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40B Uplands Proposal - Residences at Acorn Park
Final report of Belmont Conservation Commission
to Belmont Zoning Board of Appeals
February 9, 2006
(links to attacments are in main text and in list at bottom of page)



Town Hall

Belmont, Massachusetts 02478



February 9, 2006



Mr. William Chin, Chairman

Zoning Board of Appeals

C/o Jay Szklut,

Homer Municipal Building

Belmont, MA 02478




Re: 40B Uplands Proposal - Residences at Acorn Park

Dear Mr. Chin


Thank you for providing the opportunity for the Belmont Conservation Commission to comment on the 40B application submitted to the Zoning Board of Appeals by AP Cambridge Partners. The Commission has jurisdiction over activities in Belmont which contribute to the following interests: protection of the public and private water supply, protection of ground water, flood control, storm damage prevention, prevention of pollution, protection of fisheries and protection of wildlife habitat.


There has been much study and discussion during the past five years of the pros and cons of development of the Belmont Uplands. One of the first groups to comment publicly was the Alewife Study Group, a body appointed by the Belmont Board of Selectmen in 2000, which reported back to the Board of Selectmen their finding that the highest and best use of this land was as open space, and that residential use was not recommended. The Commission agrees with this position.


Attached to this document are a number of documents developed between 2001 and the present that shed light on the nature of the Uplands and its value to the Town of Belmont today. The most valuable material in this report is in the attachments. We hope that the documentation will be read and considered carefully, and will result in a new appreciation of the natural value of the Belmont Uplands, and of what will be lost if this parcel is developed.


Below are questions for the ZBA to consider and some talking points for reflection as the board considers the merits and drawbacks of building a 40B development on the Uplands parcel.


I. Is the plan for development consistent with local needs?


The Belmont Vision Statement (Attachment A) approved by Town Meeting in April of 2001 states that we protect our natural settings and conserve our natural habitats and that we are environmentally responsible as a community.


The Belmont Open Space Plan (Attachment B) singles out the Uplands for its regional and local significance to a host of attributes valuable to the community, including wildlife habitat, area storm water and flooding control, impacts on the greater Mystic River watershed area, vegetation, and the regional greenway. (The report is long. Relevant sections are highlighted by underlining.)



II.                Is the plan for development consistent with regional needs?


Greenway: The site adjoining the Alewife Reservation, DCR properties and three towns provides a vital link to the urban greenway which connects the Little River, Alewife Brook, Aberjona River, and Mystic River to the Charles River Basin. The area is already heavily developed except for this Greenway and segmenting the green space diminishes its value to wildlife and pollution mitigation


Alewife Master Plan: How will the 40B plans relate to the Alewife Reservation and Alewife Brook Master Plan (Mass MDC/DCR June 2003)?


Tri-Community Flooding Committee: Through a regional approach to address flooding issues in areas abutting the Alewife floodplain, this committee has issued a report on measures to address serious flooding in neighborhoods near Little River and Alewife Brook. How will the new development improve this situation?


Mystic River Watershed: The Mystic River Watershed Association has expressed concerns about development of the Uplands for the watershed.


Arlington: Neighborhood associations from the Town of Arlington, near the Uplands site, have been formed to address household flooding problems during recent storm events.



III. Will the development imperil the health and safety of nearby residents?


Flooding: A 1981 FEMA report states that the drainage basin of Little River (Alewife Brook) “is intensely urbanized” and that Belmont “has an extensive storm drainage system which contributes to rapid runoff”. Belmont’s Floodplain District Zoning By-Law prohibits: a) new buildings or structures, and b) filling, dumping, excavation, removal, or transfer of any earth material which will restrict or increase flood water flow or reduce the flood water storage capacity. This by-law should not be waived as it bears a direct and substantial relationship to the protection of health and safety of town residents. One of the stated purposes of the by-law is “to protect the public health, safety, and general welfare, to protect human life and property from the hazards of periodic flooding.”


FEMA maps and discusses the 500-year storm in its Flood Insurance Study for Belmont. FEMA states, “ The 500-year flood is employed to indicate additional areas of flood risk in the community.” The effects of a 500-year storm on the proposal and the town need to be discussed here as well. We need to understand what would happen in this area if a 500-year storm event were to occur. The 1981 FEMA report states, “the 500-year flood elevation on Little River is controlled by backwater effects from Mystic River in Arlington. Also, flood elevations on Little River control the Wellington Brook flood levels from its mouth to the Boston and Maine Railroad culvert.” (p.9) A 500-year storm could imperil the health and safety of occupants as well as other town residents.


