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Bill would let towns buy Belmont Uplands site

Posted by Your Town  January 6, 2011 08:05 AM

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Beacon Hill is forging into the debate over whether to save a local nature preserve, including a prized silver maple forest.

The Legislature has passed a bill that would give local towns the chance to buy the proposed Belmont Uplands development's site.

The privately owned, forested tract, which sits in the middle of the state’s 120-acre Alewife Brook Reservation on the Belmont/Cambridge line, is slated to be developed into a market-rate apartment complex that would include dozens of affordable units.

After a years-long battle, O’Neill Properties Group is closing in on a building permit for its $70 million apartment project, but still faces a lawsuit from Belmont’s conservation commission.

However, the bill, sponsored by State Rep. William Brownsberger (D-Belmont), lays out a process under which the state can gauge the market value of the Belmont Uplands site and work with Belmont and other local towns to make an offer to the developer.

Still, the proposal also faces serious questions, from where towns like Belmont and a cash-strapped state government would come up with the millions needed to whether the developer would have any interest in such an offer.

In addition, Gov. Deval Patrick vetoed a similar bill two years ago.

Despite the obstacles, Brownsberger argued the bill could provide another alternative to O’Neill’s current development plans.

“I hope it will kick start a conversation on whether the state can acquire the property,’’ Brownsberger said. “It has to be the state working with the communities.’’

Under the legislation, passed earlier this week, the Department of Conservation and Recreation would establish the market price of the property, likely through a formal appraisal, and then determine whether the owner would sell. After that, DCR’s commissioner would decide whether his department would contribute any money, followed by a three-month period under which Belmont and other towns would assess how much they would be able to pitch in, according to Brownsberger.

If the money is raised and the acquisition takes place, the development site, coined the Silver Maple Forest by project opponents, would then be turned over to state officials to be incorporated into the Alewife Reservation, he said.

But before any of that happens, Patrick will have to sign a bill that is similar to one he rejected two years ago. Supporters of the earlier bill attributed the governor’s opposition to concerns over the affordable housing issue.

The main difference is that the earlier bill included $6 million in funds from DCR, though the amount, attached to a bond bill, was not binding, Brownsberger said.

The new bill does not include any dollar amount, Brownsberger noted.

Kofi Jones, a spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office for Housing and Economic Development, said the bill is “under review’’ and that the governor has until Jan. 14th to make a decision.

While Brownsberger said he hopes that state officials and O’Neill will consider the proposal, he also acknowledged there is nothing in the bill that would mandate cooperation either.

For town and state officials, coming up with the cash could also be a tall order.

At a recent Cambridge City Council hearing, Brownsberger noted opinions of the property’s value range from $7 million to $25 million. He offered a middle range estimate of $14 million.

Ralph Jones, chairman of the Belmont Board of Selectmen, said it is premature to discuss whether the town should consider buying the property before it is clear O’Neill has any interest in selling.

But if a sale did become a possibility, Belmont would have to win approval from voters to borrow the money under a Proposition 2 ½ debt exclusion vote, he said.

And state participation would also likely to be key, Jones indicated.

“We don’t have any (money) in our operating budget,’’ Jones noted. “We are still several million dollars short from coming up with a balanced budget.’’

State Rep. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge) said she would like to see her home city pitch in as well, but she could not say how much money Cambridge would have to offer.

“In urban areas, there is so little opportunity for maintaining open space or creating open space or maintaining something like the Silver Maple Forest,’’ Wolf said. “There is an opportunity here that could go down the drain, that could be lost forever.’’

For its part, O’Neill has spent nearly a decade trying to develop the site, starting with a commercial proposal, shifting to luxury housing and now pushing plans for a mix of market rate and affordable units.

The developer’s local project manager has criticized opponents of the proposed apartment complex, arguing that some in Belmont are simply unwilling to accept affordable housing.

And some are torn given the clash between those who see the issue from an environmental perspective and others who argue that Belmont needs more affordable housing.

“I think it presents a real interesting conflict between affordable housing and the folks who want to preserve that open space,’’ Jones said.

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