Town Meeting Votes To Move Forward On Community Path Review; A New Court Coming To Winn Brook

Photo: The easement along the north side of the MBTA commuter rail tracks adjacent the French/Mahoney property off of Brighton Street.

An attempt by a prominent Belmont resident to kill off funding for a next step review of the proposed community path was beaten back by Belmont Town Meeting on Monday, June 7 showing the at times controversial project continues to hold wide support in town.

The amendment submitted by Frank French to return $200,000 to the Community Preservation Committee was defeated handily, 64-192, coming after a wild debate that saw French’s attorney make what appeared to be not so subtle threat the town is likely to face millions in legal judgments if it pursued the path project. That was followed by Belmont’s long-time state senator Will Brownsberger informing Town Meeting that it was French who wasn’t holding up his end of a decades-old bargain with the state that allowed his family to build on an old railroad right of way.

In fact, according to town officials, the engineering firm working on the path submitted a revised plan Monday morning that no longer required any forced taking which French was opposing, rendering his amendment – which took nearly two hours to debate – effectively moot.

Monday’s meeting – the second of four nights in which members would debate budget and financial issues – followed the script of the first in which a single binding article dominated the nearly four hour session as the meeting took up four projects presented by the Community Preservation Committee. Two projects, transferring $250,000 to the Belmont Housing Trust to initiate affordable housing partnerships and $35,000 in design costs as part of the renovation of Payson Park, breezed through with little trouble.

It didn’t come as a surprise the $200,000 sought by the Community Path Project Committee to determine the right of way for phase one of the path – from the Clark Street bridge to the Cambridge line at Brighton Street as well as a pedestrian tunnel under the MBTA commuter rail tracks at Alexander Ave – was set to begin a lively discourse as French filed his amendment to put the brakes on the project placing the path’s future on hold and effectively in doubt.

A great primer of the community path project can be found here.

Russ Leino, the chair of the Project Committee, told the assembled members (attending over Zoom or viewing on community television) the funds would be used by Nitsch Engineering to prepare a detailed Right of Way (ROW) plan as part of the requirements to obtain federal Transportation Improvement Program money that will pay for the majority of the construction.

The work will determine if any private property will be impacted by the construction, most likely that will be temporary and minor such as access to the property to complete the design work, said Leino, although there could be permanent impacts such as repairing retaining walls and at pinch points “but will not actually run over the property.” Owners can “donate” that access to the town or have an appraisal done to determine a fair dollar compensation which will require another Community Preservation Committee request to fund. ROW work isn’t new to Belmont as the town did a similar project when the state renovated Belmont Street and Trapelo Road and the recent completed Welling Safe Routes to School project. The plan is critical as the federal government and state will not move forward funding without it.

Saying his committee – as well as the town and Select Board – are committed to minimizing impacts to private property, Leino noted a project of this magnitude will effect someone’s lands. “The funding by this appropriation really has to be completed in order to fully understand and quantify … those impacts for the Town Meeting to decide what you want to do with that information,” said Leino.

French, Precinct 2, said he and the Mahoney family that jointly owns the land at the corner of the Brighton and the commuter rail tracks and from where they run their businesses, have granted an easement to the path but are opposed to any permanent takings. French mentioned the long-stand complaint by those opposing the path that it should have been placed on the south side of the commuter tracks (more on that to come). Because there was the likelihood of an eminent domain taking, the families have “consulted” attorney and Belmont resident George McLaughlin.

McLaughlin initially came before Town Meeting not forwarding his client’s claim but his own experience of 37 years of successfully litigating Eminent Domain lawsuits winning millions for his clients. When McLaughlin returned to the amendment at hand, he spoke at length that in his opinion, Belmont has “vastly underestimated” the potential damages from this path to residential property along Channing Road.

This line of argument apparently was far afield from a pre-meeting agreement with Town Moderator Micheal Widmer on what would be discussed. That consensus quickly blew up as Widmer and McLaughlin took issue with how much leeway would be given in arguing the amendment.

