How an old pipe makes new problems for Border Street rezoning effort

Scott Scarpato has been trying to get Newton to fix a pipe under Border Street—where he owns Automatic Laundry and a few other properties—for years now.

And now that the zoning debate has landed at his door, he’s calling foul on the City Councilors trying to keep his buildings from being included in the Village Center rezoning plan and citing the same pipe situation the city and state never fixed.

“Having us out of the zoning gives them more power over us,” Scarpato said.

At the Nov. 20 City Council debate over the Village Center Overlay District rezoning plan, Councilor Andrea Kelley offered an amendment that would add lots along Border Street to the rezoning plan and allow 430 new potential units for development.

Property owners on that street, Kelley said, want to be included. And Border Street is close to the West Newton commuter rail station, so including the lots would add 430 potential units toward the MBTA Communities Act requirement.

But Councilor Pam Wright spoke against the idea, saying there was too much flooding on Border Street to up-zone it.

And Councilor David Kalis motioned to table the Border Street lots until the Council goes through other parts of the city planned for up-zoning, to see if the city needs the needs the Border Street lots upzoned to meet MBTA Communities Act requirements.

Water, water, everywhere

Newton DPW Commissioner Jim McGonigle said flooding is common all over the city because it’s surrounded by the Charles River.

“The city has a very high water table, and a lot of parts of the city were filled in many, many years ago before regulations were in place,” McGonagle said. “We will always be prone to flooding, and with climate change that’s only going to increase.”

Border Street has a unique situation, though.

In 1932, McGonagle said, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority installed a massive 60-inch-diameter water main under that neighborhood that feeds into surrounding communities. And they ran that water main right through a culvert the city had installed near Cheesecake Brook.

An old pipe installed by the state that blocks part of a culvert in Cheesecake Brook has been causing occasional flooding in the Border Street area for decades. Google Maps

Newton has commissioned a hydraulic engineering study to determine how much that faulty water main installation impacts flooding in that area.

“If they do determine that this [fixing the pipework] will reduce the flooding or completely stop it, then we have to go into negotiations with the MWRA.”

If the MWRA agrees to replace that water main, it won’t be an easy job.

“They anticipate they would have to put this water main 30 feet underground, which is a massive project,” McGonagle said.

Relocating the water main could cause more problems for areas downstream, like the Albemarle Field neighborhoods.

McGonagle said he expects the study to take about three or four months.

“Once we have all that information, then we can start to move forward with a plan to address it,” he said.

‘Fix the Pipe’

The Border Street neighborhood is a longtime manufacturing district that has evolved to include a variety of businesses.

The Scarpato family opened its business on Watertown Street in the 1960s and relocated it Border Street in 1982. And Scarpato says flooding has been real but also rare.

In the late 1980s, Scarpato said he noticed that when there’s a heavy rainstorm, backed-up water from the Cheesecake Brook culvert underneath gathers on the street for a few minutes and then quickly disappears.

“I’m telling you, when the rain stops, in 20 minutes it’s gone,” Scarpato said.

The Cheesecake Brook runs east to west near Border Street, and the pipe in question runs north to south under Elm Street.

Scarpato said he spoke with city officials about the problem back then, but nothing’s been done to address the erroneously laid pipe.

“I was told there was an easement by the city to allow the MWRA to run that pipe through the Cheesecake Brook culvert, which reduced the capacity of the culvert by 50 percent,” Scarpato said.

With less water able to flow at any given time, heavy rain creates a backflow that causes the temporary flooding.

Scarpato said the quick flooding only happens once every few years, sometimes maybe twice a year, but when it happens it’s very disruptive. Once, he noted, Boston Bruins player Brad Marchand’s nanny was trapped in her car with his daughters waiting for the water to subside.

“At this point, it’s become negligence, because they’ve been made aware of the problem,” Scarpato said. “Fix the pipe.”

This isn’t the Scarpatos’ first fight with City Hall over water. About 20 years ago, a pipe was installed that blocked off a sewage pipe to someone’s home behind Automatic Laundry.

