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Northborough residents raise concerns about impact of truck traffic
June 21, 2021
Northborough residents have a new neighbor in town who boasts an enormous family and an immense fleet of vehicles: Amazon.
Two new Amazon warehouses are now fully operational at 330 and 350 Bartlett Street just over a mile from Algonquin along with two other large trucking companies, FedEx and A. Duie Pyle, operating in the area.
But along with more job opportunities for Northborough residents comes increased truck traffic. While some are happy to have another big corporation in town, other Northborough residents have raised their voices about potential safety concerns.
Some—like Rachael Armstrong, a resident of Hemlock Drive which is within 1.5 miles of the new warehouses—believe Northborough’s town administration is not doing enough to protect residents and their families from potential hazards of increased truck traffic in the area.
“From Lyman [Street] to Route 20, you have a very large regional high school, a residential neighborhood, St. Bernadette’s [school] and a driving school,” Armstrong said. “So, the combination is an accident waiting to happen. We are bracing ourselves for a tragedy. I mean, the fact that we’ve had all these near-misses are the warning signs that are being ignored by Town Hall. And it’s incredibly, incredibly frustrating… I was blindsided.”
Armstrong said she was blindsided by her town administrators who she claims did not suitably address the increased truck traffic on Bartlett Street, which the trucks must travel on to access Route 20 or other major highways such as 290.
Amazon moving into 330 and 350 Bartlett Street was announced to the town at the October 20 Planning Board meeting. Within a month, increased truck traffic raised Bartlett Street residents’ concerns.
The new warehouses are not distribution centers but are a part of Amazon’s middle-mile network. They essentially serve as a transition point from storage areas to customers, a place where items can be more regionally distributed to maximize efficiency. Trucks come in and out of this facility, transporting stock from one warehouse to another.
The 330-350 Bartlett Street Planning Board decision in 2015 to approve the site states that “All commercial drivers will be instructed by the facility owners to arrive and exit the facility to and from the east (towards the I-495 corridor). Only drivers who have destinations with local businesses will be instructed to arrive and depart from the west along Bartlett Street. The use of Route 20 through Northborough shall be minimized and limited to local deliveries only.”
According to the approved site plans, Amazon trucks are supposed to travel to and from the warehouses via Simarano Drive, which connects to 495. However, Bartlett Street residents have complained about Amazon trucks cutting through town using Church Street, Route 20 and Bartlett Street to get to the new warehouses. Another route they were concerned about was how trucks were using Bartlett Street and taking a right onto Route 20 to then get on 495.
Kristen Wixted, a resident of Stirrup Brook Lane and a recently-elected member of the Board of Selectmen, used her wildlife camera to gather data on the number of trucks going by her neighborhood.
“I started using my wildlife camera to record numbers of trucks,” Wixted said. “Starting in about November, we had at least 200 18-wheelers a day going past our houses… But there were at least a handful of trucks every hour of the day, including all night long.”
The data was compiled before the Amazon sites were fully operational. This made Wixted and other residents worried that truck traffic would increase more when the warehouses became fully operational, right around the same time that ARHS returned to a full in-person learning model.
Wixted and Armstrong reached out to Northborough Police Chief William Lyver to inquire about how the community can deal with the increased truck traffic.
“They wanted to know about truck exclusions and how to go about getting one,” Lyver said. “Because the city of Marlborough will not grant access, or agree to that truck exclusion because it would shift traffic into their city, we can’t do it. The state Department of Transportation (DOT) regulates truck exclusions. And they won’t last as long as Marlborough doesn’t acquiesce. I mean, other than that, there’s not much more that the town can do about it unless they get the legislature to change the DOT regulations.”
Lyver explained that as of now there is no way to enforce the site plan conditions for truck traffic.
“[Police officers] don’t force restrictions placed by the Zoning Board or Planning Board because they’re civil,” Lyver said. “There’s no mechanism right now in town for enforcement short of taking them to court for zoning. I do believe that on this town meeting warrant, there’s a bylaw that if it passes would allow the building inspector to issue fines of up to $300 a day from violations of conditions that were set by the zoning or Planning Board.”
Wixted voiced her concerns about the Northborough Planning Board not having strict agreements regarding truck traffic in place when approving site plans for warehouses such as Amazon and FedEx.
“So really, what should have happened is whoever was on the Planning Board, when they made that decision should have made it much more strict,” Wixted said. “That’s why you need a strong Planning Board, right? That’s why you need people who are going to really look after the neighborhoods as well as the companies in town. And honestly, the FedEx trucks that we see on Bartlett Street still keep coming in; there’s still that huge facility down there, too. And they don’t have that same agreement. Whoever was on the Planning Board when FedEx moved in didn’t give them any restrictions at all. And so now we’re just dealing with the fallout from that.”
Planning Board Chair Kerri Martinek, a member of the Planning Board for the last three years, believes that more could have been done to minimize the impact of the Amazon warehouses.