”Mr. McLaughlin, as we’ve discussed before this meeting. Eminent Domain is beyond the scope so I’ll repeat, you need to talk about the path,” said Widmer.

“What I’m trying to inform the Town Meeting members is that if they go ahead with this plan, I think they are pursuing a plan that explore exposes the town to, you know, $4 million in damages,” claimed McLaughlin.

While saying that McLaughlin’s general point on eminent domain was “fine” to bring up, Widmer requested the attorney to “please adhere to my request that you stay with the scope of the discussion,” noting he had done so three times. The back and forth continued with both men saying they had grown frustrated with each others stance with McLaughlin claiming Widmer had “changed the rules” of the debate.

As Widmer attempted to wrangle McLaughlin in – with little success – Town Meeting members began bombarding Town Clerk Ellen Cushman with Point of Order claims noting McLaughlin was well outside the scope of the matter at hand. Widmer pointed out that a town meeting could not be run by those citing rules violations.

While French and McLaughlin spoke on the town taking a portion of the property, Leino presented an “11th hour” development in which Nitsch determined on the previous Friday that the latest design no longer required taking a permanent easement of the French/Mahoney property. “It can be done there on the existing easement. I was happy to see that as a positive development,” said Leino.

And Brownsberger turned French’s claims on their head by reviewing the context of how French’s secured the site in the first place. Brownsberger said in 2008, French – who Brownsberger called a friend who he respects – approached Brownsberger seeking his support in building his business office on the site knowing the right of way would bisect the property. French building sits on a historic railroad right of way, used as far back as the 1870s as the Fitchburg to Lowell connection until passenger service ended in 1927 and commercial rail halted in the 1980s. State statutes requires anyone attempting to build on a rail road right of way to first obtain a determination of inapplicability from the Department of Transportation.

In 2009, Brownsberger helped French get the process rolling to build but only if the Mass DOT which regulates rail right of ways would preserve the possibility of building a bike path from Brighton Street to Belmont Center and not give away the entire right of way which it did.

“So the point is that MASS DOT gave the ability for Mr. French to build … but retains the right to build a bike path through it,” said Brownsberger. While he was allowed to build up to the easement, French also crossed into it to install a stone sign, curbing and parking with the hope that a possible bike path would never be built.

“Now I was chagrined when I learned that Mr. French was upset about this process,” said Brownsberger. While acknowledging that previous design plans from Nitsch appeared to violate the decades old compromise between the state and French, Brownsberger “is very relieved that the discussion over the past week … that there is no need” for any additional land taking in the latest engineering blueprints.

With French’s concerns apparently addressed, “I look forward to continuing to support this path,” working with the state so to “keep solving problems and keep moving this fast forward,” said Brownsberger. “As an elected official, I am absolutely committed to making sure this works within the easement.”

Select Board Member Mark Paolillo next spoke in greater detail how town officials and representatives from Nitsch would keep the path within its prescribed easement. He also addressed the need for the route to travel along the northside of the commuter tracks as being due to the reluctance of the owner of an essential rail spur to negotiate with the town.

With debate open to the public, members sentiments ranged the gambit of why the French amendment was allowed to move forward if the “problem had been solved” to Stephen Rosales from Precinct 8 expressing his support for French via the lyrical talents of Kenny Rogers.

”You got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away and know when to run,” Rosales said, not sung. Despite the Yeoman efforts by the town, “the time has come. Belmont can no longer hold them,” he said noting that the CPC will “ante up” $1.7 million in studies and engineering work without any guarantee of federal or state funding.

Mark Kagan, Precinct 8, said roadblocks such as the French amendment is the reason that popular infrastructure projects are delayed or killed off. Having lived in bike happy the Netherlands, Kagan said cycling is the wave of the future as it promotes safe, fast transportation that is climate friendly. “Let’s vote this down this amendment and move on Belmont, the greater Boston area and the United States into the future,” said Kagan.

The question was called and the subsequent vote on the Amendment was an overwhelming defeat for French. The debate on the $200,000 allocation for ROW costs was anticlimactic and speedy with the article passing, 200 to 50.

