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Effects of Construction in the Silver Maple Forest
Bordering Alewife Brook Reservation
by Tufts University Student Team Jesse Smith, Chloe Starr, Nora Katz & Melanie Hall
A classroom assignment for Environmental Health and Safety course (ES-27)
Professor David Gute, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Tufts University
May 1, 2006

PowerPoint presentation (1.5 MB file)

The Brian O'Neill Properties Group from Philadelphia, PA plans to create a residential development in the town of Belmont. The development would be in close proximity to Little River and the Alewife Brook reservation, which is a part of the Mystic River watershed and eventually flows into Boston Harbor. The Alewife Brook Reservation is an area commonly used for recreational purposes including hiking, bird watching, running, and containing athletic playing fields and a playground. The water in this area is already one of the most polluted regions of the Mystic River watershed. Development in the Belmont Uplands would be likely to increase to increase the level of pollutants in the water and adjacent soil.

This development would destroy 40 percent of the 15-acre silver maple forest. The silver maple forest is one of the only stands of silver maple in the Boston area. These trees are known for having a shallow fibrous root system, which holds the river bank. The trees themselves also provide nesting areas and a food supply for the various animals of the habitat.

Cutting down these silver maple would create many environmental problems that could be detrimental human health. It would lead to expansion of the flood plane because the root system of the silver maple holds the soil in place and prevents runoff of potentially dangerous levels of minerals into the watershed. Also, this increased flood plane will carry pollutants into residential areas. Although this is not accounted for within the development plans, it seems a likely effect of destroying the root system that currently prevents erosion.

Other related problems include that the new development would create additional sources of pollution in the area. This building project would result in an increased discharge of sewage and pesticides into the river and groundwater, Also, a new residential area would require new infrastructure, such as stores, to service the increased population. New building in an area can lead to urban runoff, further polluting the watershed. The increase in sewage and pollutants from the development could seep into the groundwater and spread into the soil. Also, as the Little River feeds into the Mystic River watershed and from there into Boston Harbor, the pollution would travel downstream contaminating a greater area.

The proposed development also presents issues concerning environmental justice. The town of Belmont will garner economic benefits from the new building, however the environmental burdens will be felt more by communities downstream. The construction will be located on the Belmont Uplands, meaning that pollutants in water will flow downstream away from Belmont. Directly downstream of the planned building site is the Alewife Brook Reservation, which provides a large amount of the open green space available to many communities and which may be harmed by the added pollutants. Another environmental justice consideration is the O'Neill Group's use of Chapter 40B, a state statute allowing for fast track approval processes, and the implications of the chosen building site for affordable housing.

In order to effectively consider the above issues, first consider the building proposal. The Belmont Uplands is a privately owned area composed of 15.6 acres in the Mystic River watershed. It is located upstream of the Alewife Brook Reservation and next to the Little River. It is also home to a Silver Maple Forest, a rare type of maple tree. This area is privately owned by the Brian O'Neill Property Group based in Philadelphia. The O'Neill Group has submitted a proposal to build a 300 unit residential housing complex on this land.

The proposed apartment complex will consist of 75 affordable housing units, fitting into chapter 40B requirements, which will be discussed later in this paper. It will be four stories high, consisting of five residential buildings and a community building. The total square footage of the proposal is 382,706. There will also be 3.4 acres of impervious coverage for surface and garage parking with 500 parking spaces.

There may be economic benefits that would accompany the development of the Belmont Uplands for both the developers and the community of Belmont, according to O'Neill Properties in a letter to the Belmont planning board. The proposed project will add $714,000 of annual revenue and will have a fiscal impact of $7.7 million over ten years. The increase of available housing will increase the tax base, benefiting the town. However, this will also increase the number of people using town services, drawing from that tax base (1).

The plan will also have extensive impacts on the environment in the Belmont Uplands. The silver maple forest is made up of wetland and upland plant ecosystems, dominated by the rare silver maple. The proposed building would require cutting a significant number of trees, which will create extensive ecological consequences.

