Forest Preservation versus Development along the Alewife

By EkOngKar Singh Khalsa, Executive Director, Mystic River Watershed Association

Over the weekend a stand of mature silver maple trees were felled in the Town of Belmont.  While this event was enormously important to local activists that have worked for ten years to preserve this small forest, for the most part few people noticed. 

The trees are being removed to make way for a 300 unit apartment building being constructed under Chapter 40B – the Massachusetts Law intended to promote affordable housing in the Commonwealth. This law allows developers to ignore the land use restrictions and environmental protection provided by local zoning bylaws.  In this case, Chapter 40B creates a pathway for the construction of extraordinarily dense development in an already over-stressed ecosystem. 

The parcel on which this project is proposed is located adjacent to Alewife Reservation, a tiny remainder of green space in a former wetland long ago filled for residential and commercial use on the border of Cambridge, Belmont and Arlington.  Once constructed, the new project will send stormwater runoff into local waterways, including Little River and Alewife Brook, where leaking and overflowing stormwater and sewer systems cause significant water quality impairment.  The entire sub-watershed in which these 300 units will reside is also subject to significant flooding during moderate to severe storm events – all predicted to worsen as climate change impacts become more intensely felt in New England.

Environmental advocates are continuing efforts to prevent the development.  Recent protest actions resulted in the arrests of thirteen local residents (read more here). There is still a chance that the land can be placed into conservation – but from the start this has been an uphill battle. 

Why is this project being constructed? Why were none of the efforts to preserve this land successful so far?

The answer is simple.  As a result of the number of housing units permitted under Chapter 40B, the price of the property moved out of reach from even the most avid conservationists.  Without these permits, the land value is substantially reduced, acquisition becomes possible and sellers become more willing as their development options become more limited.  The fact is that the forest is being removed so that the goals and objectives of affordable housing and transit oriented development advocates can be realized.  Unfortunately in cases such as this, much is sacrificed when impacts to the local natural environment do not receive appropriate consideration or accurate assessment under the law.

This is an important concern in the Mystic River watershed.  Unless there is more attention to and funding for the preservation of open space in urban areas such as ours it is certain that the next generation will be working to unwind the impacts of the poor planning decisions we make now.

The intense development pressures along Route 2 in the Alewife Brook sub-watershed are not the only major challenges looming for the Mystic.  The Metro North Land Use Priority Plan, a collaboration between the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), the Executive Offices of Housing and Economic Development (EOHED) and Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA), and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), proposes to construct more than 40,000 new housing units in the next 15 years in East Boston and Charlestown in Boston, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Revere, Somerville and Winthrop – all communities in the Mystic River watershed.

While there is consideration given in this plan to what are called Priority Preservation Areas, stronger measures must be taken to protect, preserve and restore local waterways and open space.  If not mother nature will once again lose out to the need for additional jobs and housing in Mystic River communities north of Boston.

I am certain it is not the intention of these planners or housing advocates like the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, the Citizen’s Housing and Planning Association, or the Massachusetts Housing Alliance to preside over the destruction of the last of a flood plain forest.  Unfortunately this is the result when public policy ignores the long term value of vital environmental resources like the Silver Maple Forest.

It is time to rewrite the conditions associated with Chapter 40B permitting to make sure that stronger consideration is given to project impacts upon wetlands, stressed waterways and flood plains and more intensive review is provided of environmental impacts in general.  Over the last 40 years, the work of the Mystic River Watershed Association and others has brought great improvement to the local natural environment.  We know that affordable housing and environmental protection need not be at odds. Now is the time to take a new look at environmental conditions in densely developed communities so that sensible decisions are made when we locate new development – especially development designed under Chapter 40B.