Sewage: The Sewer /Stormwater Committee has expressed concerns about the capacity of Belmont’s Sewer system to cope with additional sewage from a residential project. During heavy rain events the sanitary sewer system surcharges, causing backups of raw sewage into basements as well as sanitary sewer overflows onto streets. The overflow of raw sewage eventually enters Little Pond and Little River via the storm drain system. The Town is involved in extensive and expensive identification of the sources of infiltration and inflow into the sewer system to reduce such surcharging within the sanitary sewer system. (see Fay Spofford and Thorndike reports to Town, available at the Office of Community Development). An additional 300 residences at the Uplands will further strain the aging sanitary sewer infrastructure causing additional backups. Backups of raw sewage into basements and sanitary sewer overflows are a hazard to the health and safety of residents of the town.


Water and air pollution: The planned development’s intrusion into the wetlands buffer compromises the ability of the buffer to filter out pollutants. Vegetation traps sediments that bind and may break down pollutants into no-toxic compounds, thereby improving water quality in the drainage basin. Removal/reduction of vegetation compromises or eliminates that function. The location of the project in close proximity to the floodplain means that serious pollution from flooding may adversely affect the residents and the environment during a serious storm event. 1800 automobile trips per day can be expected to create both air and water pollution for nearby residents.



IV. Will the natural environment be endangered by the project?


The Commission believes that the Uplands development project will have substantial negative environmental impacts. Our concerns about development of this site were catalogued in the Conservation Commission Report to the Selectmen of December 2003 (Attachment C) and in Commission’s position is the response to Epsilon’s rebuttal of the Commission report (Attachment D).


Pollution: The development’s intrusion into the wetlands buffer compromises the ability of the buffer to filter out pollutants. Increases in stormwater runoff pollutant loadings (heavy metals, nutrients, petroleum hydrocarbons) and very likely increases in sanitary sewage discharged to Little Pond sub-watersheds. Wetlands Scientist Charles Katuska discusses the increase in local pollution that would be expected to result from removal of the flood plain forest. (CJK Memo, Attachment E).


The State has classified Little River/Alewife Brook (starting at outlet of Little Pond) as an impaired water body requiring a Total Maximum Daily Load Limit (TMDL). Specifically the State lists the pollutants in Alewife Brook/Little River as: Metals; Nutrients; Pathogens; Organic enrichment; Low Dissolved Oxygen; Oil and grease; and Taste, odor and color. The town is required to “develop, implement and enforce a storm water management program (SWMP)”. The town must design the stormwater management program “to reduce the discharge of pollutants from Belmont’s storm sewer system; to protect water quality, and to satisfy the water quality requirements of the Clean Water Act.”

The runoff from the planned parking lots will either reach Little Pond or Little River via a swale, grass detention or grass retention basin. These will reduce, but not eliminate pollutants from the parking lot runoff. These waterbodies are already “impaired” and adding additional pollutants will have a negative impact on the Natural Environment.


The report does not address pet waste. Pets should not be allowed in these apartments. Their waste will go directly to Little Pond or Little River.


Wildlife and fisheries: These would be adversely affected by development.

Many species, especially those requiring Upland and floodplain habitat would be eliminated locally if the apartment complex is built. A report prepared by Patrick Fairbairn of Normandeau Associates (Attachment F) explains why the Uplands is critical to wildlife and people, and gives insight into the natural value of this parcel of land. In addition, the unusual biodiversity and abundance of wildlife in the Alewife Reservation area is catalogued in a study funded by the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. (See Biodiversity Study of the Alewife Area by David Brown. Copies were distributed to the ZBA at the first meeting on the Uplands.) The report contains survey information on mammal and bird density in the area. On this congested site, so close to the Alewife Reservation and wildlife (including ticks in the encircling wetlands) pets should not be allowed.


Vegetation: In eastern Massachusetts, this parcel contains a unique floodplain forest consisting of predominantly silver maple. From detailed satellite surveys, this piece of land can be identified as a rare spot where forested wetland and Oak/Maple/Birch forest merge. It is the last place in the Boston basin where these two important habitats merge.

(See Katuska Forest Characterization, 2004, Attachment F.)


Flooding: Impervious surfaces within a watershed result in increases in both the peak rate and total volume of rainfall runoff (Leopold, 1968) (See also Katuska Memo, Attachment E.)


V. Are there deficiencies in the design of the project?


Further on in this document we detail additional information that is needed to fully evaluate this project. Below are a few points to consider.


Energy efficiency: While the intention of the proponent appears to be a commitment to energy efficiency, there are no plans for such systems in the submissions, and therefore no guarantee that the project will be energy efficient.


Water conservation and wastewater: Sewer connection plans are lacking. It is impossible to evaluate efficiency of water use from the submission.


