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Belmont Uplands Editorial Update
Fighting to Preserve the Belmont Silver Maple Forest
And YOU must too.
Commentary by Ellen Mass, President, Friends of Alewife Reservation
"Saving the Ballona". Although our Boston area does not have California's Martin Sheen and Ed Asner, we do need others who will bring us the attention the Uplands deserves.The huge California coalition succeeded in saving a wetland of 600 acres outside of Los Angeles recently.
Spring is here but the news concerning preservation of the Belmont Uplands is far from victorious. In fact, permission from Mass Housing Development has been given to the developer to present future 40 B housing plans, as soon as he is ready. This state agency is a more powerful voice for low income housing that supersedes town decisions. While many want to meet the federal quotas for necessary housing and even go beyond, as we should, we do not want to tear up a rare piece of the natural environment when there are literally hundreds of redevelopable pieces to choose from. "Not in my backyard" is usually the cry for property values protection and against a more sensible development choice.
One person against another more practical, and already developed site plan, at least in Massachusetts, is Brian O'Neill, the developer, who wants to clearcut the region's precious forest. Unfortunately, much of the information from the Belmont Uplands Advisory Committee and other town environmental organizations is not available to the general public, with the exception of an important article in the Belmont Citizen Forum (last issue) on the Uplands and advocacy in front of town boards concerning potential flooding and traffic matters.. The town newspaper journalist and editorials are pro-developer in this case and have expounded regularly on their support for Uplands development and now clearly report from that perspective although other articles have been welcomed by staff.
The only avenue now for the group seems to be working more closely with town officials, especially the town planner, recently appointed official Uplands Project Leader. Mr Higgens has consistently represented the developer's plan to clearcut the area and build on the undeveloped piece of heavily wooded property, which many of us know, now, as a unique maple forest and mammal hibernating area, not to mention flood plain, wetlands and vernal area that protects citizens from flooding, and storm water contamination.
A small number of voices have been heard at this highly critical time in behalf of advocating consistently and actively for citizens' open space municipal and regional environmental needs, or our quality of life, standards that require noise and traffic abatement, and climate control as pertains to the Uplands. The rare habitat and environmental value of the trees is documented with the book, "Biodiversity of the Alewife Reservation Area" so as to keep our mostly publicly-owned Reservation intact.
A United States supreme court precedent may be highly relevant to this issue as well, once an attorney has been brought in to remain interested in the case.
Case in point made by someone from Conservation Law Foundation is that a developer must not subdivide and maximize the second parcel's profit, after the first parcel maximization has occurred. This appears the case of the Uplands with the 9 month 40 million dollar profit sale in 91', and needs careful attention. Whether this is the case or not should be investigated.
In the last half year, there has been virtual silence on what has been the finest and most efficient flood control mechanisms i.e. floodplain trees that exist for Belmont, Arlington and Cambridge, i.e. the silver maple, willow, birch and ash trees which dominate the land, with silver maple as monoculture. The trees absorb the water, clean the runoff and create improved climate conditions and natural barriers and biodiversity for Little Pond neighbors and for the entire Winn Brook neighborhood and beyond. (Tearing out the coral reefs and forests of Indonesia made the Tsunami devastation much worse, and comparisons can be made).
Developer O'Neill would be required to remove at least 5 or 6 acres of the densest part of the forest in order to grade the building area for 40 B development. O'Neill is known throughout the East Coast as a developer who redevelops on brownfields or former developed land. He is quoted in one of his many speeches to real estate boards and recognition dinners to avoid development on land such as the Uplands, but to choose redevelopable land. "You can reclaim industrial sites close to where everyone is, or you can pave over paradise with a parking lot.", he proclaimed recently. He disdains the lyrics via his Uplands plan while quoting them elsewhere. He is one of the biggest purchasers of brownfields in the U.S.
His construction record needs careful examination and is available through the web. What he does and says in Pennsylvania should be noted in Massachusetts. As one of the biggest developers along the mid-east coast, especially cheap brownfields purchases, O'Neill has expanded his developments most recently into Massachusetts.