“If done correctly, at the time of the application, I think there was an opportunity for risk mitigation, which means that the people going in there are going to compensate for the impact,” Martinek said. “So they recognize that there’s a significant amount of impact, and they’re going to compensate the town for that to help alleviate it the best they can. However, in this case, it was not done properly in 2015 [when the Amazon site plan was approved]. And we did not ask for any mitigation. So we lost a real opportunity to have one of the biggest companies in the world come to our town and get nothing for it. I think they ended up after the fact they gave $80,000 to the town. But there are other towns around getting $200,000, $400,000. We certainly got the short end of the stick.”
In response to residents’ concerns, Lyver looked into which companies’ trucks were accessing Route 20 via Bartlett street.
“I have stopped drivers that I’ve seen coming towards Route 20,” Lyver said. “I followed them and when they turned right onto Route 20 heading towards 495, I have pulled them off. And I just walked out. I said ‘You didn’t do anything wrong. I just want to ask you a question. Were you told not to come this way?’ And it was FedEx trucks by the way. So FedEx does not have the same restriction.”
The FedEx site plan doesn’t have any restrictions regarding truck traffic, so unlike Amazon trucks, they can take a left onto Bartlett Street towards the high school.
According to Martinek, the Planning Board got a recommendation from the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Committee to conduct a post-occupancy study to determine the traffic impact on Bartlett Street from the new Amazon warehouses. This Post Occupancy Traffic Study is set to be done in the near future.
With new signs in place to make sure Amazon truck drivers don’t miss the turn into the facility or don’t take an unnecessary left towards the high school and neighborhoods, Lyver believes most trucks are following the correct route.
“It’s a tough situation,” Lyver said. “The area has been zoned for business for decades. And I just think that most people never even imagined or envisioned the development that’s down there. They’re there legally. They’re in business legally. They’ve done all the permitting. They’ve complied with just about everything the town required of them. And now they’re trying to get their drivers that work as subcontractors to come in off of 495. Now, I would say that probably 90% of the trucks that do go to Amazon now are using that route. And the ones that cause most concern are the ones that are coming off of Route 20, obviously, and going down Bartlett Street.”
As far as the trucks’ speeds on Bartlett, according to Lyver, he and other officers have spent a large amount of time checking the speed of trucks with a radar. In their experience, it is very rare that a truck will go significantly over the 35 miles per hour speed limit.
Who was impacted when Amazon moved in?
Senior Sophie Callaghan, a resident of Stirrup Brook Lane, which is about a half-mile from 330 Bartlett Street, is concerned about the safety of walking her dog on Bartlett Street and driving out of her own neighborhood.
“Trying to get off my street, there are trucks all the time, and they’re going really fast and not going the speed limit sometimes,” Callaghan said. “It’s hard for me to turn out because there’s an 18-wheeler barreling down the road at me and I’m just trying to turn in my little Jeep.”
According to Armstrong and Wixted, the location of the new warehouses concerned many parents who were somehow connected to one of the several schools near or on Bartlett Street.
“It’s not just the neighborhood; it’s everyone in the community and Southborough who has anything to do with this high school,” Wixted said. “A lot of driving schools do come to the high school to pick up kids. So it’s not just high school kids who actually already have their license; it’s kids with permits driving in this area very consistently.”
The school district monitors Bartlett Street and has been in contact with the town according to the district’s Director of Operations Keith Lavoie.
“The school district routinely monitors all traffic patterns and this is part of our regular practice,” Lavoie said in an interview via email. “If there are ever issues that impact the schools, we have the necessary conversations with stakeholders. We are aware that Bartlett Street is zoned for commercial buildings, and that is an area we monitor.”
Lavoie says that he hasn’t noticed school traffic being severely affected by the increase of trucks.
“Through my traveling between schools, I’ve certainly noticed the larger trucks going in and out of all those warehouses in that little stretch right there, but I haven’t witnessed anything nor have I gotten any reports of busses being delayed or any other type of problem this year,” Lavoie said.
The cross country team used to practice by running on Bartlett Street and on many other roads near the high school. However, due to the concern of increased truck traffic during the fall, the team changed their running routes.
“We couldn’t run on the roads, so we had to stick to the campus with laps around the school or in the trails, which was pretty inconvenient because the trails only go about a mile or so and one lap around the school is a third of a mile, so when you’re running five to six laps it gets repetitive,” senior captain Anna Long said.
According to Wixted and Callaghan, Amazon trucks have also pulled into Stirrup Brook Lane to turn around, making three-point turns in the narrow residential road if they missed the turn for the Amazon facilities. In addition, according to Callaghan, some truck drivers would park in their neighborhood during the night to try to sleep.
According to Lyver, the Stirrup Brook Lane neighborhood is a public way. Anyone can use those streets including trucks. And in order to have a truck restriction on either one of those two streets, the town would have to show that 5 to 8% of the daily traffic is trucks.
