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Construction equipment works on the site on River Street just past Hillcrest Drive in Andover. MARY SCHWALM/Staff Photo

The Conservation Commission has voted against building a proposed residential community near River Road, but that hasn't stopped workers from felling trees and bulldozers from shaking Frances Wheeler's house on nearby Hillcrest Road.

A new state law aimed at helping developers cut red tape during a difficult economy has essentially made the town vote meaningless.

For years, developer Todd Wacome has been trying to build Taylor Cove, a proposed 32-unit housing complex off River Road. Confusing the issue was that the Conservation Commission - but not the Planning Board - has approved, about a decade ago, a five-home plan for the same land called Victoria Place.

The Conservation Commission voted in April to not renew a permit associated with Victoria Place.

However, a new state law is giving developers an additional two years to act on any permit, allowing workers to begin work on the Victoria Place plan. They are doing so.

"Even though it was fully denied by the commission, it is now extended by two years," town Conservation Director Bob Douglas said.

Todd Wacome, who's company is working at Taylor Cove, could not be reached for comment through phone calls and a visit to his home. His attorney, Donald Borenstein, was also not available for comment before the Townsman's early deadline this week.

With the permit extension law, Wacome's company is allowed to start working on anything the Conservation Commission approved for Victoria Place, which Wheeler and Douglas said is on the same property as Taylor Cove.

Plans approved for Victoria Place included a road and other changes to the hilly, wooded property, according to Wheeler.

Many of those who attended a recent Conservation Commission meeting, where abutters raised extensive concern about the continuing construction, tried to argue the extension law does not apply to the project, according to Douglas.

"There were other clauses that ... gave us the impression that it didn't apply to the case, and that the permit would remain denied," Douglas said.

"The Conservation Commission doesn't want them to do it, and the Zoning Board of Appeals has it on record that they think it is illegal to do what he is doing," Wheeler said.

But the town has determined that the law does apply to the previously approved Victoria Place plan, and it is legally allowed to continue with that plan.

"We are adamant that all state and local regulations be followed," Douglas said. "He has begun what work he can. He has a permit to do so."

The construction came as a surprise to Wheeler, as well as 13 other local residents who abut the property. Through a petition given to the Conservation Commission, they said were never given notification that the construction would take place.

"When the work started, the neighbors were saying, 'What is going on?'" Wheeler said.

At the meeting, developer Wacome, his attorney Borenstein and employees with his company said they notified all abutters of the construction, according to Douglas.

Part of what makes the project frustrating for Wheeler is that it was approved by only one commission nearly a decade ago, when regulations and knowledge of the area were different.

"The Conservation Commission has said that the rules have changed since Victoria Place was approved," Wheeler said. "If the same things were looked at now, there would be different regulations on it."

A water way that passes through the area of the property, Fosters Pond Creek, was recently re-classified as a river by the commission. It brings water from Fosters Pond to the Shawsheen River, according to Wheeler.

At the meeting last week, members of the commission asked Taylor Cove representatives to pay for a study to determine where the water way is located and how it would affect any housing units placed on the property, Douglas and Wheeler said. Douglas said he expects a response to the request at the next Conservation Commission meeting, scheduled for Nov. 30.

For the time being, construction is allowed to continue for a road and other aspects of the Victory Place plans.

"I think he is going to rush the excavation and reform the property. I think it is only a matter of time before they come in and bulldoze it," Wheeler said. "ConsCom doesn't want them to do it, but they're doing it anyway."

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For feedback on this story, or for other story-related inquiries, please email dluca@andovertownsman.com.

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