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Belmont Notable and Coordinator of the Belmont Uplands Advisory Committee (BUAC) Spells out Official and Popular Town Position
by Fred Paulsen

By Fred Paulsen, Chair of Uplands Advisory Committee

The Board of Selectmen appointed the Uplands Advisory Committee ("UAC") in April 2004 to advise the Board of Selectmen on the issues pertaining to the proposed O'Neill Development on the Belmont Uplands located in the northeast corner of Belmont between Acorn Park Drive and the Department of Conservation and Recreation ("DCR") Alewife Reservation. The Reservation runs along Little Pond, Little River, and Alewife Brook. The Uplands consist of 15.6 acres. Of the 12.9 acres in Belmont, 3.4 acres are wetlands.

In constructing Route 2 in the 1930s and later widening Route 2 in the 1960s, the former Massachusetts DPW relocated Little River and added to the historic filling of the wetlands previously located on the Uplands as shown on the 1903 USGS Map.

O'Neill Properties ("O'Neill"), a national developer located in Philadelphia, acquired the ADL property in 1998. In 1999, O'Neill sold the larger portion of the property in Cambridge known as Acorn Park to the Bulfinch Companies, Inc. ("Bulfinch"). However, O'Neill retained ownership of the smaller Uplands parcel.

O'Neill started with a rezoning application for R&D development which, after modification, was approved by the Town Meeting in 2002. With the decline in the commercial market, O'Neill applied to the Planning Board to rezone the Uplands to allow a larger residential development with 250 condominiums (with 25% affordable, in line with the Town's inclusionary housing by-law), and then altered that proposal to an even larger 300 unit residential rental development with 20% affordable under Chapter 40B.

Belmont's Position on this Issue:
By letter to MassDevelopment (the State agency that decides on the issue of Site Eligibility for the 40B Project) dated June 29, 2004, the Board of Selectmen stated unequivocally that it "does not support the development of housing at the Uplands." The Board stressed the role that the Uplands played in providing habitat for many species of wildlife within the Alewife Reservation (as documented by the Conservation Commission). The Board referred to the Town's Open Space plan that (a) identified the Uplands "as having extremely high environmental value" and (b) stated that "including the parcel in the Reservation is the preferred option."

The Board of Selectmen further wrote the following:
The Uplands "is geographically isolated from the community. It is split by the Cambridge City line and is surrounded by Route 2, Little Pond/Little River and the Acorn park office complex. There are no residential abutters or amenities for school-aged children. There is no public transportation or pedestrian access to the site from the Town . . . The options of installing new lines under the Little River or through a half dozen residential streets in Belmont are not desirable . . . We are concerned that there are no provisions within the proposal for senior housing. . . . According to the Belmont Housing Trust, the proposal does not fulfill Town's overall housing goals and will actually be detrimental to them."

Work by the Uplands Advisory Committee:
The UAC assisted the Board of Selectmen and the Community Development Department in responding to MassDevelopment and the filing of a Notice of Project Change to EOEA, a necessary filing because O'Neill had changed its approved R&D development to a different and larger and more land-intensive residential proposal. The UAC is currently working with the Conservation Commission in support of the Town's administrative appeal pertaining to O'Neill's R&D Project on the Uplands.

During last year, the UAC worked to support a "land swap." Under the "land swap," DCR would make the abandoned MDC Rink Site available to O'Neill for 150 units of mixed market and affordable housing while O'Neill would donate the Uplands to the DCR to become part of the adjacent Alewife Reservation.

The acquisition of the Uplands by DCR would expand the Alewife Reservation established in 1903 as part of the Metropolitan Park system developed by Charles Eliot and the office of Frederick Law Olmsted beginning in 1893, thereby reversing the series of reductions and adverse impacts to the Parkland over the years. The Alewife Reservation should be as important to Belmont as Beaver Brook and Waverley Oaks. Joining the Uplands to the Reservation will also reduce floods, preserve significant wildlife habitat, and strengthen the Greenway, all priorities under the 2003 DCR Alewife Master Plan.

The UAC presented the "land swap" approach to O'Neill, to DCR, to the Belmont Board of Selectmen, Planning Board, and Conservation Commission, to the Cambridge Conservation Commission, to the Arlington Board of Selectmen and Conservation Commission, to abutters of Little Pond, and to Belmont and Arlington citizen groups. However, the Arlington Board of Selectmen objected to the "land swap" on the grounds that the Rink Site should be used for stormwater detention to lessen flooding. Moreover, new information on flooding emerged.

