The proposal got planning committee approval Tuesday, but not before questions were raised about a missing woodlot and whether a farmer cut down the trees.
A proposal for a large residential development off Pinebush Road got planning committee approval Tuesday night, but not before a lot of questions were raised about a missing woodlot and whether a farmer cut down the trees.
Branthaven Homes said it leased 36 acres of land between Pinebush Road and Highway 401 to a farmer a few years back while waiting for Cambridge city council to pass judgment on what’s become a 475-unit residential development plan featuring mid-rise apartment buildings, townhouses, trails and public parks.
Skepticism greeted the blame-the-farmer-for-missing-trees angle.
“I don’t buy it,” Coun. Frank Monteiro said on Tuesday night before a 7-1 planning committee vote in favour of the plans likely gave the project unstoppable forward momentum.
“Really, it was underhanded what they did. They did that for this very purpose. There was no farmer. Give me a break. I’ve never seen any corn or anything growing there. This was done on purpose, but it’s done.”
And there’s still a nine-acre woodlot on one end of the property — surrounded by the highway, big box stores, industrial operations and offices — that can be protected and maybe enhanced.
With a pre-hearing coming up on the project before the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal next month, a strategic way to be able to modify the project to council’s liking is to go into the fray as a collaborator, not an opponent.
So, with Mayor Kathryn McGarry away on family time, councillors accepted the farmer story uneasily but followed the wishes of the absent mayor, who sent a note encouraging them to push the plan ahead.
“I think this poor farmer has been thrown under the bus here,” said Coun. Jan Liggett, the only council member to vote against rezoning a big portion of the property from commercial to high-density residential.
But the farmer is no fantasy, a spokesperson for the developer insisted.
“Oh, there is a farmer and it’s been farmed every year,” planning consultant Greg Priamo said. “Winter wheat in the spring. Soy beans in the summer.”
Satellite photos from 2015 showing what appears to be the now-missing second woodlot on the site were presented by longtime environmental planning consultant Derek Coleman.
But it’s hard to tell from above whether they were trees or shrubs, Priamo argued.
“It’s true when you look down on a very high-level air photo, everything looks like a majestic tree, it really does,” he said, adding there was no official environmental assessment of the area.
“But I could show you a patch of sumac on the 401 that, from five thousand feet in the air, looks like a woodlot. But it’s just sumac. Much of what was cleared was that.”
Priamo believes whatever trees were lost will be made up for, and then some, after plans for the Pinebush neighbourhood solidify.
Councillors had other concerns. They worried about the estimated 120 school kids in the new neighbourhood who will have to be bused to classes. And they fretted over the added traffic congestion contributed by a thousand more cars.
“This is a prime example of bad planning,” Liggett said. “This area should have been left for commercial-industrial, which it is the perfect area for. Residences don’t belong in these areas.”
But residences now appear to be on their way for a plot once pitched as a site for a city sportsplex, farmer or no farmer.
“This is kind of an awkward situation, to be honest with you,” Coun. Mike Devine said. “It’s an awkward spot. It’s an awkward piece of land.”