Wal-Mart’s wetlands plan draws flak

NASHUA – Aiming to open its first store in the city, Wal-Mart is applying for a permit from the state Department of Environmental Services to fill an acre of wetlands, drawing criticism from local environmental leaders.

Last fall, the Conservation Commission recommended denying the retail giant’s request to work within wetlands at 420 Amherst St., where the company is eyeing a 189,000-square-foot superstore to replace a Building 19 store. Commissioners complained the plan did not minimize disruption of the property’s 1.06 acres of wetlands, which run into the city’s drinking water supply.

However, an attorney for Wal-Mart said the plan for the site actually will improve the cleanliness of the water that runs through the lot. There are two reports by experts to back that up, attorney Gerald Prunier said.

The state agency will hold a hearing on Wal-Mart’s plan at 1 p.m. Wednesday in the City Hall auditorium.

The dispute is focused on the wetlands and streams that flow into Pennichuck Brook, which feeds the area’s drinking water supply.

Allan Fuller, the chairman of the Pennichuck Brook Watershed Council, said the plan might make a bad situation worse. Already, the water from that area of Amherst Street arrives at the drinking water supply ponds murky and covered with an oily sheen, he said.

Kathryn Nelson, chairwoman of the Conservation Commission, is critical of the permit process, as well as the submitted plan.

Nelson fears the developer wants to get a state permit first and then apply to the local Zoning Board of Adjustment. She believes the company thinks zoning board members would be reluctant to deny the local permit if the state Department of Environmental Services had already given its blessing.

“This is just a bit out of order,” Nelson said.

Prunier dismissed Nelson’s idea.

The development plan is moving on parallel city and state tracks unrelated to each other, he said. While the company is waiting for an expanded traffic study, being done at the request of city regulators, it is also pursuing the state permit, he said.

Frank Richardson, senior wetlands inspector for the Department of Environmental Services, said there is no requirement to get one permit before the other. He said some communities actually require an applicant to have a state permit before appearing in front of a local board.

Richardson will run Wednesday’s public hearing, giving the developers and opponents the time to state their cases.

City officials toured the Amherst Street property last week with representatives of the developers and engineers working on the project.

Wal-Mart would need approval from the zoning board to work within wetlands – and possibly other variances as determined by the planning staff – for the project to move forward.

The Conservation Commission, which voted 6-3 in the fall against Wal-Mart’s plan, is an advisory body and doesn’t have the power to block the projects it evaluates. Its recommendations go to the zoning board and Planning Board, and the votes of those bodies are binding.

Richardson said the developer has to justify the state permit by avoiding wetlands when possible and minimizing the impact of work in those areas.

Nelson said the commission believes the company would have a reasonable use of the property without filling in the more than 1 acre of wetlands, because Building 19 is already using the site. She said the company plans to fill a running stream that re-established itself after the property was developed in the early 1980s.

“You don’t see too often any stream filled in Nashua to build a building,” Nelson said.

The company’s plan would violate the 75-foot buffer around a key wetland area, she said, adding that wetlands would be filled largely for parking. Also, the building would sit on a parcel over a high water table, making the groundwater easily polluted, she said.

Prunier, however, said two studies by experts have shown how his client intends to use technology to make the water better than it is now.

“They should be happy about that,” he said.

The system proposed by the company has been described as including an infiltration grid under the parking lot, with a product that would remove suspended materials from the water before it reaches the grid.

As for the parking lot, Prunier said his client believes the 27-acre property is underused and wants to use more of it. At the same time, Prunier said the commission should keep its focus on core issues and not be concerned about parking lot sizes.

Andrew Nelson can be reached at 594-6415 or nelsona@telegraph-nh.com.