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Fight pits affordable housing vs. 15 green Belmont acres

Email|Print| Text size + By Keith O'Brien
Globe Staff / February 22, 2008

BELMONT - Officially, the forest has no name. On maps, it is just a parcel of undeveloped land, about 15 acres in size, nestled amid suburban sprawl near Route 2 in the far northeast corner of Belmont.

But in recent years, with a developer looking to build a large residential complex on the parcel that would include affordable housing, locals have given the land an alluring name. They now call it the Silver Maple Forest and are pushing for the state to set aside $6 million to buy the property and incorporate it into the 120-acre Alewife Brook Reservation, before the developer moves forward.

"A great many of us in this community and in Arlington and Cambridge want to preserve that piece of land as a wildlife asset for our children in the future - period," said state Representative Will Brownsberger of Belmont. "That's what it is."

But some suggest that other factors may be at play, including fears about welcoming so much affordable housing to a town that currently has so little. By the state's count, Belmont has 321 affordable housing units, just 3.2 percent of the housing stock in town. And while some have opposed development on this site since 2002, when it was slated to be a research park, others have organized only in the last year, when it became clear that O'Neill Properties, a Pennsylvania firm, is seeking to build a complex of 299 rental units, including 60 slated for affordable housing.

"Maybe it's NIMBY-ism or maybe it's a misconception about affordable housing and what that means," said Christine McMahon, a spokeswoman for the developer, in a reference to the acronym for "not in my backyard." "But we think this project is important. We want to develop affordable housing there."

The project is what the state calls a 40B. In towns like Belmont, where less than 10 percent of the housing units are categorized as affordable - priced for people making 80 percent or less of the area's median income - Chapter 40B of the Massachusetts General Laws enables developers who plan to build affordable units to bypass most local zoning rules and pursue a streamlined approval process.

In some upscale communities over the years, the mention of a 40B development has driven people to complain about the density of such projects or the impact they might have on a neighborhood's architectural character. But a number of Belmont residents - including some Belmont-based advocates for affordable housing - say their beef with this development is different.

They are concerned, they say, about the impact it would have on flooding in the area, already a problem, and the toll on the town's sewer system. They want to set the land aside as open space, incorporating O'Neill's 15-acre parcel into the Alewife reserve and preserving what they say is habitat of muskrats, river otters, fox, and other wildlife. And above all, they argue, they are opposed to any housing on that site, not just affordable housing.

"Of course, there's always the suspicion - 'Oh, it's NIMBY-ism, it's driven by the NIMBY thing," said Sue Bass, a Belmont Town Meeting member who has opposed any development on the 15-acre parcel since the debate began several years ago. "But this is not a good place for any housing."

Still, with the price of a median single-family house in Belmont hovering north of $600,000 and with more than 1,200 families waiting for an affordable two-bedroom apartment at one development in town, some say the best use of this land is for people.

"To keep Massachusetts economically competitive, we need to have a good supply of housing all across the state that is affordable to regular working families," said Phil Hailer, a spokesman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development. "Because the parcel in Belmont has already been permitted for a 40B development - and given the high cost of homes in that town - DHCD would prefer to see some housing with an affordable component developed on that site."

The land in question was once part of the Great Swamp, wetlands that stretched from Medford to Belmont, and is adjacent to what is left of the swamp: a ribbon of land known as the Alewife Brook Reservation. For this reason, some groups - including the Friends of Alewife Reservation, founded in Cambridge - opposed developing this land from the time O'Neill Properties began talking about it.

But there was little the town could do to stop it. The land, purchased by O'Neill Properties in 1999, was privately held. And in May 2002, the Belmont Town Meeting approved a zoning change from residential to commercial, which paved the way for O'Neill to build a 245,000-square-foot office park. Brownsberger voted for it, he said, realizing the town could not buy the land and that this was "the best possible deal we could get."

"The town wanted the money, the tax money," Bass said. "Belmont is always starved for tax money. And the people thought this was an opportunity to get a lot of additional revenue, frankly, without the expense of schoolchildren to educate."

At Town Meeting, people applauded the vote. But the cheering did not last. O'Neill officials soon began worrying whether they would be able to find tenants if they built an office park, and they decided instead to build an upscale condominium development where, under the town's bylaws, 25 percent of the units would have to be affordable. Belmont housing advocates like Roger Colton say such housing is sorely lacking in town.

"Belmont has built maybe five affordable units in the last 40 years or 50 years," said Colton, a member of the Belmont Housing Trust, a nonprofit housing advocacy group. Even with one 40-unit affordable housing development being built right now in town, Colton added, "the need for affordable homes remains a critical need in Belmont."

But the town balked at the size of O'Neill's project; even Colton wishes it were smaller. The developer regrouped, presenting a 40B project instead. After it was approved by the town's Zoning Board of Appeals last year, residents began mobilizing. The land, long known as the Belmont uplands, acquired the name Silver Maple Forest, a nod to the name of one kind of tree growing there.

A website, savethesilvermapleforest.org, was launched and a lawsuit filed to try to stop the development.

"It's all about the environment; it's not about the housing," said one opponent, Barbara Passero. "There's no exception. All of us want affordable housing. But not there."

The town's Conservation Commission recently denied the project, but the developer has appealed to the state, where even the project's most outspoken opponents believe it will gain approval. That means Passero and other opponents are placing their hope in an environmental bond bill on Beacon Hill that they believe could help save the land. An earmark in the bill, which was approved last week in one committee and now goes to the bonding committee, would set aside $6 million for the state to buy the land.

But McMahon, the developer's spokesman, said that O'Neill Properties is not interested in selling and that, even if it were, $6 million would not be enough.

Maybe years ago, the town could have afforded to buy the land, which, for a time, was a dumping ground for construction debris from Route 2. But now Angelo Firenze isn't so sure a purchase is possible, even with $6 million from the state. Firenze, chairman of Belmont's Board of Selectmen, believes the town would need to pony up several million dollars more to make a decent offer. The value of property in Belmont, it seems, has priced out even the town itself.

"Sixteen million? Fifteen million? Fourteen million? Where are we going to come up with another nine million?" Firenze asked. "Where's that coming from?"

Keith O'Brien can be reached at kobrien@globe.com.


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