By Jonathan Phelps
---- — BOSTON — During a hearing at the Statehouse yesterday, several lawmakers were put in the middle of the controversy surrounding a land swap in Beverly that would pave the way for the first phase of the Brimbal Avenue interchange project.
The hearing turned into a debate between Beverly Mayor Bill Scanlon — and other supporters of the project — and several residents who are vehemently opposed to the project. No action was taken at the hearing.
The mayor, city officials and the residents testified before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight on a bill co-sponsored by state Rep. Jerry Parisella and state Sen. Joan Lovely. The bill would allow the state and private developer to swap parcels of land needed to start a $5 million project designed to improve traffic flow and safety around the Brimbal Avenue/Route 128 interchange.
The developer, CEA Group, plans to build a shopping plaza, which is expected to be anchored by a Whole Foods store. The swap must now be approved by the state Legislature.
Scanlon told the legislators that the current interchange is unsafe and causes significant traffic backups. The project, which has been in the works for over 10 years, would also create many jobs by promoting economic development, he said.
“This land transfer will allow for the best transportation design alternative to be constructed and will open up land — which is properly zoned for business development — to be effectively used,” he said, noting regional support from the North Shore Alliance of Economic Development. “Passage of the legislation before you will allow phase one of the project to proceed, creating what we believe will be in excess of 3,000 good regional jobs. Phase two is estimated to bring that number to 7,500 jobs.”
Scanlon said after nine hours of public hearings that the Beverly Planning Board voted unanimously in favor of the project and the City Council voted twice in favor, 7 to 2.
Dan DeAngelis, of the North Beverly Neighborhood Association, said that more than 3,000 signatures have been collected in a petition to overturn the council’s support for the project. The group hopes to get the issue put on a citywide ballot.
“I live on Brimbal Avenue. I deal with the traffic that is currently there,” he said. “If I felt as a resident who has lived there all these years that this truly was a benefit to us, I’d be on the other side of the table right now. I’d be all for this. I have lived with this process, watched what has gone on, and quite frankly, we don’t think this is the right decision.”
He expressed concerns about proposed traffic lights, roundabouts and contamination on the property because it once served as a landfill. He argued the land swap is not needed and the proposed plan is over-designed.
“The land swap is not in the best interest of the citizens of Beverly or the state. Taxpayers would be acquiring contaminated land to benefit a private developer,” he said. “The land swap is not necessary to make scale-appropriate roadway improvements. The land swap will have a negative impact on the neighborhood, and the public was not properly informed.”
Paul Kusiak of Red Rock Lane also spoke against the way the city handled the public process. He said most families in the area are opposed to the plan.
“I feel as if the citizens are not being represented,” he said. “It is a real shame because we are being impacted ... I wish we had more transparency.”
State Sen. Kenneth Donnelly, D-Arlington, a chairman of the committee, said the city has autonomy in a project like that and the committee will go through its process, including sending documents to the inspector general.
Scanlon fought back against DeAngelis’ statements.
“When people say that this can be solved with a traffic light or two, they are simply making no sense,” he said.
Richard Dinkin, chairman of the Planning Board, also spoke in favor of the bill.
“The opposition, however, was based on sincerely held, but not verifiable, opinion on the subject about what would happen with the traffic should the project occur,” he said. He said traffic studies show otherwise.
“More important is the opportunity to convert an extremely dangerous interchange between a residential street and a state highway into an extremely safe interchange,” Dinkin said.
The entire Brimbal Avenue project is a $25 million proposal to revamp the interchanges around Brimbal Avenue and Route 128 in order to improve traffic flow and safety and also open up land for development on both sides of the highway.
The city has applied for $5 million in state funding for the first phase of the project. That work cannot begin unless the land swap takes place.
Public hearings on the project and shopping plaza drew hundreds of people.
Parisella and Lovely spoke only briefly at the hearing yesterday. Parisella said engineers for the project asked for the land swap in order to improve traffic.
“I live in that neighborhood and have experienced the traffic difficulties every day,” he said.
Steven Cohen, who owns the land the city is looking to swap, said it is important to understand the city and Massachusetts Department of Transportation are proposing the swap. The changes will make dramatic improvements in traffic flow and safety at that location, he said.
“The sole purpose is to improve configuration of the interchange,” he said. “The city and MassDOT simply want to improve traffic safety and traffic flow and this intersection.”
He said the Department of Environmental Protection has granted a permit for the land to be developed.
Scanlon strongly argued for the joint committee to approve the project.
“This is a good project for the entire North Shore region from the viewpoints of safety, conservation of time and resources, and badly needed economic development,” he said.
Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.