Tennis plus one at Winn Brook

Town Meeting voted to add a single tennis court to the existing facility adjacent to the Winn Brook Elementary School playground and the Joey’s Park Playground.

Jon Marshall, the assistant town manager and recreation director, said an additional court was suited to the site because 1. the town can always use more courts, and 2. an additional tennis court will make for a total of five which is needed to hold regular season and tournament contests by the Belmont High School tennis teams.

Opposition to the new court came from two camps: nearby residents and those who wish to see courts on the high school campus. Melissa McIntyre, Precinct 8, opposed the article, not so much the courts being placed in the neighborhood but the public process the Recreation Commission undertook in approving the location. McIntyre said the strip of green space between Joey’s Park and the courts which will be reduced is an important place that is a place to take a break from the hurly burly of the playground and sport fields. Kathleen “Fitze” Cowing, also Precinct 8, asking why unlike other park and recreation projects the tennis court didn’t go through a two-fpart approval process with a design phase followed by CPC construction funding.

But by 10:45 p.m., the meeting had little energy to go against the CPC’s recommendation and there will be a fifth court at the Winn Brook by the start of the varsity tennis season next April.

After No Deal By Purecoat, Community Path Design Focus On North Of Tracks

Photo: Community path now on the northside.

It’s now the north side.

The proposed community path from Belmont Center to the Cambridge line will now be going along the north side of the MBTA commuter rail tracks after town representatives could not come to an agreement with a prominent Belmont property owner to take a portion of a structure needed for the path to navigate a “pinch point” along the route.

At its Monday, April 22 meeting, the Belmont Board of Selectmen voted 3-0 to OK using $1 million in Community Preservation Committee funds in design work for a recreational trail along a community right-of-way on the north side the tracks from the proposed Alexander Avenue underpass to the intersection of Brighton Street.

“It looks like we are going to proceed with a north route for the next phase of design,” said Chair Tom Caputo.

The $1 million CPC request will come before the annual Town Meeting next week. The town is also in the running for state money to pay for construction of the path, contingent on the town beginning the design process.

The board reversed a 2-1 vote on Feb. 25 to tentatively conduct that design for a southern route that would go behind Belmont High School. That vote was conditioned on the outcome of a 60-day negotiation period with the Tosi family to secure the ownership or an easement of the Purecoat North building along Hittinger Street currently used by the dog daycare business Crate Escape.

The purchase or taking of the building was necessary after the consulting firm Pare Corp., which conducted the feasibility study of the path, said the trail would not be wide enough along a 100-foot section to pass regulatory muster by the state’s Department of Transportation and MBTA, and for emergency vehicles to access.

Bob McLaughlin, who with former Selectman Mark Paolillo represented the Board of Selectmen in the negotiation, told the board they spoke with the building managers at the site and with the owners on the phone.

“I really think they tried,” said McLaughlin, hiring an architect and engineer to review the proposals.

“They came back and said it was too much to take part of the building. And they weren’t willing to sell as it didn’t make sense for their purposes,” said McLaughlin.

“You win some, you lose some,” said McLaughlin.

McLaughlin noted this marks the second time the Tosi’s rejected a proposal for town use of the building, saying no in 2011 to $6 million for the sale of the building for the construction of a new Belmont Light substation. The station would eventually end up on Flanders Road.

It was clear the selectmen were not eager to begin an eminent domain process of taking the needed space, an action which Belmont Town Counsel George Hall cautioned would be “substantial financial risks to the town.” It would also be unlikely such a measure could pass Town Meeting which would need to approve a property taking by a two-thirds vote “would be a tough sell.”

Selectman Adam Dash, the lone no vote back in February, said with state money possibly on the table, “we can’t drag this out” noting that during the design phase complications could arise that would force the path’s location to be reconsidered once again.

“You got to start somewhere so you have to pick,” said Dash.

The vote was good news for Russell Leino, the chair of the Community Path Project Committee which wrote the design phase request for proposal without the certainity of what the firms would be bidding on.

