100+ debate Casey project at hearing

December 21, 2012
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More than 100 people came out to support or oppose the Casey Arborway project at a three-hour Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) Office hearing at English High School on Dec. 13.

The hearing was technically a public “consultation” among MEPA officials and state Department of Transportation (MassDOT) planners about whether the project, which will replace the Casey Overpass in Forest Hills with new surface streets, requires a full-scale environmental impact study. MassDOT filed a report claiming there will be minimal environmental impact.

Some residents called variously for more or less environmental study, depending on whether they want to speed the project ahead or stop it in the hopes of getting a replacement bridge instead. Members of several pro-Casey Arborway groups, including the Boston Cyclists Union, were out in force, as was Bridging Forest Hills, which wants a replacement bridge. Most of the comments were general opinions about the project and a majority were in favor of the surface-street plan.

“The Casey Overpass was a mistake from the beginning. It should have never been built,” said JP resident Michael Epp, a member of the design advisory group (DAG) assisting MassDOT with the project planning, speaking in favor of the Casey Arborway.

One argument in favor of the plan is that it restores a missing piece of the Arborway, a combined park and road designed more than a century ago by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

“Fred’s dead and he’s going to stay dead,” said JP resident and DAG member Bernie Doherty, calling for planners to focus on the present and what he said is a need for an overpass through the busy area.

Many supporters of the project wore custom-made T-shirts showing a computer image of a future tree-lined street taken from a MassDOT document with the words, “Drive Bike Walk Live Here.” The shirts were distributed by JP residents Sarah Freeman and Kate Hutchinson, the latter of whom co-owns a Forest Hills condo with Casey Arborway design team member Nathaniel Cabral-Curtis, according to property records. Freeman declined to identify the source of the shirts.

Bridging Forest Hills handed out a flyer with several talking points for people to voice opposition to the project. According to group member Jeffrey Ferris, those points included, among other things, safety concerns about the new street’s six-to-seven-lane width; asking for more air-quality study; and questioning the project’s traffic study results as illogical. Two independent reviews supported MassDOT’s traffic study methods, but Bridging Forest Hills continues to oppose it.

MEPA analyst Holly Johnson led the hearing, frequently asking commenters to focus on environmental impacts. Earlier that day, Johnson also conducted a walk-through of most of the Casey Overpass area with MassDOT officials and members of the public. At both events, she mostly listened, giving no clues as to her own opinions.

“We’re here to understand the existing conditions and see what’s proposed where,” Johnson said during the walk-through.

MassDOT last month filed an environmental notification form (ENF) about the project with MEPA. ENFs are required for most major road projects. This one was triggered because the project would cut down nine trees of 14 or more inches in diameter, as well as more than 80 smaller trees. A total of 190 new trees would replace them.

The ENF says that replacing the Casey Overpass with either new surface streets or a new bridge would have no significant new environmental impact on the area. That includes no significant change in traffic or air pollution.

MEPA will decide whether the project requires a more in-depth analysis called an environmental impact report, or EIR. Johnson said that decision should come by the third week of January.

Some Casey Arborway supporters expressed concern that an EIR would take so much time to complete that the project’s federal funding would expire, leaving Jamaica Plain stuck with a decaying bridge.

Several commenters urged MEPA to require an in-depth air-quality study. MassDOT already issued an air-quality study a year ago that found no significant changes with either surface streets or a new bridge.

One commenter also called on MEPA to be aware of the Stony Brook, which flows in a culvert under the area.

Comments at the MEPA hearing were not written down and are not considered official public comment because they just helped MEPA carry out its “consultation.” MEPA will only officially consider written comments.

MassDOT’s ENF can be viewed online at bit.ly/caseyMEPA. Comments to the MEPA office are due by 5 p.m. on Jan. 8 and can be sent via email to holly.s.johnson@state.ma.us; with reference to EEA #14978, via fax to 617-626-1181; or via mail to Secretary Richard Sullivan, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Attn: MEPA office, Holly Johnson EEA #14978, 100 Cambridge St., Ste. 900, Boston MA, 02114. All comments should include a reference to the filing’s serial number: EEA #14978.

John Ruch contributed to this article.