One of the biggest environmental issues surrounding the construction on the Alewife Brook Reservation is the proposed destruction of part of the silver maple forest located there. The silver maple, Acer saccharinum, is a fairly prolific low-lying tree located throughout most of the US. It is characterized by its ability to tolerate short term flooding and a shallow fibrous root system. (2) There is currently a 15-acre stand on the edge of Little Pond, part of which is encompassed in the Alewife Brook reservation. The trees located in this forest are fairly old and one of the largest, older growth stands located in the Boston area. It may also be home to the 2nd largest silver maple in the United States, the proverbial "mother tree" of the forest. (3)

Silver maples are also characterized by large, leafy crowns and thick trunks, both of which provide excellent shelter and nourishment for the birds and mammals located around the pond and in the forest. Their buds are critical to the food chain of the squirrel (4) as well as serving as food for birds and white-tailed deer. The protected pond and streams provide a safe haven for ducks and small mammals to raise their young and the forest, in its swamp-like location, is a perfect place to build nests and homes. Recent sightings along the banks include pheasants, killdeer and great blue herons. Less common ducks that have been seen include hooded mergansers and wood ducks. (5)

There are a variety of mammals and rodents that make their home along the riverbanks, in the protection of the trees and their root systems. There is a beaver dam located along the river, and some silver maples showed beaver teeth marks. Scat has also been observed from coyotes, fox and minks. (5)

With the proposed destruction of part of this forest and its replacement with a commercial development, the site stands to lose not only a great old growth forest, but also an entire ecosystem and habitat to many animals. If these animals get driven out, where will they go? Is someone's backyard an acceptable alternative? The end of this forest will also mean the end of the intricate root system tying the bank together and could increase the floodplain height. The construction of the proposed O'Neill housing project will have significant effects upon both flooding in the surrounding area and water pollution level. Currently, the land in question is covered with silver maple trees and various other forms of plant life, which absorb water and filter out potentially dangerous materials. To replace these with the 300-unit housing development would increase the dangers from flooding and would introduce a variety of harmful substances to water that is already significantly polluted.

In an area that already suffers from flooding (6) it is important to keep the land as vegetated as possible. An acre of vegetated land can transpire literally thousands of gallons of water each day (7), allowing the soil to absorb more rainwater during a storm. It has been hypothesized that the construction of this development will increase discharge by 2.26 million gallons per year.(8) In contrast, buildings and parking lots not only compress the soil, reducing its porosity and ability to absorb water, but their insoluble materials prevent water from being absorbed into the ground at all. Instead, with nowhere else to go, precipitation drains to the lowest level in the drainage basin. This causes much more frequent and severe flooding. In the drainage basin of the proposed construction area, the lowest point is Little Pond. (9)

Little Pond and its downstream distributaries already suffer from flooding problems. In Cambridge, reports of Combined Sewer Overflows are not uncommon. A combined sewer is divided into two parts: one which carries sewage, and one which carries rainwater. When flooding occurs, the two substances mix, and polluted water is eventually discharged into nearby streams by the pipe (9).

While this construction will no doubt increase the flood plain in the area, it is impossible to calculate by how much because the current flood plain may not be accurate. Tufts University's own Steve Kaiser obtained data suggesting that the ten year flood level has risen almost a foot in the past 20 years(10). The 100 year flood level has increased at least 29 inches since 1982(11). The replacement of 4.4 acres of the forested land with buildings would no doubt very significantly increase this level even more. A new 100 year flood level would have several consequences. State Building Code requires that the lowest floor of any building be above said level. By its very genesis, the construction could put itself in violation of this code.

In addition to increasing flood levels, the construction project will add pollutants to Little Pond, which already fails to meet quality standards. The Alewife Brook is classified as Class B - meaning it should have water that is safe for swimming and fishing. However, in 2002, only four of 27 water samples taken actually had acceptable levels of fecal coliform (12). It has been hypothesized that the development will add 0.180 mg/l of lead to the pond annually. While this might not seem significant, lead, being a model human toxicant, has no safe, threshold level. In addition, 0.176 mg/l of zinc and 0.047 mg/l of copper will also be added to the pond each year.

These two consequences of construction, increased flood level and more polluted water, will greatly increase the dangers to homeowners who live directly around Little Pond. These homeowners have fenced yards that are not greatly elevated from the current water level, and a significant storm could put part of their yards underwater. This water, contaminated by the above-mentioned toxicants, would be absorbed by the soil, contaminating it as well. Several of the homeowners around the pond have small children. Small children undergoing neurological development are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of lead, and a major way that they are exposed to lead is through soil consumption (13).

The proposed building on the Belmont Uplands also presents interesting issues regarding environmental justice. According to the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, "The people shall have the right to clean air and water, freedom from excessive and unnecessary noise, and the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic qualities of their environment; and the protection of the people in their right to the conservation, development, and utilization of the agricultural, mineral, forest, water, air, and other natural resources is hereby declared to be a public purpose." Based on this guarantee to the citizens of Massachusetts, it is clear that many aspects of the building proposed in Belmont would violate people's right to a clean, healthy, quiet, and safe environment.