“I’m very very glad about the decision because it’s hugely helpful for the committee. The [design] RFP is already out and we are having a bidder’s conference on Friday where we’ll tell them about the decision,” he said.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the name of the family owning the Purecoat North site was misidentified as Tocci. The property is owned by the Tosi family.

Selectmen OKs Feasibility Study for Proposed Community Path

Photo: Russell Leino (center), chair of the Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee with Heather Ivestor (left) and Brian Burke.

The Belmont Board of Selectmen took a significant step in moving the idea of a town community path towards reality when it approved the hiring an engineering consultant to create a feasibility study of a dozen proposed routes from the Waltham line to the Alewife bike path off of Brighton Street.

“Once [the Selectmen] makes a decision, we can make this happen,” said Russell Leino, chair of the Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee, which is overseeing the process for the town.

“Let’s get going with a [request for proposal] and move forward,” said Selectman Mark Paolillo, after hearing from the Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee at its meeting Monday, Dec. 15 at Town Hall.

Bowing to residents along Channing Road whose south-lying properties abut a favorite proposed path, the selectmen approved a suggestion by Selectmen Chair Sami Baghdady to have an additional route, traveling along a portion of Concord Avenue, added to the list of reviewed paths.

In his presentation, Leino said the guiding principle of the five-member group is not to “reinvent the wheel” instead build on the work of its predecessor, the Community Path Advisory Committee, which did the heavy lifting of carving out the possible routes through town.

The five-member Implementation Advisory Committee (Leino, Vincent Stanton, Heather Ivestor, Michael Cicalese and Brian Burke) was created a year ago to develop recommended strategies for the design, construction and implementation of community path route options selected by the Selectmen, “diving deep” into the routes recommended by CPAC, focusing on any choke points including rough terrain or intersections on busy roadways.

In addition to the pathway, the committee looked into an underpass from Alexander Avenue to the south side of the commuter rail tracks that would allow residents and students transverse from the Winn Brook neighborhood to Belmont High School safely. 

After spending a great deal of time adhering to the mandate, “we are now at the stage to put pen to paper” by moving to a feasibility study,” said Leino.

During the initial process, the study will help determine “what things did we missed? What are things that CPAC missed? Are there alternatives that we should be thinking of?” said Leino. 

With the Selectmen’s approval in hand, a draft request for proposal (RFP) will be put out to bid in early January. Leino expects to hire a firm in late spring and have a completed feasibility study by the end of 2016. A group will decide on a final recommended route that will be sent to the Selectmen in the Spring of 2017.

The $100,000 to hire the engineering consultancy comes from a grant from the Community Preservation Committee that was approved by the 2015 Town Meeting.

In addition to the CPC funds, the Massachusetts legislature approved a $100,000 earmark that would pay for a study. If Gov. Baker releases the funding – no small feat in this time of fiscal restraint – the state money could replace or, supplement the town’s funds.

According to Leino, once the final route has been selected, the committee can then focus on funding a project, which could be the least difficult portion of the project. A Belmont community path is in line for both national and federal grants that would pay for nearly 90 percent of the total cost of approximately $10 million for the 2.2-mile route. 

Leino said because Belmont is a significant link to an extensive bike path from Somerville to Berlin, Mass and will lie close to other popular community routes nearby in Cambridge, Watertown, and Arlington, “we’d be right up there in priority for funding.”

The federal and state money would be available once the town invests about $1 million into the trail as they “want us to have some skin in the game,” said Leino.

Despite that the feasibility study is more than a year away, there is pushback from residents in two neighborhoods – Channing Road and homes on Clark Lane adjacent to Clark Road – to the path’s proximity to the property lines and the chance that homeowners on Clark Lane and the Boston Housing Authority could lose a portion of their land to the path.

Baghdady’s request for the feasibility study to look into using Concord Avenue and School Department land at Belmont High School came after some Channing Road residents felt the Community Path Advisory Committee did not give that proposal enough consideration.

Leino said that the Advisory Committee found the Concord Avenue route was “impractical” for several reasons including busy intersections, traffic, active driveways and other impediments. Also, a Concord Avenue route would effectively end financing plans for an underpass at Alexander Avenue, said Paolillo. 