Buffer zone impact: Building B, retention basin A, detention basin 1, building D, parking lots and exit driveway are all partly in buffer. Construction will also necessarily be in buffer, and construction impacts will likely not be confined to the buffer, but also to the resource itself. Construction mitigation measures must be well designed and overseen on this sensitive site.


Floodplain: Current FEMA studies confirm that in recent years increases in impervious surfaces appear to be driving the floodplain levels to new heights. Building this project within the 100 year floodplain appears to entail considerable risk. Potential pollution and damage to persons and property are of concern.



VI. Is open space critically needed in this location?


For maintaining local wildlife and the natural environment, the answer is clearly yes. It is the only site in the area that can sustain certain of its species, such as beavers and mink, which need Uplands and floodplain to survive. Furthermore, the natural value of the Alewife Reservation will certainly be diminished by the loss of the Uplands. It is likely to lose wildlife species, including some that are becoming rare in our area.


Providing local affordable housing options in an area where choices are very limited is of great importance to our community and for the region. In the past few years the Town of Belmont has become more aware of the local and regional need for affordable housing and has shown a new commitment to finding solutions. The Town has identified sites for possible housing and dedicated citizens are working to create more options. Finding space and building affordable housing has become a priority issue for the current administration.


Nevertheless, we believe that sites other than the Uplands, ideally sites for redevelopment that do not remove the region’s tiny store of unique natural space, can and will become available.


Forested areas are rare in our region and are of great benefit to citizens in Belmont and nearby communities. The Uplands is located within walking distance of the Alewife T Station and is therefore quite accessible to residents of the greater Boston region. It is an ideal site for the study of nature and ecology, increasingly important in a world where global warming is now accepted as a real threat. Cambridge has no natural wooded property and Arlington contains only a small wooded area. Belmont is fortunate to contain some wooded land on Belmont Hill, though the development of a cemetery there is gradually eliminating a large segment of that forest. Habitat (Mass Audubon land), the Beaver Brook Reservation in Waverley in nearby Waltham, and Rock Meadow Conservation Land are also resources for the community. However these natural areas in Belmont are several miles from the Uplands.


In 2003 the Belmont Town Meeting voted to zone the Uplands site for an office building. Only in the subsequent months and years have we fully understood the unique contribution that the Uplands parcel makes to our community and the region. We now understand more about the unusual value of this land containing a rare silver maple floodplain forest, serving as a wildlife refuge and as an essential segment of the greenway/wildlife corridor stretching from east to west across the region.



VII. Additional Information Needed


The Conservation Commission has identified areas where the proponent should provide additional information and/or mitigation. Requests for additional information are in the following areas: additional mapping, details on zoning exceptions, additional studies on wetland and wildlife impacts, clarification of floodplain issues, additional stormwater management, evaluation of alternative footprints and layouts for the development, and consideration of sustainable development features.


Additional Mapping Requested:


  • A detailed map of the area intended to be under the conservation restriction should be provided. This map should show the relationship of the area to the proposed project and analysis should be provided of the potential impact of the “improvements” to land under the proposed conservation restriction: parking lot, kiosk and trails, all of which may be in buffer zone, riverfront area and wetlands.

  • A detailed map should be provided of existing trees indicating which trees will be removed and which preserved with an overlay of buildings, driveways, amenities, utilities and buffer zone/floodplain and proposed Conservation Restriction.


  • A detailed map should be provided with Conservation Restriction of the R&D memorandum of understanding and the new project in overlay with buffer zone, with flood zone and buildings outlined.


  • A detailed report and map should be provided of planned recreational areas for residents and evaluation of impact. The only areas available for recreation appear to be buffer and wetlands where hard use would be destructive of the environment. The report should include proposed location, size, capacity and maintenance of outdoor pool: flushing, draining, chemical storage and disposal.


Zoning Exceptions:


  • Details on the request for exceptions to § 6.B.8, zoning bylaws should be included. For example Section 6.B.8.7 covers issues vital to the protection of the environment, runoff, storm water etc. The bylaws sections should be detailed and reasons given why each exception should be granted. Design and Site Plan Review should not be waived. For example the impact of the view from Little Pond to the site should be covered. The local flooding bylaw should not be waived as it bears a direct and substantial relationship to the protection of health and safety of town residents.


Additional Study is needed:


  • A detailed study is required of topography, soil types; vegetation removed and proposed to be replaced in the buffer zone. Healthy wetlands and buffers zones can remove pollutants from runoff: a 25ft. vegetated buffer zone removes 50% of pollutants, a 100 ft. buffer zone removes 70% (Desbonnet et al. 1994, Buchsbaum and Jackson). The loss of functioning buffer zones that will be replaced with grassland increases the polluted runoff. The proposed grass swale may help mitigate some sediment runoff but grass does not store pollutants as do cattails and even phragmites. Successful removal of Total Suspended Solids (TSS), sediment, pathogens and toxic pollutants depends on slope, soil type, and vegetation with forests removing more pollutants than grasslands. The storm water storage system does not address this pollutant removal and does not adequately mitigate for loss of functions of undeveloped land.


