Silver Maple Forest — the end game

As the saga of the Silver Maple Forest winds to a sad end, the question recurs: What will the state do to help save the forest? The discouraging short summary appears to be: nothing.

In two separate legislative sessions, I succeeded in putting legislation on the Governor’s desk that would have the state contribute towards purchase of the Forest to permanently protect it as an addition to the Alewife Reservation. In both instances, the Governor refused to sign the legislation. In the most recent session, a similar proposal that Senator Jehlen and Representative Rogers advanced also met a cool reception.

It is theoretically possible that in the next gubernatorial administration, there could be a different attitude towards acquisition of the forest, but there is a strong political balance against using using state funds for that purpose.

State environmental officials should be natural supporters of an expansion of the Alewife Reservation, but they have been lukewarm to the prospect. They support it in principle, but it isn’t high on their priority list. If the goal of an acquisition would be to preserve habitat for animals, they can, for the same money, permanently preserve much larger habitat areas in more remote parts of the state where land is much cheaper. If the goal of an acquisition is to provide peace and recreation for the people of the region, they have many alternative urban park investments that seem more urgent — renovation of decaying pool facilities, improvement of accessibility for the disabled in parks properties, extension of the bike path network, to name a few. The acquisition of the forest would cost well over $10 million (possibly several times that) and it has not been able compete successfully with the state’s other compelling environmental investment opportunities.

While the state environmental bureaucracy is lukewarm to the acquisition, the state housing bureaucracy is passionately and adamantly opposed. They believe strongly in their mission to expand affordable housing and the use of state funds in a way that would stop a housing project is absolute anathema to them. They instinctively suspect all environmental advocacy for the forest as disingenuous smoke that hides unsavory anti-housing sentiments. I made little progress in my efforts to build bridges to them on this issue.

Whoever the next Governor is, he or she will hear the same things that Governor Patrick did from his senior and mid-level managers. He or she will see the same basic balance of advice and is very unlikely to take a different position.

Like the state, Belmont, Arlington and Cambridge also have competing investment opportunities. Conversations among the communities have continued episodically for a decade, but have failed to yield a concrete and credible joint offer to buy the property.

As a citizen and as an elected official, I have made a sustained effort over the last 15 years to find alternatives to development of the Silver Maple Forest. It is with great sadness and a sense of defeat that I report these realities. For me, the Silver Maple Forest is a special place. If it were acquired by the public, it could, with a very small additional investment in construction of better paths over land that is already publicly owned, offer a deep green refuge, easily accessible by foot to thousands of people.

In the absence of a purchase option, the only alternative strategy has been litigation. However, the legal system is designed to yield eventual finality. Recent reports suggest that finality looms now.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

33 replies on “Silver Maple Forest — the end game”

  1. Thank you for breaking the news to us.
    I felt sad also reading last week’s Belmont Citizen-Herald, hearing about how they arrested so many people, many in their senior years who were staying loyal and reaching out to the public to help save the Silver Maple Forest.

    Thanks for sticking with it for many years. You are a special and wonderful representative for our town and state.

  2. Will, Thank you for the update. The outcome is not surprising. My over-riding concern now is for the folks who live in Precinct 8 and in adjacent areas in Cambridge and Arlington because of the significant role that the forest and land play in flood control.

  3. The forest is not optimal for housing. It is a wet piece of land. When you remove the trees it will be wetter. The federal government will have stricter rules regulating pollution from urban runoff in the very near future. It could cost more in the long run,than the short term profits of development now, to control the increased runoff resulting from paving over the silver maple forest .

  4. What a pitiful shame! And just today, as we walked through the beautiful woods of the Willowdale State Forest in Ipswich, I commented to my friend, how noble and wonderful it was that the state had the good sense and foresight to preserve and protect this gorgeous woodland, for itself and the pleasure of those who would forever walk and bike along its lovely paths. I guess I spoke too soon. It is with profound disappointment that I read this news.

    I wish to wholeheartedly thank you, Will, for your persistent and noble efforts throughout the years to save this precious wetland forest.

    NK

  5. Tragic, short-sighted, and typical of modern urban planning to jam thousands of people, cars, human waste and traffic into anything that will hold it, including invaluable wetland and nature’s fragile refuge. Shame on the State, developers, urban “planners”, and those who refused to stop the travesty.

  6. Curious as to whether, when and how the wetland or environmental impact issues were considered and processed. The residents of the new apartment building will significantly increase traffic congestion and pollute the adjacent Alewife Reservation. The trash, fumes, toxics, noise, light will certainly devastate any wildlife in the reservation. Runoff of motor oil and lawn treatments will poison the waterways. And anyway, might not the so-called affordable housing (excuse me if I laugh :/ be literally underwater in ten to twenty years?

