WILLIAMSTOWN -- The Conservation Commission's approval July 11 of a drainage system that will be part of Williams College's Weston Field restoration project drew opposition from community members who felt the proposal did not do enough to address the ongoing problem of flooding from Christmas Brook, which runs alongside the field.
After entering a culvert beneath Latham Street, Christmas Brook flows underground to the Green River, a journey of about 800 feet. Somewhere between Latham Street and Water Street (on college property) the four-foot pipe joins a five-foot pipe, but in recent years the smaller section has been unable to handle anything more than a two-year storm.
The brook has overflowed four times since 2005, blocking traffic on Latham Street and flooding the basements of houses on Meacham Street. In 2005, the college built an artificial-turf lacrosse field within the brook's 100-foot buffer zone, which may have contributed to the increased flooding.
Due to the complexity of the college's proposal, the commission requested in May that an independent review be conducted. David Nymen of the engineering firm Comprehensive Environmental Inc. confirmed on July 11 that that the new system will "slowly meter the water out" and "not aggravate the conditions downstream.
Nymen's recommendations included taking additional steps to insure the proper functioning of both new and existing drainage structures, but it did not directly address the issues associated with the culvert, which he said was outside the scope of the project.
"What our assignment is, and what we understand the wetland regulations require," he said, "is that the applicant not increase downstream flooding. And the way they demonstrate that is to show how they are controlling peak rates during the 100-year storm."
In addition to the new stormwater management system, the lacrosse field will be moved farther away from Christmas Brook, and the overall permeability of the project site will increase.
If the new field is built as designed, Nymen said, "there will be a lessening of the peak runoff in a two-year, 10-year, 25-year and 100-year storm." The total volume of runoff per day will be greater, he said, but the rates will be less.
"They are not necessarily fixing the downstream problem, but they're not impacting it," he said.
Charles LaBatt, senior engineer at Guntlow and Associates, and Jason Moran, project manager at Williams College, who are overseeing the project, provided further assurance that no additional runoff would enter the brook or flow onto Meacham Street as a result of the project.
Some members of the community nevertheless urged the commission not approve the proposal, since it did not address the root cause of the flooding.
Eric White, a local resident and retired orthopedic surgeon, drew attention to the college's resurfacing of the parking lot in front of Chapman Rink, under which the culvert passes, and where runoff enters the brook through open drains.
That project, which is almost complete, did not require Conservation Commission approval, even when the college discovered that it would also need to remove the original pavement. White questioned whether the college had done the right thing.
LaBatt explained that when the college realized that more changes were necessary, it consulted the town's office of Inspection Services, which determined that a permit for the additional work would not be required.
Paul Lovegreen, whose house on Meacham Street has flooded several times since 2005, later asked if the underground portion of the stream did not qualify as a free flowing body of water (and therefore fall within the jurisdiction of the Conservation Commission), since it was exposed through open drains.
LaBatt said that under the regulations of the Wetlands Protection Act, the underground portion of the stream did not fall under the commission's jurisdiction. Conservation Agent Andrew Groff said the commission had supported that determination.
With respect to the culvert, LaBatt said, "it is currently a part of [the college's] purview in design to solve that problem. And I know it may have seemed prudent to do that prior to repaving the parking lot, but all of the best solutions for that project right now don't involve it continuing along its current path."
One option being considered, he said, involves installing a new pipe that runs along Latham Street rather than underneath college buildings. He acknowledged the town's plans to rebuild its own portion of the culvert beneath Latham Street (a contractor will begin that work this summer) but said the parking lot project would not have been the right opportunity to address the problem.
Lovegreen was frustrated by what he felt was a story he had heard before. "I've waited eight years for something to happen," he said. "This has become a two-year incident with this last storm being the worst."
Philip McKnight, chairman of the Conservation Commission, was sympathetic but explained that the commission's request for assurances regarding the Weston Field project had been received and that additional concerns would need to be directed to the Board of Selectmen.
The commission approved the proposal unanimously, with the condition that it adopt all of Nymen's recommendations.
"Remember, we are an agency of limited jurisdiction, and we have to take that which is given to us and deal with it," McKnight said. "And although it may be tempting to try to impose conditions further away from this project, we're not really entitled or allowed to do so by this statute."
McKnight has previously indicated that if an affordable housing project on the site of the former Town Garage on Water Street were to move forward as expected, the commission might then pursue the culvert question further, since floodwaters from Christmas Brook pass through a portion of the site. Because the site is within the 200-foot buffer zone of the Green River, any housing project there would require the approval of the commission.