  • A detailed report on the mitigation and the “restoration” of the wetlands should be provided. The “grassland” proposed next to the building will undoubtedly be a lawn providing no wildlife habitat as opposed to a meadow of un-mowed plants providing some limited habitat. Neither of these alternatives replaces a functioning buffer zone for habitat and filtration. Actual replication of wetlands has not been shown to be entirely successful.


Clarification Requested:


§         What is the current agreement between the Selectmen and the developer that floodplain loss would be offset at a ratio of 2:1? The proposed offset is 1.1:1.

§         What did the proponent agree to in the wetlands delineation decision with respect to accommodating for a potential increase in the floodplain elevation? Is this included in the current proposal? How was the 9.8 figure arrived at?


Additional stormwater management requested:


  • The proponent should strive for full recharge on site, eliminating the need for discharge of stormwater to Little Pond or Little River. Section 9 refers to the 1997 DEP Stormwater Management Policy; however DEP is currently updating this Policy, with an emphasis on maximizing recharge. Further, while the proponent proposes a number of controls to minimize the effects of stormwater pollutant loading to the receiving waters, the claim that “no impairment will occur to impact resident and andromous fish species that use Little Pond, Little River or Alewife Brook” is unsubstantiated. Further, the likely water quality impacts will not support the goal of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Mystic River Watershed Association for a swim safe and fishable Mystic River by 2015.


Assurances for operation and maintenance of stormwater controls:

  • The town, including the Conservation Commission (in its order of conditions) will need to ensure ability to enforce implementation of the operation and maintenance plan in perpetuity.


  • The proponent should specify performance standards for necessary maintenance of catchbasins, area drains, and drop inlets. Although these controls will be inspected quarterly, they need only be maintained semi-annually. Also provide details as to what circumstances would cause the property manager to clean them more often.


  • The proponent should require minimization of the use of sand for de-icing as this could wash into the receiving waters, damaging the benthic environment. Biodegradable substances should be required for lawn care and landscape work, and use of damaging chemicals barred.


  • An analysis of the impact of the completed development on properties upstream and downstream, on water quality, flooding up and down stream from the site should be provided. The study should research how will this development impact Alewife Brook, the Cambridge CSO project, the Bulfinch properties and flooding in Arlington and Belmont neighborhoods? The proponent assumes that retention and detention basins will adequately hold storm water. However the nearby Bulfinch/Smithsonian building was built assuming that during flood periods the under-building parking would flood.


Evaluation of the following alternatives requested:


  • A building with a smaller footprint and less impervious surface would decrease the impact of stormwater runoff and require less constructed management.


  • Construction of detention and retention basins under paved areas: driveways and exterior parking would decrease the overall impact on the buffer zone and flood plain.
  • Increase underground parking to decrease exterior impervious surfaces, however it should be noted that in the event of flood event, the existing proposed underground parking may flood.


  • Providing some parking under the building is desirable to reduce the amount of impervious surface in the development. However this will be the first area to flood being below grade. Provide means to screen views of parked vehicles from nearby locations once the site is developed on the wooded portion of the uplands. Pervious surfaces should be used for exterior parking areas and driveways. Covered parking does not reduce impervious surface since the roof of the building is impervious. Building uncovered parking of pervious materials would help cut down on runoff.


The proposed plan should include Sustainable Development features:


  • The project could be downsized to lessen impact on environs and built on a smaller footprint to meet the claims of environmental consideration.


  • In order to properly demonstrate how the project would expand the local tax base, the proponent should quantify what services to the development will cost the town.


  • Ensure that design supports the Sustainable Development criterion, “Conserve Resources.”


  • Maximize the use of Low Impact Development principles on site. Examples of this, at a minimum include:

§         Overflow or guest parking lots should be constructed using pavers or pervious pavement.

§         Select drought resistant plants, including grasses.

§         An installed sprinkler system.

§         If irrigation is to be used, then rooftop runoff should be collected for use in watering of lawns and gardens.

§         The project should maximize adoption of LEED design features.



[webmaster's note - the names of the files on the website are different than those listed below, but the contents are the same]:


  2. THE PLAN.doc-w/underline
  3. ConCom1203incl appendixA.doc
  4. ResponsetoEpsilonRebuttal.doc
  5. CJK MEMO.doc
  6. NormandeauReport.doc
  7. KatuskaForestCharacterization.doc