Photo: The level of discord for the Belmont Hill School’s parking plan has been evident by the number of yard signs in town against the 140 parking lot
After four months of public comment and increasing discord, the Belmont Planning Board voted 3-1 with one abstention to end the public debate on the controversial parking plan by the Belmont Hill School to place approximately 140 parking spaces and a 7,000 sq. ft. facilities building on seven acres of the last remaining parcel of semi-wild land in the neighborhood.
“At some point, we need to close the public hearing so that we can get on to making a decision,” said Planning Board Chair Matt Lowrie at Tuesday’s virtual meeting.
Lowrie said ending the hearing does not halt the board from securing additional information. “So, for example, if we close the public hearing and there’s something else that we decided that we didn’t find out or found out and forgot, we get to ask,” he said.
“So closing the public hearing is simply the next step in the process. And I think we’re there,” said Lowrie. After little discussion among the board members, the vote was taken, and the contentious project is one vote in April from becoming a reality.
Tuesday’s vote begins the final stage of the town’s design and site plan review of the plan by the private school – celebrating its centennial this year – to develop residential parcels it purchased over the past two decades a few hundred feet from its campus. The 7-12 school with 450 students contends the new parking facility will meet the demands of student commuters, be a safer location for student to walk to the school, and will alleviate overcrowding on side streets and main roads during school events.
Critics of the plan – more than 2,700 citizens have signed a petition opposing the project – contend the parking lot will destroy habitat for a host of wildlife and cut down old-growth trees during a climate crisis while increasing traffic congestion and safety issues throughout the Belmont Hill neighborhood.
“With the public hearing … now closed, we move to the deliberation process,” said Lowrie, who suggested the board’s discussion on the parking plan take place at its next meeting on Tuesday, April 11. And while he hopes it will render a decision at its next meeting, a final vote – a simple yea or nay – will not happen until the board is ready to vote, said Lowrie.
The board has 20 days after closing the public hearing to render a decision, or the motion is automatically approved. If needed, the school has given the board an extension to April 19 to complete its work.
If the plan is approved, a draft opinion will be issued. Lowrie said Town Attorney George Hall states that a statement of reasons for denying the project is required if the plan is defeated.
Before asking for the vote, Lowrie addressed a motion submitted – and seconded – at a previous board meeting to dismiss or suspend the Design Site Plan Review process pending a study by the school on a 35 percent reduction in the parking area and a large-scale review of traffic and pedestrian safety plans.
Lowrie said after spending “a lot of time talking to town counsel” Hall, it became apparent that a motion to force the school to review its plan is “something we lack the authority to do” under Belmont by-laws.
“On my time on the board, we have never dismissed the design site plan review except for the applicant’s request, which is a different matter entirely,” said Lowrie. “It’s illegal … statutorily. Every lawyer who’s looked at this has said the same to me.”
Lowrie also put a damper on board discussions of its ability to require either improvements or a study of improvements by the school outside of the three areas that are part of the project. While such demands have been part of developments that require a Special Permit, “you cannot use design site plan review as a vehicle to require the school to make improvements elsewhere,” said Lowrie, who noted the suggested changes would be the town’s responsibility.