife, Cheryl Dyment, near trees that were to be cut.

Artist Cheryl Dyment draws inspiration from the stately trees that surround her Gregory Street neighborhood in Middleton, trees that were slated to be cut down during a construction project on nearby state property.

“It’s a beautiful spot,” she said. “As a painter, I do lots of landscapes and find myself drawn to the disappearing landscape. If this isn’t that, I don’t know what is.”

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Dyment was one of about 40 people who braved a snowstorm and jammed the Board of Selectmen’s meeting room at Town Hall on Feb. 18, and their effort paid off: State officials agreed to change the building plans, saving 158 trees from clear-cutting.

Town officials and residents had raised concerns about the Department of Youth Services plan to replace one building with a new one on 17 acres at what is known as the Middleton Colony property, on high ground next to the site of the former Danvers state mental health facility. Their worries were not about the construction, but about its impact on trees that grace the property.

Town Administrator Ira Singer had voiced frustration with the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, which oversees state building projects, and said he had to call on the local legislative delegation to intervene. Twice in January, the project was stopped after a call from local legislators.

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While town and state officials had been in communication about the project for years, Singer said that in recent months it had become difficult to get responses from the state.

In a January e-mail to the division, Singer called the plan “horrendous” and added: “Middleton residents should not have to suffer the consequences of losing a 100-year-old tree buffer as a result of poor, hasty, and unilateral staging/storage decisions made by construction managers and design engineers.”

‘The efforts we made finally paid off to get them to pay attention to the significant loss of mature trees.’

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By law, the state does not need to seek local zoning board and conservation commission support when it builds, but state officials agreed to attend the meeting with Middleton selectmen about the trees. The gathering was a cooperative one, with division officials voicing general support for an alternative landscaping plan for tree removal presented by the town, and recommending formation of a task force including members of the Department of Youth Services, the capital asset management agency, town officials, and residents. That group will further develop a compromise landscape plan that will save some of the trees – many of which are fully mature, and 70 to 80 feet tall.

The town agreed that the division can move forward with construction inside the footprint of the building, and it was decided that the landscaping will wait until the work of the task force has been completed.

“Communication surrounding this project has extended across many months,” the division’s commissioner, Carole Cornelison, said via e-mail. “Tuesday’s meeting was a productive and open discussion about the plans for the Department of Youth Services Regional Office and Detention Facility in Middleton. The next steps will be to work collaboratively with the designated task force to discuss the landscaping on this property. [The division] is pleased to be moving forward with this project.”

“The efforts we made finally paid off to get them to pay attention to the significant loss of mature trees,” Singer said. “Initially they thought the replacement of these trees was sufficient to offset the loss. We adamantly said, ‘No. It’s not sufficient.’ ”

State Representative Theodore Speliotis, who along with Senator Bruce Tarr and Representative Brad Jones make up the legislative delegation for Middleton, called the task force “an important tool to use to restore trust with the town and residents and the neighborhood.

“Maybe the conversations they’ll have going forward should have taken place months ago,’’ said Speliotis, “but [the meeting] gave folks the opportunity to voice their concerns and get feedback from [the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance] and DYS, and got the discussion going. Clearly, a number of trees will be saved because of Ira and the neighbors raising the issue.”

“Kudos to everybody involved,” Dyment said. “We saw a huge sea change in attitude coming from [state officials.] Their attitude was very open, and willing to make changes. The bottom line: There’ll be no clear-cutting.”

David Rattigan may be reached at DRattigan.Globe@gmail.com
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