“I would say it’s not out of control by any stretch of imagination,” Lyver said. “I mean to think that maybe one truck goes in there. I know that that’s unacceptable to the residents that live there. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not the end of the world. Yeah, it’s not desirable at all. But again, I can’t do anything about it, which is frustrating. In order to stop somebody, we have to have reasonable suspicion of some sort of violation. And a truck driving down a town road, a public way by virtue of being a truck, it’s not reasonable suspicion.”
What has been done?
Northborough Town Administrator John Coderre has been in contact with Amazon, FedEx and A. Duie Pyle representatives to address some of the issues raised by community members. Despite many emails and phone calls, Coderre did not respond to The Harbinger’s request for an interview.
Through this communication, Amazon has agreed to take up Coderre’s mitigation requests. One measure includes a large, lit-up sign right in front of the warehouses’ driveways to make sure truck drivers do not miss the turn into the facility. Additionally, Amazon agreed to do the Post Occupancy Traffic Study.
In a letter to Coderre, Amazon site leader Muhammad Kasim wrote, “We are taking additional measures including markings on the driveway to better illustrate the appropriate direction to exit, verbal warnings to drivers as they exit the site and additional and more visible signage at the exit.”
Amazon also approved $80,000 in mitigation funds for Northborough. This will be used to install bicycle lanes on Bartlett Street, solar-powered pedestrian-activated rapid flashing beacons at Algonquin and the Stirrup Brook Trail, more traffic signs at the intersection of Bartlett Street and Lyman Street and a traffic engineering speed study near Algonquin.
Wixted noted as of June 3, there are very few Amazon trucks taking a left out of the facility and towards the high school.
Both the FedEx and A. Duie Pyle representatives told Coderre that they have instructed their truck drivers to take a right out of their respective facilities unless they were delivering locally.
There is also a No Parking Zone on Bartlett Street from Route 20 to the town line.
What still needs to be done?
Wixted said that as a part of the Board of Selectmen, she would still like to see some truck traffic improvement around Northborough.
“As far as the rest of the trucks going around the small town roads, I would like to keep working on keeping trucks off neighborhood streets all over Northborough because it’s just not safe,” Wixted said.
Board of Selectmen member Julianne Hirsh thinks communication within and outside of Northborough is vital in solving this issue.
“I think number one, we have to keep lines of communication open between the residents and between the industries and us and all the departments that are involved,” Hirsh said. “But I also feel that this is not a problem unique to Northborough. Amazon is everywhere. And I don’t see any harm in looking to see how other towns are working with this.”
Martinek believes that Amazon needs to communicate with the town residents before moving into a town so that the town can appropriately prepare for the impact of a large warehouse.
“I think with Amazon, if they’re going to come in and change a small town that much, there needs to be a significant community outreach,” Martinek said.
Martinek also believes that giving the town enough time to prepare for a significant change like this is necessary.
“All of a sudden, it was announced,” Martinek said. “Everyone was taken by surprise, versus some sort of outreach and campaign and getting to know your community and the constituents and easing into it.”
According to Hirsh, the pandemic fast-tracked the growth of Amazon, not giving the town enough time to prepare for the warehouses’ impact on the town.
“This e-commerce has just changed everything,” Hirsh said. “Clearly, nobody expected a pandemic. Fifteen years ago, did we think Amazon would be this integral in our lives as it is today? I wish we had foresight, but this is something that happened quickly and partly because of COVID.”
What is Save Bartlett?
Out of shared concerns and frustrations, Armstrong, Wixted and other community members formed an organization called Save Bartlett in July 2020 to give a forum for other concerned citizens.
According to Armstrong and Wixted, initially four to five people spearheaded creating a website for this cause, putting up signs around town and starting a Facebook page which has 225 followers as of June 16.
Save Bartlett first formed when a property at 0 Bartlett Street was pending approval for a 150,000 square foot warehouse to be occupied by the Gutierrez Company, which buys and develops commercial real estate. This property included part of the Stirrup Brook walking trail and the brook itself.
Armstrong, Wixted and other Northborough residents attended town Planning Board meetings every month until October, when the Planning Board rejected the Gutierrez Company’s proposal due to concerns about the environmental impacts of a new warehouse in a wetland and the potential increase in truck traffic. Building a warehouse on this property risked contamination of groundwater near the property, as this site is in Groundwater Protection Area 1. There are also town wells on the property but they are not currently being used by the town.
According to Armstrong and Wixted, the Planning Board’s rejection eased the residents’ concerns, but only for a short while. At the same Planning Board meeting, Northborough residents learned Amazon was to move into both the 330 and 350 Bartlett Street warehouses.
“We were dealing with lots of trucks [from FedEx and A. Duie Pyle] using Bartlett to access roads that they didn’t need to use in the residential portion of Bartlett, and now you’re adding Amazon into the mix,” Armstrong said. “We were just bracing ourselves for what was to come. So we had sort of this momentum from what we thought was this victory to then find out that we had an even bigger problem not far down the road.”