State OK’s Uplands site for housing

By Scott Van Voorhis
Globe Correspondent / May 27, 2010

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A major apartment project that would take shape in the middle of a nature reserve on the Belmont-Cambridge line has won a green light from state regulators, pushing the long-stalled project closer to reality even as it infuriates local environmental activists.

Laurie Burt, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, has signed off on a ruling that clears the path for a Pennsylvania developer to build 299 units of mixed-income apartments on land surrounded by the state’s 120-acre Alewife Brook Reservation.

The project would be built under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable-housing law, which allows developers to bypass certain local zoning requirements in exchange for setting aside 25 percent of a project’s units under income-eligibility restrictions.

The environmental agency found that the O’Neill Properties Group had taken adequate steps to mitigate any damage to surrounding wetlands, and prevent nearby Belmont neighborhoods from being hit with flooding and sewer backups.

But the ruling was greeted with dismay by local environmental activists and local officials in Belmont and Cambridge, with pledges to appeal the ruling in court.

“Just from walking that land, you get a sense of its ecological value,’’ said Cambridge City Councilor Sam Seidel. “I respect the DEP’s ability to make these decisions, but many people here in Cambridge have poured their heart and soul into trying to protect that land.’’

The development project will devastate an unusual forest of silver maple trees on the property while exacerbating already significant flooding problems in nearby neighborhoods, activists contend.

Attempts to reach O’Neill Properties for comment were unsuccessful.

Jay Szklut, Belmont’s planning director, said the company has already called town officials to inquire about obtaining building permits, though how quickly construction will begin is another question, given the likelihood of a court appeal.

“As far as his permitting, he is all set,’’ Szklut said.

Thomas Bracken, an environmental attorney working with the Friends of the Alewife Reservation, faulted the DEP’s decision, contending it failed to take into account four days of testimony at a hearing the agency held last year about the Belmont Uplands project.

Bracken said the alleged oversight will be part of the appeal he is preparing to file next month, either in Middlesex or Suffolk superior court.

Once the project is built, “you have obviously lost the capacity of the site to absorb water, to prevent storm-water runoff and flooding,’’ Bracken said. “The silver maples are part of the whole ecosystem of the Belmont Uplands.’’

Stanley Dzierzeski, a retired Army Corps of Engineers colonel and Belmont resident who lives a half mile from the proposed construction site, has been a leader in the fight against the project.

He said he is particularly concerned that construction of the 299-unit apartment complex will make an already tenuous flooding situation worse.

The concern is that construction of new buildings and paved parking lots and roadways will increase the flow of storm water into Belmont’s sewer system and other local waterways, he said.

He noted that under the current conditions, the torrential rains that hit the region in March and April damaged some homes in the Little Pond area and caused a sewage line backup into his home. “This area should be taken over for flood-control purposes,’’ Dzierzeski said.

Charles Katuska, an environmental consultant and former board member of the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions, has inspected the area on behalf of local environmental groups. He said the stand of silver maples is rare in the Boston Harbor basin area and serves as home to a range of songbirds and other wildlife.

“It is likely the most mature silver-maple forest in the Boston basin,’’ he said. “It is a large, relatively mature, and undisturbed block of forest habitat.’’

But the ruling the DEP commissioner just upheld offers a significantly different take.

The decision makes only passing references to the stand of silver maples, focusing instead on the project’s impact on neighboring wetland areas, which are protected under state law.

Just 9 percent of the area would be altered, an amount the DEP ruling called “insignificant’’ and more than balanced by plans by the developer for an aggressive mitigation effort that includes landscaping plantings that would include blueberry bushes and red and silver maple trees.

Although the DEP decision is a win for the developer, it’s not clear when the stalemate with local opponents, which has held up the project for years, will lift.

O’Neill Properties initially proposed building a research and development complex on the site, but scrapped those plans three years ago in favor of the affordable-housing development.

But the housing proposal ran into opposition with the Belmont Conservation Commission, which rejected the project in 2007, citing concerns with storm-water runoff and what it said was insufficient information from the developer.

With all local permits and state approvals lined up, the developer could begin the work, but would have to tear everything down should a court overturn the DEP ruling, noted Szklut, Belmont’s planning chief.

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