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Silver Maple Forest trial recap
By Ellen Mass/GUEST COMMENTARY
February 5, 2013
Cambridge — On Jan. 16, at John Adams Courthouse in Boston, ten plaintiffs, Friends of Alewife Reservation and Coalition to Preserve Belmont Uplands argued their appeal of a decision rendered in Middlesex Superior Court in 2011 by Judge Jane Haggerty who ruled in favor of the Department of Environmental Protection which allowed for the development of a 298-unit housing complex on the Silver Maple Forest.
The 2011 hearing was an appeal against the DEP superseding order of conditions overruling the Belmont Conservation Commission's denial of the project. Journalist Marc Filippino covered the hearing for the Belmont-Citizen Herald (Jan. 22), which was also published in Arlington and Cambridge. However he failed to highlight some of the major issues of the case.
Although the recent hearing with three judges at John Adams Courthouse was an appeal of the Superior Court's decision which omitted plaintiffs' professional witness testimonies, this hearing focused mainly on the legal standing of the individual plaintiffs-appellants and questions concerning types of adverse impacts to their properties rather than the "due process? legal flaws and environmental protection merits of the case. The individual plaintiffs' claims included past and future increases of sewage-generated flooding due to the construction and inhabitation of the housing units as well as evidence submitted by professional hydrologists and wetlands specialists.
Additionally, there is evidence of flooding and sewage backups as noted in the Belmont Board of Zoning Appeal's Comprehensive Permit reluctantly issued at that time to allow the developer to proceed. The Board of Zoning Appeals (ZBA) stated, "One of the gravest issues presented by the project is the sewage it will generate in light of the existing sewage problems in the area during storm events."
The board also stated, "Nearby areas suffer 'sewage discharge events' — backups — in severe storms. Numerous residents, particularly from Oliver Road and Frost Road, testified to backups over the past few years from personal experience," noting that exposure to raw sewage "poses a severe public health problem."
The Belmont Conservation Commission officially recognized these problems as well: "Little River has been observed on some occasions to flow backward into Little Pond due to flooding downstream, and it is well known that substantial sections of Acorn Park Drive have been inundated."
The plaintiffs-appellants also challenged the adequacy of the developer's wildlife habitat plan. The Wetlands regulations require the plan to have no "adverse effects" on wildlife habitat. They require any alteration of wildlife habitat to be replicated elsewhere on the site or off-site. However, these replication areas must be similar in character, size, vegetation, distance to water bodies, and have similar groundwater levels as the lost habitat.
The plaintiffs' asserted that the replication areas do not meet all of these requirements. Further, the developer's plan does not account for replication of wildlife habitat on the upper floodplain of Bordering Land Subject to Flooding as required by the regulations when it is shown that wildlife habitat there is significant and similar to habitat on the lower floodplain. In total, the area is one of Boston's largest urban wilds, and as such, contains all major mammal predators except bear and bobcat.
Ellen Mass is the president of the Friends of Alewife Reservation.