Should Georgetown Be Worried About the Willows

Monday August 16, 2021

The proposed site of the Willows. Photo by Stewart Lytle

BOXFORD – GEORGETOWN LINE – Jeff McClure, the chair of the Georgetown Water Board, does not appear to be a man who panics easily.

So, it was no surprise to members of his board or the water department staff when McClure said last week he would reserve “my panic for now” until Boxford tells Georgetown how much water and from where five wells will draw to irrigate the bushes, trees and grass at the proposed the Willows 66 townhouses near the Boxford-Georgetown line.

The potential concern is that the irrigation wells are proposed for the northeast portion of the site near the aquifer that supplies water to 9,900 Georgetown residents.

Toll Brothers, a Fortune 500 national homebuilder, is proposing to construct the active-adult community for probably 130 residents on acreage that was once a part of the Ingaldsby Farm, near the intersection of state Rte. 133 and Pine Plain Road.

The developer has given few details about the irrigation wells to the town of Boxford. Requests to town officials for more information by The Town Common went unanswered last week. The request for information was forwarded to the developer, but went unanswered.

The proposed development, which will include 33 duplex, townhouse-style residential buildings and a clubhouse with a pool, patio, pergola and walking paths, has been approved by the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals and is being considered by the Conservation Commission. The commission meets again on the Willows project at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Water Board Chair McClure said he was not concerned about the amount of drinking water the residents of the Willows will use, which he expects to be low. That water will come from wells DEP regulates. And Ross Povenmire, Boxford’s conservation agent, said the drinkingwater from the Willows wells, as a privately owned, public water supply, will be tested and submitted to the state on a regular basis.

McClure was more concerned about the irrigation wells, which are not regulated by the DEP.

“Why do they need five wells for irrigation?” he asked. He also wanted to know what was being irrigated – Kentucky bluegrass, which needs a lot of water, or drought-resistant plants, which doesn’t.

According to information about the proposed landscaping presented to the town of Boxford, the Willows will have more than 800 trees and shrubs. Those plants will require significant amounts of water, plus fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides that could affect the aquifers. The developer promises to store the chemicals in a covered area onsite and used “sparingly,” according to the filings with Boxford.

The drinking water for the Willows will come from two wells in the southeastern portion of the site. There will also be a treatment system, 10,000-gallon underground storage tank and booster pumps.

Wastewater generated by the project would be treated through a private septic system proposed for the northeast portion of the site, consisting of a sewer collection system, pump station, 20,000-gallon pretreatment septic tank, secondary 10,000-gallon pre-treatment tank and leaching field.

George Comiskey, vice president of the Parker River Clean Water Assn., wrote last month to the Mass. Environmental Protection Agency (DEP), “As the project sits in close proximity to the Town of Georgetown’s public wells that deliver water to nearly 9,000 residents, we have grave concerns.”

The Willows will be “nestled between two medium yield aquifers, shared between Boxford and Georgetown,” wrote Comiskey, who also is a member of the Georgetown Planning Board.

The Parker River Clean Water Assn. argued that the DEP should conduct an Environmental Impact Report assessment on the Willows before any permits are granted.

Kathleen Theoharides, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, disagreed. She ruled on June 25 that the Willows “does not require an Environmental Impact Report.”

It was also unclear where the water for the irrigation wells would be drawn from. Comiskey is hoping it comes from the Merrimack River basin, not the Parker River basin, which is stressed from overuse, he said.

In addition, the DEP in its June 25 report said it has detected concentrations of pollution in the water at the site. It found iron and/or manganese, and one water sample contained per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in excess of the state’s maximum contamination level.

The state said it planned to do more testing for PFAS, which are a group of man-made chemicals that have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries since the 1940s.

The DEP employee who knows about PFAS in the aquifers that serve Georgetown and Boxford was on vacation last week. But Kendall Longo, Boxford’s public health director, wrote in an email, “I have not seen any PFAS from the Willows site at this time.”

PFAS found in drinking water usually comes from a manufacturer, landfill or wastewater treatment plant. PFOA and PFOS, which have been extensively produced in food packaging and household products, are very persistent in the environment, don’t break down and can accumulate in the body over time. Exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.

According to the DEP decision, the water will be treated to remove iron and manganese prior to distribution and the system will be designed to allow for treatment of PFAS compounds and/or emergency disinfection as necessary.

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