Saturday, June 19, 2010

LOCAL NEWS: Developer to push ahead with Belmont Uplands apartments

A Philadelphia developer is vowing to push ahead with a controversial plan to build a major apartment complex amid a nature reserve on the Belmont/Cambridge line, despite a volley of legal appeals by opponents.

O’Neill Properties Group is drafting construction plans for its nearly 300-unit rental development in the Belmont Uplands and will apply for a building permit later this summer, according to Steve Corridan, the project’s manager.

The decision to forge ahead with the long-delayed project, slated to take shape on a privately owned tract surrounded by the 120-acre Alewife Brook Reservation, comes even as O’Neill faces new court challenges from opponents.

A group of local homeowners and wildlife activists last week filed an appeal of a recent decision by state environmental regulators to give a green light to the Belmont Uplands project. The Belmont Conservation Commission, which had rejected O’Neill’s proposal only to be overruled by state officials, has also filed its own appeal in state court.

But Corridan contends the $70 million apartment development has been carefully designed to prevent damaging nearby wetlands and will help fill a need for affordable housing in Belmont. About 40 units will be set aside for those making no more than 50 percent of the median income, or about $45,000 a year for a family of four.

“We are going ahead,’’ Corridan said. “We think we are filling a void in the town. There is a significant lack of affordable housing.’’

The suit by the Friends of the Alewife Reservation and other local groups seeks to overturn last’s month’s DEP decision, which came after years of debate and regulatory appeals.

The decision ignored testimony at a state hearing held last year and did not fully take into account the damage the project would cause to wetlands around the proposed development site, according to the lawsuit filed in Middlesex County Superior Court.

Project opponents, a mix of local environmental activists and nearby homeowners, contend O’Neill’s proposed rental complex would exacerbate flooding in nearby Belmont neighborhoods and destroy an unusual silver maple forest that is home and a hunting ground for a range of wildlife, including a family of hawks.

Thomas Bracken, a lawyer for project opponents, said he is also considering plans to seek a court injunction to block construction should O’Neill seek a building permit.

“That may be the time we move forward with an injunction to prevent damage to the environment,’’ Bracken said.

How quickly O’Neill plans to move forward with actual construction, even if it is able to get a building permit from Belmont, remains to be seen.

At that point, the developer will evaluate whether to start actual construction or wait until the court appeals have run their course, Corridan said.

However, if O’Neill prevails in the lawsuits filed by project opponents, it may consider trying to recoup its own legal costs under state court rules designed to discourage “frivolous’’ lawsuits, Corridan said.

“If it’s frivolous and people are just trying to delay this . . . then we could absolutely file suit,’’ he said.

But Bracken, the attorney for project opponents, argued the threat is simply a common tactic used by developers to discourage legal appeals.

“I think our appeal is on very strong grounds,’’ he said.

By Scott Van Voorhis Boston Globe June 13, 2010

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