Eventually, the sewage seeped up and suddenly flooded the Automatic Laundry’s driveway with a foul fecal stench a couple of years ago.

“The city blocked the line when they re-did Border Street 20-plus years ago,” Scarpato said. “They blocked off a working sewer line by mistake.”

What about zoning?

As McGonagle pointed out, the whole city is flood-prone due to its high water table and close proximity to major waterways.

McGonagle said re-zoning an area for new development can actually help alleviate flooding, because unlike existing older buildings, new projects must be built to proactively deal with flooding.

A new ordinance also requires all new large developments to go through a team of engineers, planning officials and conservation commissioners to determine how stormwater must be handled.

“So any new development would only really help the situation,” McGonagle said. “It wouldn’t harm it per se, because they would have to build according to our new regulations. For a major stormwater permit, you would have to mitigate the first two inches of rain.”

The city is also working with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council on a flood plan, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is redoing flood maps for the area, McGonigle added.

McGonagle said his department has been working with the Planning Department on any questions and concerns, not the City Council. So the City Councilors deciding their votes on the up-zoning of Border Street are doing so without guidance from the DPW.

Scarpato wants to be included in the Village Center Overlay District because he said it would give him an updated set of rules that wouldn’t require jumping through as many hoops for the City Council.

“If we’re in the re-zoning, it takes the politics out and I don’t have to go to the city, hat-in-hand, to do something with my own property,” he said.

‘We’ve been used’

Scarpato’s son, Scott Scarpato Jr., said that seeing the Council table the Border Street debate to see what deals can be made elsewhere in the VCOD added insult to injury.

“That’s what’s frustrating about this whole situation,” Scarpato Jr. said. “We’ve been used. And it’s very disheartening, because you try not to think that the things they say about politics are true, but they’re true.”

The Scarpatos say Ward 3 City Councilor Julia Malakie visited them this summer promising to get the pipe fixed. They say she filmed them and had them create a YouTube channel after an unrelated pipe burst in August.

As the Newton City Council debates a rezoning plan, there’s an amendment proposed that would add Border Street to the VC3 (shown in red) zone. City of Newton VCOD Maps

The pipe hasn’t been addressed and the Scarpatos say that Malakie never told them she was compiling the videos and other items to oppose the VCOD, which they wanted to be included in.

“Without consulting anyone, she went to the Zoning and Planning Committee to have us removed,” Scarpato Jr. said. “She didn’t discuss it with a single person. We used to talk to her all the time, and then the second she got that footage from August, we never heard from her again.”

Scarpato pointed to a moment during the Nov. 20 debate in which Councilor Marc Laredo urged the Council to reject adding Border Street to the VCOD because they could get more concessions out of the Border Street property owners with a special permit.

“I feel like it was never explained to me what it [the rezoning plan] actually meant,” Scarpato Jr. said. “And then when I looked into it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is actually a really fair plan.’ It makes more sense for us to be in it.”

Malakie denied misleading business owners on Border Street rezoning and said she wants the flooding situation evaluated before that area is greenlit for higher density development.

“They won’t be kept off [the VCOD] if this problem can be solved,” Malakie said. “I would hesitate to zone for 4-story residential buildings in a situation like this without the problem being solved.”

Malakie acknowledged that new developments come with stormwater mitigation requirements, but that doesn’t stop water from other locations from contributing to overflow.

The City Council is set to discuss the Border Street flooding situation with the Planning Department and the DPW at their meeting next Monday.

Charles River Chamber President Greg Reibman, a vocal supporter of the Village Center Overlay District plan, has called out councilors who oppose the Village Center Overlay District proposal and says the rezoning plan would help small business owners like the Scarpatos.

“We heard during the election that some candidates and councilors felt Zoning and Planning wasn’t listening to the small business owners who might be displaced by upzoning,” Reibman said. “Here’s a case where every single owner on a street wants to be upzoned. I urge the council to honor these small business owners’ request.”

The City Council is set to continue the Village Center Overlay District debate Wednesday night. The city has until Dec. 31 to re-zone for the Massachusetts Communities Act compliance.