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Rep. Brownsberger update on silver maple forest acquisition meeting with Governor Patrick

From Rep. Brownsberger:
December 22

I am writing to provide an update for those who are concerned about preserving the Silver Maple Forest or Belmont Uplands property. A group met last week with Governor Patrick to discuss the issue.

As many know, the property faces development for affordable housing purposes under Chapter 40B. The Belmont Zoning Board has approved the development. The Belmont Conservation Committee has ruled against it in its present form. Further proceedings are likely or ongoing as to both decisions.

As State Representative, I have focused on the urban park and habitat value of the property. I have no role with respect to the local permitting process, but have sought to arrange the acquisition of the parcel for state reservation purposes.

Currently the Commonwealth already owns the land along either side of the Little River; this riverine property is known as the Alewife Reservation and is managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The forest property abuts the reservation and provides the only uplands habitat in an otherwise marshy area. DCR has developed a master plan for installation of walking trails in the reservation. The master plan explicitly recognizes the potential value of acquiring the forest for the reservation.

With Senator Steven Tolman and Senator-elect Jim Marzilli, I filed earlier this year a bill that would have the state put up $6 million towards acquisition of the property; appraise the property and give Belmont, Arlington and Cambridge 6 months to contribute the necessary balance. The state would then acquire the property by purchase or, if necessary, by eminent domain taking. The owner has opposed the legislation.

The current assessed value of the property is almost $14 million. Some have speculated that the true value of the property is lower; some apparently informed people are convinced that the true value is much higher. What is clear is that, even if the state steps up with the initial $6 million, the communities will face the challenge of raising a substantial additional sum.

A legislative committee gave our bill a hearing on June 21. Legislators listened politely to a strong presentation by concerned citizens and officials.

The feedback I got after the hearing was sympathetic, but generally to the effect that the bill didn't have a chance unless the administration got behind it and made it part of DCR's park program.

Since then, I and many others have worked to convince the administration of the value of acquisition for DCR. A broad spectrum of officials and organizations have urged the Governor to favorably consider the acquisition. Additionally, almost 2000 citizens have sent postcards to the Governor urging the same.

From the beginning, I have consistently reminded people that while the effort was worth undertaking, the odds are against success. Even if the administration were to get behind the acquisition and the bill were to pass, the towns would still face a daunting challenge to raise the balance.

The first encouraging news in the process came in October when the DCR Commissioner indicated that the property meets criteria for inclusion in the administration's urban parks program. The administration does intend to fund $15 to $20 million a year in urban park acquisitions; the forest property could be purchased with that money.

Of course, there are many other eligble acquisitions, so the challenge remains to convince the Governor that the acquisition is a priority.

Senator Tolman and I and a group of local supporters of the Governor met with the Governor this past Wednesday, December 19, to urge him to prioritize the acquisition of the property.

We made the point that it is a valuable urban wildlife habitat. A great many people care about it. It serves very diverse neighborhoods in Belmont, Arlington and Cambridge. And it is accessible via the bike path and by public transportation. It also augments storm water storage in the area, which is severely affected by flooding.

We emphasized that we are proposing an innovative partnership approach to the acquisition and that the property makes excellent sense as part of the reservation.

Finally, we emphasized the strong local support for the acquisition.

We spoke to the unavoidable concern that the acquisition would effectively halt an affordable housing development. We pointed out that the Town of Belmont forced the development to include affordable units by passing an inclusionary zoning by-law over the developer's objection.

We suggested that there are several much better places for a housing development in Belmont and that we would be prepared to support development on those sites, even though they are much closer to us personally. I mentioned South Pleasant Street.

Finally, we urged the Governor respond to the question which the people have raised and take a position reasonably soon as the development process is moving forward.

We noted that he has a broad range of options -- from doing nothing, to supporting park improvements but not supporting the acquisition, to supporting the acquisition at a diminished level, or even to going beyond the single acquisition proposal to really complete the Alewife reservation by making the forest acquisition and also moving forward to acquire the so-called Mugar parcel just over the border in Arlington.

The Governor was gracious and focused in the meeting which lasted approximately 30 minutes. He asked the right questions but made no commitments.

So, for now, the ball is in the administration's court. We will stay in touch with the administration and continue to support movement towards a positive decision.

The website offers a wealth of material for those seeking to learn more about the forest acquisition issue. My own website offers links, through my newsgroups, to material on the many other issues that I am working on.

As always, I am eager to respond to concerns and questions. My cell phone is 617-771-8274. My e-mail is Happy New Year to all.


Will Brownsberger
State Representative, (617) 771-8274 (cell)
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