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The Retreat review starts in Amherst

AMHERST — A day after the definitive subdivision plans for the large-scale student housing development known as The Retreat were filed with the Planning Department, the town’s Conservation Commission got its first look at where wetlands on the 147-acre site in Cushman might be located.

During a hearing Thursday, consultants working for Landmark LLC of Athens, Georgia, presented an overview of the wetlands on the site where 123 units, containing 641 beds for college students, would be built.

Both commission members and about 30 residents, many wearing buttons indicating their involvement with the Save Historic Cushman group, told the Landmark development team that the survey completed by wetland scientist Ward Smith, of Wendell Wetland Services, needs to be accurate.

“I need to be comfortable with your methodology,” said commission member Christiane Meyer Healey, who added that she wants more information about how Smith examined the property and ensured that there are no undiscovered wetlands.

Even so, Healey said the commission is largely satisfied with the wetlands review. “For now, this is what we wanted,” Healey said. “We wanted explanations and a map.”

The property, bounded by Henry Street and Flat Hills Road, is expected to be sold for $6.5 million from W.D. Cowls Inc. to Landmark to make way for the student housing development.

Smith explained that logging on the property, which is still owned by Cowls, has created isolated wetlands through soil compaction and the creation of “skid roads.” He also discovered many wooded swamp wetlands. Smith said he searched for wetlands on boundaries and in low-lying areas, but admitted that it is impossible to walk every single foot of the property.

Jack Hirsch of 400 Flat Hills Road said he questioned if Smith’s work captured the full extent of wetlands and whether some remain hidden beneath “slash” left from timber activities.

Smith said timber remains do add a level of difficulty. “Slash is an impediment, but it’s not as if it’s 10 feet thick over the whole site,” Smith said.

Commission member Paris Boice said it would not make any decisions until a third-party consultant is hired by the town to complete a review. Bids for that consulting work are due Friday. The consultant would be paid by Landmark.

Anthony Wonseski of SVE Associates of Greenfield — engineering, surveying and landscaping consultants working for Landmark — said the wetlands delineation is important because it will indicate how the site can be used and will guide the development.

Ellen Leahy-Pile, of 110 Bridge St., submitted a letter to the commission reminding members that the proposed site is part of the Cushman Forest Reserve and an area that defines the character of Amherst, and that it may not be appropriate for student housing and “that we acknowledge that this is destroying a large section of land that has been inventoried as a forest reserve, although not protected as such.”

The Conservation Commission will also be involved in more ways as the impacts on the entire property, not just wetlands, are reviewed once Landmark files a notice of intent with more specific details of its plans for the property.

The commission continued the hearing to 7:30 p.m. July 23.

Meanwhile, the definitive subdivision plans needed to be filed by Friday to meet the six-month deadline imposed by the preliminary plans. Those were filed in November and reviewed by the Planning Board in December.

Senior Planner Christine Brestrup said she expects the Planning Board will hold a hearing on these plans sometime in July. The board will have 90 days to take action on the subdivision plans, unless the applicant requests, and the board grants, an extension for this review.

A site plan review for a cluster subdivision, which will also be required for the project, has not yet been filed, Brestrup said.

Like the Conservation Commission, the Planning Board is expected to hire a consultant, to be paid by Landmark, to assist with these reviews.

Senior ecologist Amy Ball of Horsley Witten Group Inc. of Barnstable, who is working for Landmark, said the next step for the developer is to file an environmental notification form with the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act office, and seek reviews by the Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers. Ball assured residents that they will have many opportunities for input during these local and state processes.

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