A major problem facing Eastern Massachusetts residents is the lack of open green space. With the extensive development in the Boston area, much of the open space for recreation has been developed already. Along the Mystic River Watershed, there are very limited areas of open green space and the use of these 15 acres of forested land will greatly decrease the town of Belmont and neighboring communities' access to natural open space. The problem of diminished open space becomes an environmental justice issue when attention is paid to who is harmed most by continued development. Belmont will directly lose its open green space with the proposed construction, but the community has other more open space than its neighbors. While the new housing complex would decrease the community's open space, it would not eliminate it (14).

Building in Belmont would negatively impact the neighboring communities of Cambridge and Arlington. Each of these towns has a significantly lower per capita income, $31,156 and $34,399 respectively (9 &15) than Belmont, where the per capita income is $42,485 (16). These two towns are most likely to see an effect from the building in Belmont on their own available open space near the water, specifically the Alewife Brook reservation located adjacent and downstream of the Belmont Uplands. As was discussed earlier, construction would result in added pollutants in the river from erosion, runoff, and sewage water, which would pollute the reservation. Citizens of Arlington and Cambridge have very little open space besides the reservation, which, because of its proximity to the T-station, it is the easiest and least expensive to reach. While citizens of Belmont have other natural areas to utilize, these other communities do not. Also, they would not receive any of the economic benefits from the building in Belmont, but would have to deal with its impact on their environment and related health and safety issues.

Another concern has to do with the Massachusetts standard that each community provide at least 10% of their housing as affordable (17). Belmont currently falls far short of this standard, but the O'Neill group has agreed to make 25% of the housing units affordable. To assist with reaching the 10% goal, the state allows local Zoning Boards of Appeals to approve developments with relaxed regulations if they have at least 25% of the units as affordable housing in a statute called Chapter 40B. The O'Neill Properties Group has been found eligible for using 40B by fulfilling this minimum requirement, which will reduce local barriers to the approval and zoning processes. Also, reaching the 10% requirement will make the town eligible for more state funding, further increasing Belmont's economic gains from the development.

The citizens of Belmont have expressed concern that medium income affordable housing is being built in their community, but the placement of the construction would keep the units well out of the public eye. The 40B statute was designed to prevent this type of snob zoning that communities often utilize to keep lower income housing out of their towns. In Belmont, however, the O'Neill group is exploiting this statute to get through the zoning process quickly. In the end, both the O'Neill group and the Belmont citizens will come out ahead. The proposed building site is located between Route 2 and Little River. This area is acceptable for commuters to Boston who would live in the luxury housing units, however it does not provide a good living environment for families. The air and noise pollution from the adjacent highway and the contaminated river would be detrimental to the health and safety of people spending a large amount of time outside, especially children who have more exposure to contaminants in the soil than adults. It is interesting that the poorer residents of Belmont, those requiring low to medium income housing, would be placed in an area of the town where their health would be at a greater risk, but where they would be out of sight. This raises the question of who deserves to live in a clean and safe environment. (18 & 19)

After looking at the O'Neill proposal in terms of the ecological, environmental, and justice impacts, we believe that the negative effects outweigh the economic gains for Belmont. Loss of animal habitats, increased flood level, and potential social injustice would result from this development. With all these possible negative effects, the risks posed to health, safety and the environment exceed any potential benefits. Therefore, we recommend that the site should not be developed to the current plans. The O'Neill Group should look into developing on different land because of the ecological uniqueness of the site in relation to its immediate surroundings.

We decided to divide this paper into four parts, regarding the division of labor. Melanie concentrated on background information and the proposed building plans. Chloe wrote about the ecological concerns. Nora focused on the environmental justice issue. Jesse researched the health concerns related to the flood plane. We worked together to combine these topics in our introduction and conclusion. Also, we discussed our topics together a lot because many of the issues we tried to address are related and our arguments benefit from each other's knowledge base.

(1) belmontMA_document/uplandsindex/50018b95c, Town of Belmont, April 2006

(2), USDA Forest Service, April 2006

(3), Friends of Alewife, April 2006

(4), USDA Forest Service, April 2006

(5), Friends of Alewife, April 2006

(6), City of Cambridge, April 2006

(7), USGS, April 2006

(8) Charles J. Katuska, P.W.S., Project Impact Calculations, Belmont Uplands Project (Belmont Office/R&D Buildings) Acorn Park Drive, Belmont/Cambridge, February 2, 2004

(9), City of Cambridge, April 2006

(10), Mystic River Watershed Association, April 2006

(11), Friends of Alewife, April 2006

(12), Friends of Alewife, April 2006

(13), National Safety Council, April 2006

(14), State of Masachusetts, April 2006

(15), Wikipedia, April 2006

(16), Wikipedia, April 2006

(17), Massachusetts Housing Partnership, April 2006

(18) Kathy Reagan, Lab Technician, Tufts University. April 2006

(19), April 2006