    1. The Wetlands and environmental issues were heavily discussed and litigated. The question in that litigation was whether the stormwater will be fully controlled to have zero impact. That was a hard fought question.

  7. I am especially struck by your comment that state housing officials view the preservation effort as a thinly veiled effort to block housing development. Since joining Town Meeting, I have seen a general trend in housing policy in Belmont: erect more obstacles to development. For example, in my first session there was a successful article that put a mandatory one year demolition delay on buildings the Town designates as historic. In our last Town Meeting session, we voted to significantly curtail development of multifamily housing the General Residence District.

    Do you get the sense that if Belmont were more supportive of housing development in general that it would have made any difference in our efforts to preserve the forest? Or am I misunderstanding the trend?

    1. I think we could and should be more supportive of housing development. But I don’t think that’s what tanked the forest acquisition. We are a very long way from doing the kind of housing development that would exempt us from 40B. Belmont is a fully built community and it would be impossible to reach 40B targets without redeveloping a lot of the town in a much more dense format.

  8. Will,

    The word around Town Hall is that the Town’s “Management” (read Selectmen) prevented the property’s owner from building commercial building on the site years ago. Now we have what you describe in your article.

    If the Hall talk is truthful, what is going down can be categorized as an “unintended consequence” or can it? One alternative is to categorize it as an “expected outcome” as the answer to the question “what happens if we don’t allow him to build the commercial building ? ” is what we now have. I for one see the logic in the State’s environmental, gubernatorial, and legislative responses. As for a tri-Town investment, Belmont’s weak financial condition precludes any such participation in any case. I, for one, am not worried about the housing proposal for the following reasons:
    1. All opportunities have windows and when not engaged, these windows close.
    2. The property should be developed to achieve its highest and best use.
    3. Property rights should trump environmentalism unless true harm (i.e. such as pollution) is consequent.
    4. Arlington and Cambridge do not have affordable housing problems, but Belmont does and this is one way to resolve that conundrum.

    My take away from this outcome is that the Town of Belmont Management (read Selectmen) needs to establish a Risk Management function (probably in the Town Administrator’s Office) and practice risk management in its decisionmaking to avoid unintended consequences.

    Best regards,
    Jim Williams

    1. Actually, it was the developer who turned away from commercial development. He did so the office market was soft at the time. However, he still has the right do develop it commercially under the zoning by-laws passed in 2003.

    2. Jim,
      As Will Brownsberger correctly states, the Town actually did not stop Mr. O’Neill from commercial development. Town Meeting passed a rezoning of the property on the second time around, after he reduced the footprint.
      I have followed the saga for almost 17 years, as I was employed at Arthur D. Little and worked at the site on Acorn Park Drive from 1979 until a few years ago. ADL sold the site to O’Neill in a shady deal which would have relocated them to the Watertown Arsenal, to O’Neill’s other infamous development, just one of many factors leading to ADL’s bankruptcy after 116 years in existence.
      Property Rights arguments will get no sympathy from me. Mr. O’Neill paid $0 for the property after making an incredible 200% profit ($42M) selling off everything but the 16-acre Uplands. He wanted to ‘stick it to the Town’ after he was denied his original desire to build lucrative high-end housing when the commercial market fell. A severely flawed 40B law provided him the mechanism to do so.
      I attended the Uplands hearings of every Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Conservation Commission (I served as an Associate Member for three years), and Town Meeting (member for nine years) over a decade, as well as a number of appeals in the courts at the State level. The ConCom was the only board to stand up to O’Neill, but the State thwarted every effort by the Towns and the residents to save the parcel.
      This is not a NIMBY issue as the Uplands is in no one’s back yard; it is isolated and remote from the rest of the Town (ask the Police and Fire Depts). It is virtually surrounded by wetlands, and the destruction of the forest and the creation of more impervious land will exacerbate the flooding and property damage in surrounding areas. This is not conjecture, it is fact based on hard science and first hand evidence. I personally saw four 50-year storm events (floods) in a period of 20 years.
      We cannot blame Town officials on this one. O’Neill’s deep pockets lead to the ultimate fate. I join everyone in commending Sen. Brownsberger for his courageous efforts on behalf of the environment.

  9. It is unfortunate though I expected this ultimate outcome. This section of Cambridge/Belmont has struck me as their dumping ground for development at the expense of the residents in the area. It already is brutally congested and now the plan is to add even more to the mess. What little open space we had is being plowed under in an already semi-industrial area.

    The talk about housing falls flat to my ears. There is already a large condo complex by Fresh Pond, another was built a few years ago by Summer Shack, and we already have a high density of housing in the area. The has been no regard for the quality of life of existing residents or the traffic mess that is being fueled by this.

