Commission tables plan by Wal-Mart

NASHUA – The Conservation Commission came within a whisker of issuing another unfavorable recommendation on a plan by Wal-Mart to build a 186,000-square-foot superstore to replace Building 19 on Amherst Street.

The panel on Tuesday voted 4-3 against a motion by outgoing member Sara Osborne to recommend that the plan not move forward.

Osborne said lawyers and engineers for Wal-Mart had not proven the environmental impacts to the site could not be reasonably avoided, which is one of the criteria the board must consider in evaluating a proposal.

“The impact on the site is tremendous, and from my point of view it impacts the aquifer, the brooks and the ponds,” said Osborne, who has not sought a reappointment and is leaving the commission at the end of the month.

Board Chairwoman Kathy Nelson and Vice Chairwoman Jacqueline Trainer voted with Osborne in the minority.

The majority of the panel – James Banow, Linda Bretz, Karen Archambault and Richard Tomasso – then voted to table the proposal until January. They said they needed assurances about surface and storm water management, vegetation that will be needed to sustain an engineer’s plan to create a wetland on the 24-acre site, and the storage of oil in the automotive section of the store, where oil changes would be performed.

Members also expressed concern about flooding in the area.

About a year and a half ago, the board issued an unfavorable recommendation for an original plan for the store, citing largely the same concerns Osborne did Tuesday night.

But the retail giant is clearly determined to get the store built. It has revised its plan so that about three-quarters of an acre of wetlands will be disturbed, instead of a full acre that would have been filled under the original proposal. The retailer also has reduced the number of parking spaces on the site from 802 to about 740.

Moreover, said Gerald Prunier, a lawyer for Wal-Mart, the company has agreed to buy two 13-acre tracts, one north of Boire Field and the other in the south end off Lamb Road, and donate them to the city for conservation purposes to mitigate the impact of building the new store.

The Conservation Commission is strictly an advisory body and doesn’t have the power to block development projects. The commission sends its recommendations to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and that panel’s votes are binding. The zoning board would have to approve any request to fill wetlands on the site.

Approval from the state Department of Environmental Services is needed as well. In March, the state conducted a public hearing on Wal-Mart’s original plan to fill an acre of wetlands on the site at 420 Amherst St.

That proposal ran into a wall of opposition from people who were worried about the fact that the site sits at the edge of an aquifer that is considered a critical component of the city’s drinking water supply.

According to Nelson, Frank Richardson, the state wetlands inspector who conducted the March hearing, was leaning toward denying Wal-Mart a permit to fill wetlands on the site. But the plan was then changed and Richardson hasn’t seen the new proposal, she said.

Vernon Kokosa, an engineer for Wal-Mart, said the store would have only a minute impact on the aquifer, which stretches for about 21 miles around the city. The site would cover only 0.0018 percent, he said.

Kokosa, Prunier and Jim Petropulos, a local engineer on the project, all said water would leave the site cleaner than when it enters, through the use of more than 400 infiltration chambers, sediment separators, catch basins, and the rebuilding and redesign of two detention basins on the site. The plan would also meet the city’s groundwater recharge requirements, they said.

“So we’re helping the area,” Prunier said.

But Nelson and others said while the technology being proposed sounds impressive, there is no guarantee it will do what it’s supposed to do.

“The city of Nashua is left holding the bag if these things don’t work,” she said.