There is much public controversy over his development in Rhode Island as we speak and should be followed.
There are many serious gaps in the process for considering whether to cut a forest in such a densely populated area, i.e. its function as important flood protector of citizens. This fact needs investigation. Research has been minimal, paid consultants have been nil, and publicly sponsored discussion outside of Advisory meetings is absent.
However, the town's elected town meeting members (close to majority) have signed a petition, sponsored by now defunct Belmont Uplands Alternative Group (composed of many Belmont residents and regional friends) against the development and for an alternative site. The towns of Belmont, Arlington and Cambridge have all voted in one way or another against the Uplands site as a developable one, and Cambridge held 3 hearings, all opposed to development. (Cambridge owns 3 acres of the land).
These public statements cannot be ignored and we hope more Belmont citizens will become interested in the process once again, as it is clear the mandate in Cambridge, Belmont and Arlington is to preserve the Uplands. However, FAR as a stewarding and educational organization, doing its part by giving the public access and educating them, on site about the Alewife Reservation and the role the forest plays as core buffer and core nesting/hibernating area for the rare wildlife refuge. The site needs to be understood by an increasingly populated Boston area corridor (to the northwest) and reduced habitat region within Rt. 128.
We must rely on an educated public in Belmont, to continue to keep the Uplands in the public domain with slide shows of what the area is about, public forums, whether they include development perspectives of housing and business, including a wildlife-forest perspective. More must be expressed from citizens such as letters to the editor, articles about what the area is, its benefits for people and for living creatures and vital plant communities, your personal experiences of your visits, and how the area presently flourishes. Turtle nesting period is coming closer in April and monitoring will be required.
Alewife herring did not arrive at Little Pond last year which was the first time in 30 years. We will be praying that they make it this year. Impacting Little Pond with heavy development will surely affect spawning decline further (a powerful instinctive migration similar to the salmon run), which has been occurring in the area for thousands of years, not to mention the effect on Little Pond's abutters. Little Pond has been one favorite place in winter for the Bald Eagle which requires more open space than the development would provide.
There are with legal implications for the developer until the area has been archeologically investigated. Mass Historical Commission also wrote against developing the Uplands without proper legal archeological exploration. Harvard University's Peabody Museum has a display of Alewife artifacts and the Commission has noted that there may be rare Native American artifacts or other finds on site.
An Uplands development will make the important wildlife species count of 18 mammals and many nesting birds (assessed in professional wildlife book) less likely to exist for us and future generations.
We encourage all those who are able to come to the FAR events, visit the area, write to the Belmont Selectmen and call the Belmont Uplands Advisory Committee or whomever you have a contact with , and to do so this Spring, not later. The summertime is dangerous for those who feel strongly about a serious municipal issue such as saving a forest, because many issues are pushed through when citizens are on vacation, especially August, and the Uplands issue is particularly vulnerable to this approach, possibly with a forced Town Meeting which will change the zoning for the developer to proceed.
FAR is not able to perform these advocacy duties, but is making 7 outdoor events available for the public to see for themselves and to enjoy.
Town voices must encourage citizens to have their say.
Please let the citizen advisory group and town officials know that you are concerned about our region's rare wildlife refuge and its future in the Boston area and that a developer like O'Neill may not be reliable in a sensitve natural and very old wetland and forest which existed before the farmland period.
Contact the following to help preserve the Alewife Reservation silver maple forest- Belmont Uplands.
The following represent large public constituencies for the area.
Town appointed Belmont Uplands Advisory Committee:
Uplands Advisory Committee- Appointed by Selectmen
Belmont Neighbors Network
Belmont Uplands Alternative Group- no longer meeting
Belmont Citizens Forum
Sustainable Belmont Jan_Kruse1@yahoo.com
Vision 21- Selectmen Appointed
Arlington Land Trust
Belmont Land Trust
Friends of Alewife Reservation
Mystic River Watershed Association
Belmont Audubon Habitat
Coalition for Alewife
Uplands Advisory Committee (UAC)
*HISTORY OF O'Neill Properties (OP):