New Flood Information:
As reported by BSC (a consultant to Bulfinch, who is the developer of Cambridge Discovery Park), ENSR, consultant to FEMA, shows (on a preliminary basis) an increase of 29 inches in the 100-year flood elevation over the 1982 FEMA study (from 8.2 to 10.6 feet elevation). A higher 100-year flood level subjects a greater portion of the buildable area of the Uplands to (a) the state Building Code requirement to place the lowest floor of any building above the 100-year base flood elevation and (b) the Wetlands Protection Act requirements (i) for compensatory flood storage to be located adjacent to the impacted areas and at the same elevation from which flood storage is being removed, and (ii) for inventorying and taking into account larger significant wildlife habitat areas.

The new flood elevation would affect portions of either the 242,000 square foot R&D/Office complex for which O'Neill has zoning permission or the 300-unit 40B housing development for which it is seeking approval.

The ENSR study is not yet final. After completion of the study, FEMA will hold public hearings before new flood-plain maps go into effect, a process likely to take a year or more. (See related article, page xx.) However, the State Wetlands Protection Act regulation do allow the Conservation Commission to use new flood data developed by a professional engineer or other qualified person who can demonstrate that the 1982 FEMA flood delineation is no longer accurate.

The new flood-plain delineation is responsible for two other recent developments. First, the land swap that the UAC recommended in 2004 is no longer likely because of the pending flood-plain changes. The site of the former MDC skating rink is entirely in the new 100-year flood plain. O'Neill would have no reason to switch from building on the Uplands to building on the skating rink site.

Other Environmental Issues:
The Uplands provide vital floodwater storage, helping to ameliorate both flooding and water shortages by releasing groundwater slowly. The vegetation as well as the land itself reduces flooding. Wetland scientist Charles Katuska estimated that building a 4.4-acre structure on the Uplands, as O'Neill proposes, would increase stormwater runoff by 2.26 million gallons per year, because of the loss of the evaportranspiration naturally occurring in the forest.

A Conservation Alternative of Benefit to all Three Communities:
The Department of Conservation & Recreation (DCR) with the support of Belmont, Arlington and Cambridge might buy the Uplands using a combination of funding sources. For example, by adopting the Community Preservation Act and obtaining matching dollars from the State, Belmont could raise open space money and raise money to support affordable housing throughout the Town that would be integrated into neighborhoods and held in perpetuity for our children and grandchildren.

Belmont might aid this acquisition by voting to accept the Community Preservation Act, which provides matching state money to municipalities that increase taxes by a small amount (anywhere from half of one percent to three percent) to build up a fund devoted to open space, affordable housing, and historic preservation. The Board of Selectmen and the Town Meeting have to look closely at the alternative of working to add the Uplands to the Alewife Reservation Town because not only would 300-unit housing development if built destroy valuable natural area and wildlife habitat but no studies have been presented by O'Neill to demonstrate that the O'Neill housing development will match in tax receipts what it will cost in Town services, creating a greater tax burden for all and endangering in perpetuity the Town's already beleaguered budget.

MassDevelopment's Decision:
No one should panic, however, at the recent news that O'Neill's application for a 300-unit housing development at the Uplands has passed its first hurdle. The project was ruled eligible in February by the MassDevelopment for financing with state bonds.

As MassDevelopment's February 11th letter to Belmont notes, "This determination of project eligibility is not a binding commitment for financing from MassDevelopment; rather, it is a project eligibility letter under the comprehensive permit regulations. Any commitment for financing from MassDevelopment is subject to review of the final financing application and the approval of the Board of Directors of MassDevelopment."

Role of Board of Appeals:
The next step is for Belmont's Zoning Board of Appeals to review O'Neill's application in great detail. Under the regulations implementing the comprehensive permit law, Chapter 40B of the Massachusetts General Laws, the Belmont ZBA must balance "local needs" against the need for affordable housing. That will include a careful examination of flooding, wetland impacts, sanitary waste overflow, infrastructure capacity, and the new information that the 100-year flood plain is much larger than previously thought, as well as questions concerning density, location and impact on schools. Belmont can expect the ZBA to review all these issues carefully.

Also last year, the Selectmen also asked the state to require O'Neill to file an additional environmental report under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act. The MEPA office had previously said that O'Neill would be required to file a Notice of Project Change if it pursued the housing development, but the Notice and related report have not yet been filed. Moreover, O'Neill's consultant, Epsilon Associates stated in the R&D Final Environmental Impact Report that if O'Neill chooses to pursue the residential alternative, it will file a Notice of Project Change with the MEPA office. As of this date, O'Neill has not filed a Notice of Project Change, nor have MassDevelopment and MEPA required this further environmental study at this time.

Yes, there is much that we can do to deal with this latest development, and we, as citizens, must engage creatively and forcefully in that task. Belmont, Arlington, and Cambridge are among the most densely populated communities in the United States (Cambridge is third behind Somerville and Chelsea, and Arlington and Belmont are in the top twenty cities and towns in Massachusetts). The conservation alternative in reserving a scarce and irreplaceable natural space presents a much more desirable outcome as it contributes to the quality and affordability of life for our residents.