Guest Commentary: The price of development

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Editor’s note: The following guest column, written by Hemenway Drive resident Denny Swenson, addresses a proposed 40B development on the Milton/Canton town line. The developer, Texas-based Mill Creek Residential Trust, is seeking to build 276 apartments on a 22-acre parcel on Brush Hill Road—across the street from the Fuller Village senior independent living community. State Senator Brian Joyce, who serves as vice president of the Fuller Village board of directors, has voiced his opposition to the project, which he called too large and too dense for the site in question. “It would impact both Milton and Canton,” said Joyce in an interview with the Citizen. “It would have a seriously adverse impact on an area of critical environmental concern, and the infrastructure is just not there to support a project with this level of density.” Calls placed to the Mill Creek office in Boston were not returned.

When my husband and I moved onto Hemenway Drive, straddling the towns of Milton and Canton, it wasn’t your usual show up and unpack the boxes. The couple that sold us our house threw a party for us at a neighbor’s home and all 14 families residing along Hemenway Drive brought potluck and welcomed us to the neighborhood. Then the previous owner gave us a final tour of our new home, and as he hugged us goodbye, he said, “This little place in the world is special. People either get that or they don’t.”

I try to go for walks every day, and as I walk by huge 200-year-old trees, meadows and small brooks, I feel like a hobbit might peak around a tree or balance on a timeworn stone wall alongside me. Neighbors passing by are friendly but not intrusive. A neighborhood dog often joins me as I stroll. With a speed limit of 10 mph, there’s no need for a leash.

How did this place come to be?

The neighborhood’s history starts with Augustus Hemenway Sr., who worked his way up from a meager childhood to own eight large merchant ships, amassing his wealth by shipping goods to and from South America. His wife, Mary Hemenway, was left with a large estate. Known as the quiet philanthropist, she helped save the Old South Meeting House in Boston, which began the historic preservation movement.

Their son, Augustus Jr., was also a quiet but generous philanthropist.

Augustus Hemenway Jr.

Augustus Hemenway Jr.

Among numerous gifts, he donated the Canton library structure and assisted with building one of the first high schools in Canton. He served the Massachusetts Legislature as a representative from Milton in 1890 and Canton in 1891.

His wife, Harriet, and her cousin, Minna B. Hall, were horrified by the runaway trend of ladies wearing feathers, wings and stuffed birds on their hats. Birds were being slaughtered in droves so women could feel stylish. The rarer the bird, the more prestige for the woman wearing it. Harriet and Minna enlisted their friends over tea. They drew on high society women from the Boston Social Register, including names like Cabot, Agassiz, and Peabody to join them in their quest. These efforts helped form the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Word spread around the country and numerous other states founded Audubon societies to combat the feather trade and advocate bird protection. This was one of the first modern conservation campaigns. Four years after the women started their influential teas, Congress passed the Lacey Bird and Game Act, which brought an end to this needless slaughter of birds.

Hemenway Jr. owned the land from Brush Hill Road in Milton to Royal Street in Canton and called it Hemenway Farm. This land includes the current Green Street, Green Lane and Hemenway Drive. The area has one of the little hills that is part of the Blue Hills. For this reason most residents in the area belong to a neighborhood group called Friends of Little Blue.

This Google Maps marker is on Little Blue Hill.

This Google Maps marker is on Little Blue Hill. (Click to enlarge)

As Hemenway’s family grew and new generations were born, parcels were given or sold modestly to various family members. Eventually a trust was formed that donated land for conservation, created covenants, documented shared rights of way, and added restrictive land-use language to deeds. These efforts continued through the generations and the language is still in place for many of the current property owners, most of whom have no relation to the Hemenways. The intention was to preserve wildlife, nature and open space — something all seemed to agree on.

Tom Palmer of the Neponset River Watershed Association (NepRWA) explains that this large area is unique in that it has the “marshy Neponset floodplain, a mature upland forest, and open fields.” He says “there is nowhere else in the eight-mile-long Fowl Meadow where so much undeveloped upland abuts so much protected swamp and marsh.”

Palmer “can’t imagine why it would make sense to break into this area and undo the combined long-term investments of the private property owners, state conservation, and local townships.”

It is ironic that one state agency could be at cross-purposes with another. Very soon, one state office might approve a huge, nearly 300-unit rental development amid the wetlands of this historic neighborhood. This development would directly impact the abutting DCR property, including the Fowl Meadows, some of which was given to the state by Hemenway Jr.’s trustees.

A key reason that the town of Milton has been recognized as one of the “best places to live in the country” by Money Magazine year after year is because it borders the Blue Hills Reservation, a treasured 7,000 acre park. It is rare to be minutes from a city like Boston yet feel like you are in a country getaway.

But the residential zoning and planning that has taken this into account for hundreds of years in Milton would get bypassed for a project like this one. The developer’s proposal includes a relatively small percentage of “affordable” rental units, making the entire project a “40B” development.

(Click here to read part 2)

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