But Baghdady did not see an additional route as overburdening the feasibility study.

“The objective is to have a community path and to me, the more options we have before us, the better decision we can make,” said Baghdady, winning the argument. 

Belmont Selectmen Appoints Community Path Implementation Committee

The Belmont Board of Selectmen selected five residents – each with their specific skill set – to determine not just the best route for a community path to transverse Belmont, but also how to pay for it.

The Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee takes over from the Community Path Advisory Committee which completed its work in May after it researching and then developing a number of possibly combined bike/walking routes from Waltham to Cambridge.

“The desired outcome of this entire process is to have the community path built,” said Andy Rojas.

“The ultimate intent isn’t for a study … it’s for a physical path to be built that services the town and mitigates the negative and highlights all the positive impacts,” said Rojas.

The residents appointed to the committee are:

  • Brian Burke
  • Michael Cicalese
  • Heather Ivester
  • Russell Leino
  • Vincent Stanton

Each member comes with work experience or involvement with the proposed community path in the past. Burke was a member of the CPAC and will bring continuity to the process. Cicalese was selected to raise residents’ concerns to the group as a likely route will impact the Channing Road neighborhood. Ivester is a state licensed structural engineer while Leino is an attorney.

Stanton, who Selectman Mark Paolillo noted has been responsible for extending Belmont Town Meeting nights with his array of knowledgeable quires, is well-known in town for his divergent thinking and novel ideas and solutions to any number of issues facing the community.

The committee’s charge from the selectmen is to come to a consensus on the best path but also to uncover outside funding – be it private or from the state or federal governments – to pay for a good portion of the trail and also the evaluation and analysis of the potential of a proposed project.

“It’s pretty clear that this body needs to commit some how … identify public sources of funding to do a feasibility study,” said Rojas.

“We can then pursue other government grants for the implementation, but we need that feasibility study in hand,” he added.

According to several members of a pro-community path group that Paolillo noted at the meeting, “with a feasibility component, there could be significant funds from the state level for a path.”

The study will also provide the Selectmen – who will make the final decision on the route and if the project will move forward – the economics of building specific routes through Belmont.

“While not set in stone, that we would expect the feasibility study would give us input on the route options before we make up our minds,” said Rojas.

Belmont Selectmen Seek Residents to Join Committee to Implement Community Path

Now is the time to decide the when, where, what, why and how much of a community path running through the heart of Belmont.

After more than two decades after it was first suggested, the Belmont Board of Selectmen last week created the Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee, a five-member temporary advisory committee which will recommend strategies for the design, construction and implementation of a multi-use path from the approved route selected by the selectmen earlier this year.

The routes are included in the final report of the Community Path Advisory Committee submitted in June.

The committee will also identify funding sources for a feasibility study of the route options, which will include a technical evaluation.  The feasibility study will allow the town to establish a cost estimate to be used in the development of capital budget planning and solicit grant funds to fund the project.

For supporters of the multi-use path running from Cambridge to Waltham, the selectmen’s decision to move on the project is good news.

“This is great news. Support in town for the path in Belmont is strong. It looks as if the [Selectmen] recognize that and are embracing the recommendations of their Community Path Advisory Committee. I’m happy and relieved to see that,” said Paul Roberts, who noted the committee needs the right blend of skill and expertise to pursue answers to some important questions. 

“It is also critical that the Selectmen give committee members a free hand to pursue all the options that are on the table regarding the routes and possible features of the path,” said Roberts.

“The Community Path Implementation Committee should pursue and incorporate the best advice from experts and engineers  so that the final plan – whatever it is – will be one that is in the long-term best interests of the town and the hundreds of thousands of individuals who will use the path in the decades to come,” he said. 

Residents with experience in the design, construction and implementation of similar projects are highly encouraged to apply.

Applications should include a completed Community Volunteer Interest Form and Resume. The form is available in the Office of the Board of Selectmen or online.

Please submit all applications to the Selectmen’s Office or by e-mail to selectmen@belmont-ma.gov by Monday, Nov. 24.