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Cambridge officials vow to fight Belmont Uplands apartments

By Scott Van Voorhis
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2010

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A proposal to build a sprawling apartment complex in Belmont amid a state nature reserve is raising hackles in neighboring Cambridge, which may wind up on the receiving end of the project’s sewage.

At a hearing Tuesday afternoon on the $70 million Belmont Uplands development project, Cambridge city councilors reiterated their pledge to hold up the developer’s proposal to have the apartment complex hook into the city’s sewer system.

Cambridge City Councilor Denise Simmons and Vice Mayor Henrietta Davis said they want to wait to make a decision at least until a court appeal against the 300-unit development is heard this spring. The full council, they noted, had already formally voted in favor of such a delay.

Before offering their pledges of support, the Cambridge councilors had heard comments from an array of local environmental activists and city residents incensed about the plans by Pennsylvania-based O’Neill Development to build hundreds of market-rate and subsidized apartments on a site bordered by the 120-acre Alewife Brook Reservation.

Steve Corridan, the project’s manager, contends the developer only explored hooking into the Cambridge system at the request of Belmont officials. If Cambridge refused to let the Belmont Uplands project connect directly into the city’s sewer lines, O’Neill will simply hook into the Belmont system without any appreciable delay or disruption to its plans.

Corridan contends anger over the project is fueled not by environmental concerns, but rather opposition to lower-cost rental housing in a town in which just over 3 percent of its housing is considered affordable.

“It’s clear to us that there are people out there who are violently opposed to affordable housing and they try and cloak themselves in other issues,’’ he said.

Opponents contend O’Neill’s proposed rental complex would exacerbate flooding in nearby Belmont and Cambridge neighborhoods, and destroy an unusual silver maple forest that serves as home to a wide variety of wildlife, from hawks to otters.

“We have a tradition of going against the rules,’’ said East Cambridge resident Charles Marquardt, citing the city’s sometimes against-the-grain stands on immigration and MCAS testing. “Cambridge should do what it thinks is right.’’

Still, even as they voiced support for project opponents, Cambridge councilors questioned how much power they had to block it.

Councilors peppered Owen O’Riordan, the city’s chief engineer, with questions on the extent of their authority.

While Cambridge could refuse to let O’Neill Development tap into the city’s sewer system, the builder could instead connect into Belmont’s system, albeit at a higher cost, O’Riordan acknowledged.

Nor does the City Council have complete authority over the sewer connection issue, with the city’s Conservation Commission having a major say in any wetlands project, councilors noted.

Undaunted, project opponents, from residents to representatives of environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, urged Cambridge to put up whatever obstacles it could in the path of the Belmont Uplands project.

“In New England, each town is like a state in and of itself,’’ said Rich Clarey, a Cambridge resident who lives less than a mile from the Belmont Uplands site. “One town will try and put its junk on another town’s line. This is a perfect example.’’

“There is no obligation to cooperate,’’ Clarey said.

And that message appeared to resonate with some councilors.

“We’ve got your back,’’ Simmons told project opponents.

With any decision on sewer connections likely months away, O’Neill Development is working to clear more immediate hurdles in Belmont.

The town is expected to issue a building permit next month allowing O’Neill Development to move forward with the Belmont Uplands proposal. Opponents, in turn, have vowed to seek a court injunction should the town’s building chief issue the permit.

The project already is embroiled in a combined court appeal, brought by the Belmont Conservation Commission and the Coalition to Preserve the Belmont Uplands, of a decision by the state Department of Environmental Protection to give a green light to the development.

Meanwhile, Belmont state Representative William Brownsberger said at the hearing that he has launched another bid to pass legislation that would give Belmont, Cambridge, and Arlington the chance to buy the development site and add it to the state-controlled Alewife Brook Reservation.

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