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Uplands Progress Stalls with the Board of Selectmen
Who responds to 40B?
By Arthur Katz/ Correspondent, Belmont Citizen Herald, Thursday, March 31, 2005
Original article at

Seven weeks ago, O'Neill Properties received notice that its proposal for a 300-unit, multi-family housing development at the Belmont Uplands was eligible for state financing as a Chapter 40B housing project.

The necessary application for a comprehensive permit, which must be approved by the Belmont Zoning Board of Appeals, has not yet been submitted.

"I can't predict at this time when we will submit the plans," Robert Engler, the housing consultant hired by O'Neill to shepherd the proposal through permitting, said last week.

"We are working with our engineers and architects to finish the work. We are looking at flood plain issues along with everything else," he said.

But the lack of a definite proposal has not stopped town officials from working on their response to the proposal.

On Monday night, the selectmen heard a presentation from the Uplands Advisory Committee, chaired by Fred Paulsen, made a presentation on the anticipated 40B application.

The Uplands Advisory Committee was established in April 2004, to explore the possibility of an alternate site for O'Neill's housing proposal. Committee members suggested a land swap, giving O'Neill the nearby state-owned ice rink to use instead of the Uplands parcel, with the objective of keeping the Uplands free of any development.

After O'Neill turned to the Chapter 40B process to get the housing development approved, the Uplands Advisory Committee has become involved in the town's response to that, although the committee was slated to be dissolved last summer (see sidebar).

At the same time the Advisory Committee was created, Timothy Higgins, senior planner in the Office of Community Development, was made Uplands project manager for the town.

The Zoning Board of Appeals has exclusive jurisdiction over 40B applications, according to state law.

Paulsen said, "We are concerned with making sure the ZBA gets the critical information it will need to handle the anticipated comprehensive permit request. The most pressing issues, in our judgment, are handling the sewer flow from the site, and the change in the flooding criteria for the area."

Roger Colton, a member of the Uplands Advisory Committee and chairman of the Belmont Housing Trust, said last week that in his view, "The ZBA will have only 45 days to respond when the comprehensive permit application is presented. We thought it would be useful to get the town's various departments looking at the issues now, rather than wait."

In May 2004, at the request of the Board of Selectmen, many town departments and boards wrote memoranda outlining the effect that the proposed 40B complex would have on their operations and on the town.

These responses - from the School, Police and Fire departments, Housing Trust, Council on Aging, Water Department, Municipal Light Board, Department of Public Works, Conservation Commission, Vision 21 Implementation Committee, and Uplands Advisory Committee - were extremely detailed, in many cases, and generally critical of the O'Neill proposal.

Without new information, several managers of those departments said recently, they could not comment further.

(The responses from the town departments and committees can be found on the town's Web site,

Selectman Angelo Firenze said in an interview last week that it is not clear why the Uplands are on the selectmen's agenda at this point.

"Without a specific 40B proposal on the table, I question how much time we should be spending on this issue," he said.

"Tim Higgins [Belmont's senior planner] has been the project leader on the Uplands and the point person for the town, and I think he has done a great job," said Firenze. "A lot of preparation has also already been done by the Zoning Board of Appeals to get ready to address the issue. That is the group that will be charged with resolving the details."

Agreeing that "some kind of 40B housing will be built on that site," Firenze said, "We ought to be sitting down and negotiating with O'Neill in a cooperative way to reduce the possible impacts rather than fighting the concept. There are better uses for the town's money than legal costs."

Firenze suggested that the number of three-bedroom apartments could be reduced, "to keep down the impact on the schools," or the total number of apartments could be reduced.

"But until we have a proposal we can address," he added, "I'm not sure we ought to be engaged in a prolonged discussion at this time."

The other two selectmen, Paul Solomon and Will Brownsberger, indicated in telephone interviews that Higgins continues to have their support as the project manager, but that the Uplands Advisory Committee could be helpful in the process of reacting to the permit.

Paulsen said, "I recognize that the real work on this issue has to be done by the town staff, and we want to work with them. I think we can add some valuable input to the process."