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Column: Talk to ZBA about Uplands
By Darrell J. Kong
Guest Column, January 26, 2006 Belmont Citizen-Herald

Now that O'Neill Properties has begun the application process with the Zoning Board of Appeals for a housing development at the Belmont Uplands, the 40B process is upon us. The Conservation Commission, Planning Board, and other town departments will weigh in with written comments, but it is imperative that citizens respond as well. Many of us would be affected by a project of this scope, specifically in terms of sewer connections, flooding, traffic, and town services, but additionally in terms of irreparable loss of wildlife habitat and damage to the environment.

Brian O'Neill made his fortunes by developing abandoned industrial sites; in fact, he has received much praise and recognition for this. I applaud him for this as well. He has contributed to causes favoring protection of natural sites; Nantucket Sound is a favorite of his. He once stated at a Planning Board meeting that in no way was he interested in doing a 40B project. He made an obscenely handsome profit (over million) already on the land transactions which took place at Acorn Park. Given all of this, why is he now going in this new direction?

The land in question was once used as a landfill for expansion of Route 2. Nature, however, has subsequently retaken possession of the land and covered it with a silver maple forest, creating in the process a habitat for wildlife and an absorbent root system which soaks up flood waters like a sponge. We have learned a great deal about the inherent environmental value of this particular property in the past several years, since the town first gave permission to rezone the land for commercial purposes. Our Board of Selectmen has repeatedly stated, concurring with the findings of several experts, committees and studies, that preservation of this land would be best for all.

I would ask Mr. O'Neill to consider donation of the land to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (formerly the MDC), to complement the adjacent Alewife Reservation, for which he could receive a respectable tax write-off and allow a small part of his portfolio to be preserved in perpetuity. Perhaps Mr. O'Neill would be willing to explore in good faith other options, such as land swaps, etc., to protect this parcel.

If the 40B process does proceed, then we must step forward to proclaim our objections, in no uncertain terms, in writing to the ZBA and in person at all upcoming hearings. The 40B process itself is designed to encourage the community to participate fully and negotiate to protect its own interests, and it is incumbent on all of us to make our opinions known. I have attended meetings in the past where, because so few citizens showed up, the board made its decisions with no little or no input from the public or based upon the desires of only one or two individuals. The Zoning Board is our voice in the process, but it is our responsibility to make our own voices heard. Send in your written comments; attend the hearings; voice your objections. Our comments will shape the direction in which theses hearings proceed, and ultimately will determine the size and shape of what might be built or whether something is ever built at all.

Before the bulldozers clear-cut the forest (clich?, perhaps, but try to picture Little Pond surrounded by development on all sides), before more traffic gridlocks the neighborhood streets, the flooding increases, and the increased sewage (300 new households!) overburdens the drains, go to the hearings and speak up. I intend to.

Darrell J. King is a Long Avenue resident, and a Town Meeting member for Precinct 1.