City officials and the neighbors agree -- two abutting commercial and residential developments off Route 1 are a "disaster."
"This is absurd, this is the worst active subdivision I've ever seen...as far as moving in the process in the correct steps," said Planning Board member Joseph Gagnon at a public hearing last week.
Gagnon was astounded at what he perceived as utter disregard by developer Richard Marchese for obtaining proper permits and proper procedures for site work.
"I'm very sympathetic with all the neighbors. I think you guys were harmed immensely. I'm emotional over it, that's how obvious and just how blatant it all is," he said. "It's like this builder decided to purchase this land and say what I can do to adversely affect everyone involved."
City officials shut down construction at the commercial project at 128 Newbury St. (Route 1 South) last month after fresh complaints by neighbors that their yards were being flooded by mud and silt runoff from the site whenever it rained.
It turned out that the land for a 13-home residential subdivision behind the site was also part of the problem.
Marchese himself was not at the latest Planning Board hearing, which did not sit well with board members, and his attorney John Keilty simply explained what led to the situation and said Marchese has hired an engineering contractor to assess what measures should be taken to control site runoff and recommend a plan of action.
Marchese had dug a 15-foot trench around the property to retain the runoff, but never obtained a permit to do that. Once state officials became aware of the trench and inspected it, they found the dimensions were in violation of state regulations and ordered Marchese to reduce the depth to about 3 feet.
Meanwhile, Marchese had also stockpiled dirt fill for the commercial site onto the residential site -- again, never obtaining the permit to do that -- and then during a bad storm on Sept. 27, a whole lot of mud flowed right onto neighbors' property, wreaking havoc.
Ironically, the deeper trench would have handled the runoff and not overflowed into the neighborhood, according to a city engineer. There are also no stormwater drains in that area of Winona Street.
Three abutters on Winona Street said that in two bad storms within the past two years, they lost thousands of dollars on wrecked generators, furnaces, an outdoor pool, personal belongings and the overall value of their homes, along with destroyed backyards and major flooding in their basements.
They said all that runoff came straight from Marchese's two developments because of the dirt piles and exposed ledge on the residential land.
Following the recent cease and desist order backed by Mayor Ted Bettencourt, a hearing was held Feb. 7 before the Planning Board to try and hash out a resolution or possibly revoke Marchese's project permits on both parcels.
The city is pursuing the former option, as board members pointed out that if Marchese were to just walk away or be stripped of his permits, the neighbors likely wouldn't get the relief they're hoping for. The city is now awaiting a mitigation plan from the consultant retained by Marchese in light of the recent events.
That plan will then be submitted to city engineers for review and approval.
Last week's meeting was very near a replay of a board hearing with neighbors in 2008 after Marchese clear cut the residential land, causing problems with dust and site runoff.
"We had seven feet of water in our house... Our house and land [are] basically worth nothing," Dawn Irwin told the board this time. She lives at 12 Winona St. with her husband. "We lost ninety percent of everything we own."
Irwin described water "literally exploding through the windows" during the flash floods of October 2011. "It's a complete disaster...I do not trust anything that these people say," she told the board.
Joseph Maio, whose parents live at 16 Winona St., has been the most vocal critic of Marchese of late and has recorded videos of the conditions at his childhood home, which he has posted on YouTube and shown city officials.
"I've watched my parents suffer over the past three years," he said, listing off some of the destruction he's witnessed.
He said all his parents have received to date from Marchese and the city is "lip service" while their property is destroyed in the meantime.
City councilor Anne Manning-Martin, who brought the issue to Bettencourt's attention recently although she doesn't live in the area, spoke up again in support of the neighbors.
"If this happened to my family's home...I would be loaded for bear myself," she told the board. "I did go the property, it's a disaster [referring to the Maio's home]."
Developers should be held accountable for what they promised the neighors, she said, and be held to certain standards.
"Over forty years living there and I never had a flood until he [Marchese] took over that project," Louis Maio said. "I've been flooded three times now."
He said he's lost his furnace, hot water tank, oil tank, the pool -- he found his two propane gas tanks floating in his yard.
"[Marchese] does nothing but rips things apart... I'm in this boat now and I want something to happen in my favor," Louis Maio said.
The Maios have retained an attorney, Dave Summer, who told board members they wanted three things: to force Marchese to hire an independent engineer, post a $3 million bond for damages and maintain the cease and desist order until the stockpiles are removed.
"There has to be an end point...it's a tough decision for any board to tell somebody 'no,'" said Summer, but argued the Maios' demands were reasonable given the circumstances.
Bettencourt said he agreed the Maios' requests were reasonable and did not intend to lift the stop work order until there was a solution in place.
"I think we all had high hopes that [Marchese] would do a great job and we would have a beautiful development over there... Obviously we're disappointed in the way it has turned out," said Bettencourt.
He added that he only recently learned of the aforementioned problems plaguing the neighbors, and after taking a look himself, was "gravely concerned" at the situation. He said there needs to be "severe oversight of the project going forward."
"I think there's some things we can do to really put some restrictions on this project to make him do what he should have been doing years ago," said Bettencourt.
City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski, who has met with the neighbors and Marchese and Keilty since September, offered a solution that would effectively satisfy the neighbors' concerns but didn't include a bond.
The proposal was to amend the existing permit conditions for Winona Woods to require Marchese to hire an independent engineer for peer review of plans and not allow any work at the site until Marchese's engineer presents a site development plan to the third-party engineer and city engineers and they deem such work advisable to commence.
The board voted to continue the hearing indefinitely and accept those conditions. Gagnon also told Keilty he wants to see all new plans for the project, which reflect any changes that are going to be made.
Keilty also said Marchese still intends to build Winona Woods, although the project has lain dormant (except for clearing the site) for years due to the poor economy and housing market. He said Marchese plans to seek a permit to open Leno Marshall Drive off Winona Street around March 15.
Keilty told the board the housing development would meet all site requirements in terms of grading and runoff once it was completed.