Young Environmentalist Saves Massachusetts Wetlands Area

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Andrew Holleman at rest in his "beloved wetlands," a site his campaign helped keep from development.

Chelmsford, MA–“Mom, I’ve got to go to the library. Can you drive me?” That was the first thing I said after I read a registered letter that my parents got. It concerned the development of land near my home and stated that a meeting about it would be held at the town hall.

It made me mad. “How could this be happening?” I asked myself. I knew these woods–I had loved, studied, explored them; I practically grew up there. Now an $11 million, 180-unit condominium complex was going to be built on one privately owned parcel (sandwiched between two pieces of preserved conservation land). That parcel was almost half wetlands. It contained wood turtles, blue-spotted salamanders (both declining species rated “of special concern” by wildlife authorities), great blue herons, various hawks, lady’s slippers, and mountain laurel.

I was angry because this beautiful piece of land and wildlife habitat was about to be destroyed. Weren’t people aware of their environment after being informed every day from so many sources that our world is at stake?

I also had so many memories based in that area. When I was very young, I took nature walks there with my family and even remember having a winter picnic in the snow by a stream with them. Later, when I was older, I went there with my friend on our own nature walks or to go ice-skating on a pond in the woods.

Now I go there to sit and think for hours on end. There are times I just sit and watch the deer, fox, and other animals. I go fishing sometimes in the ice-skating pond and have caught a 12-inch bass (this is not a fish story).

I guess I was just plain angry that “my land” was going to be destroyed and that it was one more insult to the environment. I had to do something.

At the library, I looked up the Hatch Act, the Massachusetts law that protects wetlands. I also read the town Master Plan. It listed the acreage of the site and noted which parts were wetland, poor soil, or developable. There I found the ammunition I needed: Only 2.2 acres of the 16.3-acre site were considered sound enough to be developed.

After leaving the library, I wrote a petition and took it to neighbors to get signatures from registered voters and to tell people about the developer’s meeting and the harm that this complex could do to our woods.

Much to my surprise, most people showed a lot of interest and were happy to sign. I collected about 150 signatures (only two adults said no) and also started a petition for students to sign.

It wasn’t always easy going from door to door. One day, while crossing my beloved wetlands to reach another part of the neighborhood, I slipped on a rotted log and sent myself and the petition flying into a small, muddy stream. It took a while for the petition to dry and for my mother to iron out the papers. That was the last time I went through the swamp with anything important that wasn’t waterproofed.

When the night came for the meeting, my parents and I were directed to a room that could hold about 50 people (the developer had sent his original notification to the 50 families whose homes abutted the property). Within 20 minutes we were moved to a larger room in the town hall because it was obvious that many more people would show up. Finally, it became apparent that we needed a larger room still.

A half hour later, more than 250 people had gathered in the hall’s basement gymnasium, ready to hear about the proposed project and its impact on our community. A number of times during the meeting, the developer took credit for inviting the people there to hear about his proposal. The crowd, just as often, reminded him that I was the one who had actually invited most of them.

After the developer discussed his project plans, I made my speech. You can’t have stage fright at a moment like this–you have to just get up and tell your side of the story. Holding the shell of a wood turtle I’d found in the woods, I spoke about how this development would destroy the animal and plant life. I told how the stream on the land would eventually become polluted and carry its pollution into nearby town wells. I also suggested another site the developer might use, one that would better withstand the environmental impact. (Interestingly enough, the developer has already started constructing a condominium on the alternative site that I had originally suggested. It was the old drive-in movie lot here in town.)

After that night, I wrote letters to many state representatives and senators and also to a local TV anchorwoman, hoping to gain more support. I included my petition in the letters. I then telephoned the Massachusetts Audubon Society “Helpline” and spoke with Dr. Dorothy Arvidson, a biologist and now a good friend.

She told me to keep my fight local, that I should approach the town representatives because national and state organizations wouldn’t be much help. She was telling me other things to do when I interrupted to say I was only 12 years old. “Well, that’s no excuse,” she said, and went on giving me information.

From that point on, meetings were held every week for seven months so the developer could present his proposal to conservation commissions, appeal boards, and selectmen–just to name a few. These meetings often took place on school nights and sometimes lasted up to three and a half hours. Somehow I managed to attend every one and still get good grades.

Later we formed a neighborhood association to keep people up-to-date and to raise money for a lawyer and an environmental scientist. My dad and I became members of the Concord Road Neighborhood Association. The public supported us, donating nearly $16,000 to stop the condominium project.

I was told that “you can’t fight city hall” and that the developer was a “townie” who always got his way. But my feeling is you shouldn’t get discouraged if you hear statements like that. If you believe in something, you have to stand up for it. Don’t ever give up the fight against a poorly sited development, pollution, or anything environmentally dangerous. If you do, you are giving up on the world. Even if you don’t win, at least you will have tried.

After nine months and much hard work, the developer, the neighborhood association, the state Department of Environmental Quality Engineering, and others showed up to give the site a deep-hole test to find out if it was suitable for building. The test checks the soil’s drainage by seeing if a deeply dug hole will fill with water. I was fairly confident that the site would fail, because I had known that land a long time. But I can tell you that when the test confirmed my beliefs, I was excited and relieved. (Even if the site had passed the test, I would have kept fighting anyway.)

The town of Chelmsford then officially “denied comprehensive permit,” a legal step that insured the development would not be built and that nothing of the same magnitude could ever be constructed there. So the land is safe–for the time being. I’m now trying to get funding from the state to buy the site outright to protect it.

To all of the people who read this article, I challenge you to come to the defense of the environment. It is not just the destruction of the rain forests, the acid rain, and the ozone layer that should concern us, but also our own communities. We can work to stop building developments that are hazardous to life and land. We can recycle plastics, glass, and paper. We can save water and use far less energy than we do.

It is not all that hard to help in the fight to save our planet. Earth. If we are all a little more caring and careful, we will be much closer to saving our environment for ourselves and for future generations.