Brookline town officials are withholding a key bylaw waiver as they push a developer to mitigate the ear-shattering noise of planned demolition on Fisher Hill.
Selectmen told a representative from New Atlantic Development last night that they would not issue the waiver for the town’s noise bylaw until the developer came back with alternatives for shielding neighbors from the deafening noise. Meanwhile, residents at the nearby Longyear condominiums have retained a lawyer and say they may hire their own acoustical engineer to study the issue.
The debate comes as New Atlantic prepares to demolition the long-empty town reservoirs and prepare the 4.8-acre site for the construction of 10 single-family homes and an affordable condominium complex called Olmstead Hill. New Atlantic was chosen to sell the land and develop the town land in 2009 after it was the only firm to respond to the town’s request for proposals.
Before the new homes can be built, crews must demolish the upper portion of the capped concrete reservoirs on the site and grind it up to fill the hole. The developer also plans to truck in around 40,000 cubic yards of clean fill over at least five weeks.
Peter Roth, president of New Atlantic Development, said crews will bring in around 2,250 truckloads of fill before the site is ready for construction, with as many as 80 trucks a day pulling in and out of the Fisher Hill Avenue property.
But the biggest concern for neighbors has been the two machines used to break up the concrete and crush it into fill—both of which are expected to be significantly louder than the 90 decibels allowed under the towns noise control bylaw. Prolonged exposure to noise above 85 decibels can lead to hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Roth said the pneumatic hammer, or “hoe-ram,” used to break up the concrete will be as loud as 110 decibels immediately adjacent to the equipment and closer to 100 decibels at about 50 feet away. He said the hoe-ram would sometimes operate within 35 feet of nearby residential buildings.
A 47-foot-long concrete crushing machine that would be brought on to the site will be similarly loud.
“There will be periods when we are working close to these buildings, when the noise will be pretty loud,” Roth said. “There is no way to project exactly what the noise level will be.”
Talk of the work has alarmed Fisher Hill neighbors, many of whom are elderly, work at home or have young children. Several said the noise would be a major disruption to their lives and others worried about the impact on their health.
Selectmen Dick Benka said a hoe-ram was recently used to crush stone near his Circuit Road home and described the noise as “incessant and unrelenting.”
“It just went on all day,” he said. “I think we just have to find a way to mitigate this, if at all possible.”
Roth said both machines would be moved into the bottom of the reservoir during much of the work in order to dampen the noise for nearby homes and the adjacent Newbury College. But he said there’s little that can be done to block sound for residents living in the upper floors of the Longyear condominium buildings.
In a letter to the town, Roth wrote that it would be “impractical” and “very costly” to erect noise-reducing barriers around either piece of equipment because the hoe-ram is moved frequently and the crusher must be loaded from multiple directions. He said any costs associated with dampening noise would be pushed on to the town, which is subsidizing the project, and eventually to taxpayers.
“Such costs would certainly burden the overall cost of the sitework phase of the project and due to the financial structure of the overall redevelopment project, it would result in a need for greater subsidy from the town to complete the multifamily component of the project,” he wrote.
But Roth told selectmen a slightly different story last night, saying it would be relatively easy to build a barrier along one side of the crusher and even acknowledging that it would be “theoretically possible,” though time-consuming, to install a moveable barrier around the hoe-ram as well. He said that erecting a temporary barrier made of plywood and sound insulation could reduce the noise of the crusher by up to 10 decibels.
Selectmen suggested that that the crushing operation be moved off site, but Roth said the process of moving uncrushed debris off the property and then returning it along with 40,000 cubic yards of clean fill would require an additional seven days of eight trucks a day coming to the site, while increasing the cost of the work by something “in the low six figures.” And he said that the hoe-ram would still be operating during much of that time, so removing the crusher would not significantly reduce the level of noise at the site.
New Atlantic says it could complete the demolition work in five weeks if crews work eight hours a day. Roth said those hours are somewhat flexible, but warned that reducing the workday from eight hours will mean the crews would have to spend several extra days or weeks on the site.
Selectmen, however, said they were reluctant to grant a noise bylaw waiver for the developer until it comes back with an acoustic study and alternatives for reducing the impact of noise on neighbors. Selectmen Benka, in particular, rejected the developer’s claim that the logistics of using a hoe-ram would keep crews from erecting any sort of sound barrier.
“I’m just not buying the idea today that you can’t build sound barriers around the pneumatic hoe-rams because they, quote, ‘move around,’” he said. “From my perspective, we need to see more of what’s possible.”
Michael Merrill, a former Brookline selectman and lawyer representing the Longyear condominiums, insisted that the developer had not provided enough information to the board and suggested the town hire its own engineer.
“I’m not an engineer, you’re not engineers, let’s get an engineer to tell us,” he said. “This isn’t ready for a decision tonight. We need much more information and when we get that information we can make an informed decision.”
However, Kenneth Goldstein, a selectman who lives at the end of Holland Road and would likely experience much of the worst noise from the demolition work, reminded neighbors that the town’s old reservoirs will have to be destroyed at one time or another.
“These underground reservoirs are essentially a liability to the town, and they need to go whether this project happens or not,” he said. “We’re all going to have put up with it at some point.”