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Olivia Way: How Compassionate Volunteer Government Works

by Russell Harris,


    When the flooding at Olivia Way first reached a crest last November, it looked grim. At times, flooding was so bad residents could not reach their homes by car, instead they had to park and wade in knee-deep water across a cul-de-sac transformed into an icy lake in their front yards. Imagine carrying groceries and young children through arctic waters during last November, December and January’s brutal weather.   

    Resident Channing Lambert explained that, at its highest, the water was two feet deep, a drowning hazard for neighborhood children.  To top it all off, engineers did not seem to fully understand the problem and were unsure whether there was a good fix for the flooding.

    Because of competing interests [developer, town committees, residents, town of Pepperell] and because of potential liability, it seemed that the stage was being set for a multi-year legal battle to assign blame, point fingers and dodge responsibility. 

   But that’s not what happened. Instead, town boards and committees quickly came together to craft a creative solution that worked for everybody. That solution was approved at Town Meeting on May 8. [More on the approved remediation plan below.] 

     One resident commented that solving the problem quickly was a matter of ‘social justice.’ By their close coordination and quick action members of other town committees [Conservation Commission, Planning Board, Earth Removal Storm Water Advisory Committee]  apparently agreed and worked long and hard to achieve a solution that had lots of moving parts, requiring sign-off from many parties.

      Ed Perkins of the Earth Removal Storm Water Advisory Committee said the committee met 11 times, as well as conducted two separate licensed engineering peer reviews and worked with the Planning Board and Conservation Commission to hammer out the remediation plan. 

   Perkins said that the drainage situation had improved and that the Olivia Way roadway was no longer flooding. He added that the committee had confidence in the solution “as the best resolution for the Groton families which have suffered hardships over the past six months.”

   Discussing the proposed solution at Town Meeting, resident and Attorney Rob Anctil said he had received several calls from Olivia Way residents seeking legal advice.  Anctil advised patience saying, “I told all of them,  ‘You live in a great town. You're going to be supported by the Planning Board, you're going to be supported by the Conservation Commission, and the Storm Water Advisory Committee. Have faith and things will come together.’” 

    Attorney Anctil was right. A complex solution came together faster than anyone could reasonably expect. From the time of the first flooding in November, a solid solution was presented 

and approved at Town Meeting, a short five months later. Anctil praised the local boards’ diligence and commitment. 

   But the solution might not have worked out so well without the trust and patience of the residents of Olivia Way. Praising their forbearance, Select Board member John Giger said, “I want to thank the residents of Olivia Way for their incredible patience and willingness to work with all the departments in the town. They have really been good sports about this; much better than I think I could have been in the same situation. Thank you guys.”

    The solution approved at Town Meeting allows pumping overflow water from the Olivia Way drainage system onto abutting Town of Groton conservation land [see graphic]. The Town Meeting article authorizes the Select Board and the Conservation Commission to enter into an agreement with Olivia Way’s Developer  [Reedy Meadow Estates] to use of a portion of Groton’s conservation property as a drainage easement.

   Although the agreement allows using conservation land for overflow drainage, Massachusetts’ law requires that other equivalent land be put into conservation in such a situation. Conservation Commission member Peter Morrison said, “The land we're going to be getting is both in Pepperell and in Groton and has to be as good or better than the land that we're giving up, according to the law.” All these costs are being borne by the developer.

    Asked how the flooding problem could have been prevented, Planning Board member Russell Burke said the site presented multiple unusual difficulties. First the subdivision, of which Olivia Way is a part, is split between two towns – Groton and Pepperell. The majority of the subdivision land lies in Pepperell while Olivia Way is in Groton. 

  Second, the property was a former gravel pit. Burke said that determining the high groundwater markers in a former gravel pit is difficult because the ‘water doesn't stay in one place very long because it's a very porous soil.’ He added that the problem was exacerbated in part because the developer had not properly cleaned out catch basins on Olivia Way. 

    Burke summed up his views saying that the Earth Removal Storm Water Advisory Committee, Conservation Commission and Planning Board’s work resulted in a remedy that is in the best interest of the town and the residents of Olivia Way.

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