  10. I am very sorry to hear it, but I thank you for the report and your efforts to save the forest.

    Charlo

  11. I appreciate your long and diligent efforts, Will. If Belmont had more affordable housing, maybe the Governor
    would have been persuaded. Has the argument of flooding, and even sewerage, for the residents of Oliver Rd. and other lakeside areas in Cambridge and Arlington, been made? Anne

    1. There has been a lot of litigation about the sewage issue, but for me, The Silver Maple Forest is a park/wildlife priority, more than a flooding priority.

      Our local flooding is a result of regional rainfall and regional development patterns. When we see the water rise in our low lying Alewife neighborhoods, it is coming from all over the Mystic watershed, from Belmont Hill to Stoneham. If we are able to spend money to reduce flooding risk, my personal priority is a 4th pump for the Amelia Earhart dam at the mouth of the Mystic — that’s about $15 million.

      That’s another long term battle, but one we are more likely to win. I think that one is actually going to heat up soon as new information surfaces about flood risk in the Mystic.

  12. I’m shocked by the turn of events. This area is a crucial wetland and water shed. Why is the state so uninterested? And the idea of building “affordable” housing in this flood plane — isolated from other neighborhoods, transportation, and amenities — has seemed a deeply flawed plan from the beginning.

    How about a “crowd sourced” fund raiser? The town was able to raise the balance for the new pool (but not, of course, to save the 1760 Clark House).

    As climate change becomes more real, Belmont seems to take no notice. We see huge SUVs and trucks, more teardowns and mega-sized suburban-style houses in older neighborhoods, and a lack of attention, except for a few voices, to protecting and preserving important open space.

    I despair.

  13. Dear Will, I chanced to read a book with a title like The Last child in the Forest. It describes how we make more rules to keep kids from having outdoor adventures in the name of safety. Result is that they stay inside with violent video games or programmed outdoor activities. That said, I will admit that Silver Maples were not high on my valued species list, until now. Best, John

  14. “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wild.” – John Muir

    At a time when we are becoming increasingly aware of our interdependence with the natural world, we are cutting down our urban forest. This act is not only a loss of beauty but also a loss of resiliency.

  15. My research on public wellbeing indicates an URGENT NEED for more NATURAL SPACE not near cities but IN cities. The cities highest on health and happiness lists worldwide such as COPENHAGEN place a very high priority on lands such as this forest. Species by the way are undergoing extinction faster than ever, and every forest counts if we want to leave future generations any natural space at all. Mr. Brownsberger’s comments on the lukewarm reaction to his courageous efforts reveal a pathetic, ignorant, and selfish government attitude. I find it deeply disturbing that he’s had to work this hard on something more visionary countries knew about as far back as the 1960’s. Look up Copenhagen and San Luis Obispo, CA, to see what happens when you value all natural space you can get hold of. More nature in cities REDUCES CRIME, soothes harried residents, and is an innate human need. American city dwellers get way too little of it and they suffer greatly from this. Just because political leaders aren’t suffering (they can afford to take vacations in far-off natural places perhaps) doesn’t mean most residents do not. This will definitely affect my votes. SC

  16. Will…it is so disheartening to read of the shortsightedness and lack of vision and reality on the part of people who should have those in good supply to lead in government. How sad – they have no vision, and people and the quality of life for humans and the environment suffer for it. Thank you for all that you do. I wish we had more of you!
    Do we have more airplanes? Sounds like it. Keep on keeping on! June

  17. Knowing the passion with which Senator Brownsberger protects the Earth (and its vulnerable inhabitants), my heart aches when I read of his herculean efforts to save the Silver Maple Forest. Mustn’t we now turn to saving resources which are not yet consigned to permanent consumption. Save the outlying tracts before we enact the plot of the film Soylent Green. Thanks.

  18. This makes me sad, I know you worked for a long time on this. I’m sad about Suffolk Downs closing, too, and the approximate 1000 people who lost their livelihood and way of life. Not to mention the horses that inevitably will perish as well since there is no one to enforce the no slaughter rule that was in effect. There are deer in that area, too, and they, too, will die, as well as the other wildlife. And we who live nearby will grieve for all of this. I’m very disappointed in the governor and the legislature. Is there no way to create a charitable foundation for some people who could use a tax write-off and purchase this land?

  19. May be true that “nothing can be done”, but the meeting today in Central Sq demonstrates the cause is NOT dead.

  20. May be true that “nothing can be done”, but the meeting today in Central Sq demonstrates the cause is NOT dead. Regarding the silver Maple Forest, that is.

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