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Root for wetlands, natural turf, mature trees, and neighbors

​Also, root for the brook, breezes, cooler summers, wildlife habitat, dense vegetation, air quality, and well-maintained wetlands. And support reasonable peace and quiet as well as stable home values for residents in an official Environmental Justice (EJ) neighborhood.                  ​At first glance, deciding what use is best for the woodland/wetlands at 550 Morton St. might seem difficult.                  ​For five years, highly regarded Brooke Charter School (BCS), with partner Lena Park Community Development Corporation, has been proposing to install a regulation soccer field for its students and others in the community to use on 4.17 acres of wooded wetlands at 550 Morton St. very near Jamaica Plain. BCS requires its students to play a sport.                  ​The problem for the land and neighbors is, if the soccer field proposal is approved by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), it would: be open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week; offer no parking for field users; use artificial turf; change the tree canopy; and be located on very sensitive wetlands near a brook.                  ​BCS has a student population made up of 92 percent Black and Latinx young people and has a great record in educating high-achieving inner-city young people. BCS has four Boston schools, including a K-8 and a high school, on two campuses nearby on American Legion Highway.                  ​Those schools already have an athletic field and auditorium that seats 600+ that they also let the community use. Brooke charges outside users fees to cover maintenance and other costs, as it would with the soccer field, BCS Chief Operating Officer Mark Loring said in an interview on May 16.                  ​BCS is proposing to build walkways, a bathroom building, seating, storage area, driveway and associated utilities and stormwater management systems in addition to the athletic field.                  ​Homeowners at Harvard Commons housing development, which is next to and slightly behind the woodlands, both on former Boston State Hospital land, have voted against the proposal twice.                  ​They are regular people, many people of color, with families and jobs who are dealing with a proposal from a prestigious well-funded educational entity. Quality of life, environmental protection and preserving property values in an area where lack of generational equity has prevailed for hundreds of years are concerns.                  ​Area residents have formed a special 214 7A corporation called “Morton St. 10-residents” to try to block the project and protect the environment. They say they want DEP to reject the proposal soon.                  ​Harvard Commons homeowner and Morton St. 10-Resident member, Aalana Feaster told the Gazette the message they have is simple: “Don’t remove natural resources for artificial turf.”                  ​Talking about the years she and others have spent conveying that message to various authorities and groups, she said, “We hear about Environmental Justice (EJ) neighborhoods policy, but when it comes time to implement it—no action.”                  ​Massachusetts-designated EJ neighborhoods like the one around 550 Morton St., have lower incomes and a higher number of people of color and, often, people for whom English isn’t their first language.                  ​“I’m terrified about the soccer field,” fellow Harvard Commons homeowner Jessica Spruill said in a Zoom gathering on this topic earlier this month. “This is a nice neighborhood.” ​                  ​She said she’s worried, if the field gets installed, their property values will go down. “No study has been done about that,” she said                  ​Sometimes community impact assessments are done and shared by proponents when major changes to land use, especially green space, get proposed.                  ​Whatever becomes of the woodlands/wetlands will affect a wider Boston community for sure. As the water, trees, breeze and songs of migrating birds stopping over at 550 Morton illustrate so well, nature is mobile. So are the effects of tampering with it.                  ​More than 1,700 people have signed a change.org petition to that effect, opposing the athletic field in the natural area. It is still online open to signatures at https://www.change.org/p/restore-and-preserve-morton-street-tree-canopy.                  ​The City of Boston office that determines distribution in Boston of funds raised through the Community Preservation Act, declined to providing funding for the soccer field after BCS applied in 2023. Feaster and at least three other Boston residents wrote thorough letters spelling out why they oppose its being located there.​                  ​Kay Mathew of JP and Yvonne Lalyre pointed out on behalf of Friends of Melnea Cass Boulevard that no assessment had been done in their written comments.                  ​Organizations that have voiced support for the neighbors and the natural area in addition to Friends of Melnea Cass Boulevard, include the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, Climate Code Blue, Trees as Public Good, the Sierra Club, and Speak for the Trees.                  ​Over the years and a process featuring many documents, BCS has attempted to address quality of life issues brought up by neighbors in meetings and elsewhere:                  ​Regarding safety, BCS promised locks on gates on a timer on the walkway. They reduced hours of use from a previously proposed 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Regarding noise and air quality, they are planning a 100 foot long “buffer” of trees between Morton Street with the field and the private homes. Signs will remind field users not to park at the field or in the residential area but at the Brooke School on American Legion Highway.                  ​Seventy-three trees—40 of them classified as healthy by expert consultants to BCS—of the current 209 would need to be cut down. They would be replaced by 84 new trees and 31 saplings, according to Loring. Some of them would go into the proposed buffer.                  ​Mature trees offer more benefits than young ones, making incredible contributions to the well-being of cities and their residents, as the City of Boston Parks Department Urban Forest Plan, finalized and approved in fall, 2022, says.                  ​Trees reduce storm water run-off, air pollution, the heat island effect, rates of respiratory ailments and energy usage. They provide wildlife habitat and give off oxygen while taking in harmful carbon dioxide. They are visually pleasing and provide shade and privacy. Mature trees contribute more to air quality than others, especially saplings, which are small and young.                  ​Unfortunately, none of BCS modifications to plans are enough to ameliorate the risky effects on the neighborhood—and the natural area.                  ​The Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) has examined the project’s potential impact on the fragile wetlands at 550. The wetlands there are fed by the nearby Canterbury Brook which discharges via a culvert into the Stonybrook, then discharges into the Charles River.                  ​CRWA Associate Attorney Zeus Smith submitted comments to the DEP in February, which DEP and Brooke and everyone involved should take seriously.                  ​“There are many water quality issues around Canterbury Brook, including siltation, trash collection, bacterial inputs, low dissolved oxygen, and more resulting from stormwater pollution from surrounding dense development and impervious surface,” Smith wrote. Though BCS increased the number of stormwater controls, at the request of DEP, “CRWA remains concerned about the stormwater ramifications of this project,” he wrote. Harvard Commons residents have experienced street flooding in the past.                  ​Artificial turf is considered to be mostly impervious to water in wetlands protections regulations currently being modified, according to Smith’s written comments. That’s not good.​BCS’s plans for using artificial turf for the athletic field are controversial for several reasons. Concerns of CRWA and others are that Brockfill infill the BCS says it will use, and the synthetic grass “blades” might have have PFAS. PFAS, sometimes called “forever chemicals,” are synthetic and do not break down naturally and can get into soil, water, and air and therefore, living things, like people.                  ​Smith wrote to DEP that CWRA would “appreciate confirmation that all parts of any installed artificial turf will be PSAS-free.” The comments said CRWA would be “greatly concerned” if the BrookFILL were ever to be replaced by crumb rubber, which has happened elsewhere, he said. Smith pointed out that the Boston Conservation Commission has already required “certification that installed artificial turf [at 550 Morton St.] shall not have quantifiable PFAS.”                  ​Smith also recommended that DEP should require certification that the infill and the blades of the turf do not have quantifiable PFAS before installation.                  ​Some injuries on artificial turf are thought to be worse than on natural turf, though natural can require more upkeep. The wooded 550 Morton St. area, a natural area, doesn’t display much heat island effect now, charts show, but artificial turf is said to increase heat near and above it.                  ​Anne McHugh and Sarah Freeman are members of the 10-residents group who live in nearby JP. Both of them said at the Zoom meeting that they formerly worked in public health.                  ​McHugh said the school getting a soccer field sounds like a “great mission” but the microplastic PFAS usually found in artificial turf should make it a deal-breaker for the location.                  ​Freeman echoed McHugh and pointed out all the wetlands regulations that will have to be followed carefully by any developer of the fragile site.                  ​Freeman and JP resident Celeste Walker spoke about the process, where no request for proposals seems to have been issued for the location. Walker called it “ill advised” to put an athletic field on natural space in an Environmental Justice community.                  ​Looking over all the information, it appears there is no way to place an artificial sports field in a wooded natural wetlands area near a housing development in an EJ neighborhood successfully. Proposed developers and their supporters have good intentions, but they should consider moving on to look at other locations for youth sports at this point.                  ​In the course of researching this column, I discovered that Morton Street, which stretches from the Arborway in JP to Gallivan Boulevard in Dorchester, is officially part of the Metropolitan Park System of Greater Boston. It’s also on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places as a U.S. Historic District.                  ​Loring of BCS, told me, in reply to a question, that the soccer field project was approved by the Massachusetts Historical Commission—as is required for projects in historic districts that are going through any other state review—in 2022.                  ​Members of Morton St. 10-residents said they were told nothing about the historic status or the MHC review that occurred until I told them this month.                  ​Land behind and around the woodland/wetlands and the Harvard Commons development, was once occupied by Boston State Hospital, a historic mental hospital that was closed in 1979 and ceased to operate in 1981. How the 175 acres are to be disposed of and used has been the subject of a Massachusetts Department of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) Real Estate division process featuring an advisory Community Advisory Committee (CAC). The CAC was established by the state legislature, according to the Bay State Banner, in 1985 to assure the community had a voice in property disposition and use.                  ​Under the Land Disposition Agreement with DCAMM, as part of its Community Advisory Disposition Agreement, 550 Morton Street was originally approved to be an urban farm and farm stand with parking. In January 2019 talk shifted to other open spaces use. BCS began making presentations about active recreational use at the site at that time.                  Lifting up nature                  ​Feaster said in an interview this month she will “never give up” opposing the athletic field. She and others advocate that the natural area gets some “TLC” and much-needed cleanup instead and wisely suggest that BCS finds a better location for the soccer field.                  ​Opponents of the field have positive suggestions for what should happen at 550 Morton St. instead.                  ​Rather than a sports field, Feaster said in an interview, she and the 10-residents group want to work on cleaning up Canterbury Brook’s “stream crossings that haven’t been cleaned or dredged in many years,” that CRWA’s Smith talked about in his comments to DEP.                  ​They want a plaque re-installed at the Tuskegee Airmen Bridge, which doubles as the American Legion Highway overpass, at the northern edge of the site. The bridge was named and dedicated in 2012 in a big ceremony, but there is no plaque there any more to say that.                  ​Feaster and Nancy Aleo in Roslindale nearby have specifically suggested that BCS could make better use of the land by encouraging young people to study the wooded wetlands in their curriculum. It could lead to “environmental jobs for their young, gifted students,” Aleo wrote in her comments to the CPA officials.                  ​In this competition for the future of 550 Morton St., uses involving preserving and taking better care of the precious natural area should win over installation of a sports field.                  ​Sandra Storey is the former publisher of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

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