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Silver Maple Forest Future Hangs in the Balance
March 10 Trial of Silver Maples
Stanley Dzierzeski — press release
To hear the developer's side during opening arguments, you might think that the proposed 5-building, 299-unit housing complex slated to fell Belmont and Cambridge's Silver Maple Forest will sit serenely in the midst of local wildlife habitats and will leave vegetation and trees unscathed.. These allegations by Scott Ehrlich and James Ward, attorneys representing the owner and developer O'Neill Properties, unsettled observing supporters from Cambridge and Belmont who witnessed the March 10 opening session of the Department of Environmental Protection hearing in Wilmington Ma. Setting the tone for the day, lawyers for the developer strongly objected to calling significant portions of the property a "Silver Maple Forest," because agencies had not "officially adopted" the term. However, in 2008, the MA House of Representatives and Senate passed a bill approving the purchase of the designated "silver maple forest" on the project site. Unfortunately the bill reached no further in the legislature.
In support of forest preservation, the Belmont Conservation Commission representatives and a group of Interveners, including Friends of Alewife Reservation, had prepared a strong written case to prove the housing complex footprint destroys and obstructs significant wildlife habitats protected under the Commonwealth's Wetlands Protection Act. Unfortunately, however, the tactics of O'Neill's attorneys, evidently developed in collusion with DEP counsel, eliminated cross-examination testimony by stormwater and wildlife experts representing the Commission and the Interveners. The lawyer for the Belmont Conservation Commission, Faustino Lichauco, did insist that Ellen Mass, President of Friends of Alewife Reservation, be allowed to introduce into evidence a large GIS map prepared by (WHO?). The map presented a clear picture of Alewife Reservation's waterways, wetlands and floodplains and underscored the connection to the project site's large undisturbed forest area. The irreplacable nature of the forest habitat, and its value to the adjacent Reservation, is evident from the map. The Interveners, through their attorney, also emphasized the extraordinary value of this "urban wild" to both people and wildlife, as well as the habitat connectivity between the proposed development site and the adjacent Alewife Reservation. "The Silver Maple Forest", said attorney Thomas Bracken, acts as a wildlife corridor for animals such as otter, and as a migration and nesting area for birds. The Conservation Commission also argued that the project does not meet applicable standards for storm-water control and will place nearby residences in Belmont and Cambridge at considerable risk for flooding and further water quality degradation during storms.
Because the case for significant wildlife habitat on the project site was made publicly and repeatedly over the last 4 years, the Belmont Conservation Commission included deficiencies in wildlife habitat protection as reasons for their December 2007 denial of the project. O'Neill appealed this local decision to the DEP. After reviewing new information provided by O'Neill, much of which was not made available to the Conservation Commission during its public review of the project, the DEP approved his project in October 2008. Imagine the Conservation Commission and the interveners' shock to learn that O'Neill Properties changed the project plans as recently as last month to recognize an increase the area of impacted habitat. These after-the-last-minute changes also raise the question of how much more O'Neill Properties will deviate from the original proposal in the future?
As the long afternoon wore on, the Intervenors' lawyer cross-examined an O'Neill consultant on why he had not done a wildlife habitat assessment of the protected upper floodplain on the site. Answers were still not forthcoming at the end of the day, with more witnesses yet to be cross-examined. The hearing will continue on April 3, until which time fate of the Silver Maple Forest continues to hang in the balance. The planned Ma. Land Court date of March 18th has been cancelled due to the issues raised March 10th, and because of Chapter 91 tidelands issues now proceeding in separate court, and the importance of environmental care and scrutiny which may be absent in land court. The original plan was Superior Court which deals more favorably with environmental issues but O'Neill Properties attorney was able to alter court jurisdiction.