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Battle to Save the Silver Maple Forest Continues in Wilmington
Compiled by Hilary Thrasher, FAR Office Coordinator
Edited by Ellen Mass, FAR President
The battle to save the Silver Maple Forest in Belmont and Cambridge continues. A national developer, O'Neill Properties, seeks to cut down the forest, also known as the Belmont Uplands, in order to build a 299-unit housing complex comprising five buildings on the site. The Silver Maple Forest is the only remaining undeveloped open space in the area at the borders of Belmont, Cambridge, Arlington, and Somerville. It abuts the Alewife Reservation in Cambridge, home to wildlife, bird-life, and plant-life that exists nowhere else in this region and which has been a valuable education and recreation resource for area residents. On 27 April the latest session of the ongoing Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) hearing was held at DEP offices in Wilmington to determine whether this local gem will be bulldozed.
In background, the Belmont Conservation Commission (BCC) originally ruled that the developer's plans would lead to flooding and habitat destruction in neighboring lands, including homes on Little Pond in Belmont that are already prone to flooding, and in the Alewife Reservation and therefore rejected the plan. The developer sought and was granted a Superseding Order (SO) by DEP that over-ruled the local body's finding. BCC and Interveners (neighbors of the proposed development) petitioned DEP to have the SO overturned and thereby block the destruction of the forest. DEP convened a hearing to determine if the SO should stand.
DEP hearing sessions previously met on March 10 and April 3 and most recently on April 27. The latest session first heard the continuing testimony of David Albrecht from consulting firm Tetra Tech-Rizzo, hired by the developer to provide a report to contradict BCC's findings that runoff from the proposed development would risk flooding, erosion, and habitat destruction on neighboring property.
A crucial focus of the morning's session was the change in the development plans since the original Superseding Order was issued. Faustino Luchauco, a local attorney representing BCC in their attempts to block the development, challenged the developer's contention that the changes were minor improvements, "tweaks", that should have no bearing on the case. Mr Luchauco countered that the changes are in fact significant and that all his clients would need to review the revised plans before they could proceed.
Another key point brought up during Albrecht's testimony is the definition of "flooding impact" referenced in the DEP regulations. Mr Luchauco was able to get the witness to admit that his definition of flooding impact did not consider the increased volume of stormwater runoff created by the development when the permeable soil currently in the forest would be replaced by buildings and asphalt. The witness also admitted that he did not take into account that additional runoff volume might lead to increased volume, hence flooding, in Little Pond, in Little River in the Alewife Reservation, and further downstream in the Alewife Brook and Mystic River watersheds in several neighboring towns.
In the afternoon session the DEP official, Rachel Freed, who originally issued the Superseding Order that overturned the local Conservation Commission's ruling, testified. Mr Luchauco was able to elicit from Ms Freed that her ruling was based on a plan for four buildings yet the plan now is for five buildings. Official Freed then admitted that when the BCC made their decision to block the development project that it had sufficient information yet she requested more information from the developer before making her ruling overturning them, implying that there not all information was available at the time.
Tom Bracken, local attorney representing homeowners and neighbors of the proposed development, then questioned DEP Official Freed. She testified that in two visits over a six-year span she determined that there was no "significant" wildlife habitat, contradicted by earlier testimony from the wildlife experts who surveyed the site extensively on behalf of BCC. DEP Official Freed then conceded that she had not investigated the already existing flooding problems experienced by homeowners in the Little Pond area before making her ruling permitting the development and bulldozing of the Silver Maple Forest to proceed. Mr Bracken then raised the issue of why she would allow the development to proceed even though the measures required to mitigate wildlife impact falling short by 30%.
At the end of the day it was determined that another session would be required to finish testimony before the DEP could make its ruling. The session was scheduled for 9 AM on May 11, again at the DEP offices in Wilmington.
Compiled by Hilary Thrasher,