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Audubon Habitat in Belmont Stands Firm on Value of Forested Uplands

The Belmont Citizen Herald published this as an OP ED piece.

by: Roger Wrubel Director, Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary and TMM6

Commercial or Residential: Do the Owls Really Care!

Recent issues of the Belmont Citizen Herald have included full-page ads from O'Neill Properties describing what they believe are the advantages of their proposed residential development plan versus their commercial development permitted under the zoning of their property. In arguing for a rezoning of their property in the Alewife area they raise a number of points including several supposed environmental advantages of the new plan compared to the commercial plan. In fact, from an environmental perspective, there is no significant difference between the commercial and residential plans. Thus, the town's decision regarding rezoning of the property should be based on factors other than the relative environmental merits of one design plan over the other. Either plan will result in significant undesirable environmental consequences for Alewife and the surrounding area.

O'Neill claims "more acres of uplands for open space". This is true because of the inclusion of the landscaped areas between the residential buildings and the fire road that surrounds the residential complex. But in either plan most of the land set aside for protection is unbuildable wetlands.

The new design according to O'Neill will have "less buffer zone impacts". This is technically correct but the difference is insignificant. What is true is that both plans intrude extensively into the buffer zone that protects the fragile wetland habitats of the Alewife Reservation. Their claim of "zero negative impacts on the adjacent wetlands" is preposterous and no scientist worth his/her salt would make such a claim. The development site contains almost the entire mature forested uplands in the Alewife area. Its loss will essentially remove this habitat type from the region. The Belmont Conservation Commission identified 19 wildlife species in the Alewife area that require both wetland and upland habitat for survival. Clearly these species will be negatively impacted by the destruction of the upland forest. Additionally, placing any development so close to a wetland always runs the risk of unexpected events. Would O'Neill claim that the probability of negative impacts from the Burbank School on Clay Pit Pond was zero?

O'Neill claims that the proposed project preserves 95% of the Alewife Reservation. This is a curious statement since their property is not part of the Alewife Reservation. However, this statement does highlight the close ecological connection between the O'Neill property and the reservation. By their reasoning if O'Neill Properties was able to develop the entire 15-acre parcel they own, 88% of the reservation would still be preserved. This mathematical nonsense misses the critical point: either development, commercial or residential, will remove almost 100% of the mature upland forest habitat to which the wildlife in the Alewife area now have access.

What is worrisome about the O'Neill residential proposal, compared to their commercial development, is that it is so sketchy. Will additional amenities, such as tennis courts and playgrounds, be built, which will further degrade the wildlife habitat? Will flood mitigation devices be required that will further disturb the wetland buffer zone? None of this detail is now shown on the O'Neill Properties concept plan for the residential development.