Planning Board OKs Belmont Hill School Parking Plan

Photo: The area which will become a parking lot for the Belmont Hill School

By the narrowest of margins, the Belmont Planning Board approved the Design and Site Plan Review for a proposed 140-space parking lot and 7,000-square-foot facilities building to be built on a seven-acre parcel off Prospect Street presented by the Belmont Hill School.

“I’ll go ahead and make a motion to approve design site plan review of the application as amended on the ground that the proposal complies with all elements of the Zoning Bylaw,” said Matt Lowrie, board chair who shepherded the contentious review over the past five months.

The vote was three-to-two, with Lowrie, Thayer Donham, and Karl Haglund voting to approve the proposal, while Carol Berberian and Jeff Birenbaum voted no at the meeting held virtually on Tuesday, April 11.

In a prologue to what was a swift review of the proposal, Lowrie presented the legal next steps for critics if they choose to challenge the board’s decision. But Lowrie expressed his opinion that since many of the most immediate abutters had come around to support the proposal after some mitigation by the school of its plans, “[W]ho would do this?”

When he met with those same abutters early in the process, they admitted that their legal counsel said litigating a favorable review decision, in this case, would likely result in them losing in court.

During the meeting in which public comment was not taken – the review was closed back in March – Lowrie presented a step-by-step overview of the process, highlighting the main campus parking, the facilities building, and the east campus parking off Marsh Street.

Lowrie ran down many of the “expressed concerns” that were brought up during the review process, such as the impact on abutters, the number of parking spaces, the clearing of trees and vegetation, traffic congestion, and stormwater issues.

Lowrie pointed to the legal decision Forster vs. Belmont when discussing whether parking for athletic events is considered an educational use. The court said the town could issue a special permit for tall light poles on athletic fields as the Dover Amendment protects it. The state law prohibits the Planning Board from regulating or restricting the use for an educational purpose – such as parking and the facilities building – assuming it’s a nonprofit educational institution.

Throughout his review, Lowrie relied on the opinion of town counsel George Hall in supporting the approval of the design and site review.

“In order to actually make sure that we have a decision, we need to be on the merits,” said Lowrie.

After members sought clarification of aspects of the stormwater runoff from around the new facilities building, the board voted to approve the measure. There is no indication from the Belmont Hill School on a start date for the parking lot construction.

Letter To The Editor: Belmont Hill Proposed Parking Lot Unhealthy For Wildlife, Community

Photo: A portion of the land owned by Belmont Hill School adjacent to the proposed parking lot

To the residents of Belmont:

The Belmont Hill School intends to build a 100,000 sq. ft. parking lot in place of the current woodlands. This space, almost as big as two football fields, is home to many animal species and is an extension of the ecosystem of Mass Audubon’s Habitat. Important species like foxes, deer, and owls depend on that land to survive, as do the large trees that provide clean air to the entire town. 

The Belmont Middle High School project has no parking lot for students and minimal street parking. All 1,300 students can attend school by carpooling, bus, walking, or biking. We understand there is limited parking at Belmont Hill School, but destroying critical ecosystems and natural habitats is unhealthy for the local wildlife and our community. The size of the parking lot that Belmont Hill wants to build is unnecessary and not worth sacrificing valuable woodlands. 

As Belmont High School Climate Action Club members, we oppose this harmful project. We hope the people of Belmont agree and stand with us against the currently proposed parking design. 

The Belmont High School Climate Action Club

Belmont Hill School’s Revamped Parking Plan Finds Support From Former Critics, But Many Remain Troubled

Photo: The location of the proposed parking lot of the Belmont Hill School

Last fall, Tanya Austin was not at all happy with what the Belmont Hill School was proposing adjacent to her property line. As one of the closest abutters to a new parking development off Park Avenue, the Rutledge Road resident had become one of the leading opponents to the 150-space parking lot, which would include a 7,000 sq. ft. facilities structure while formalizing parking at the school and near the athletic complex on Marsh Street.

“The area is one of the few remaining open, wooded spaces in Belmont, and our town should be committing to the long-term preservation of our environment rather than to fulfillment of the short-term wants of the Belmont Hill School,” said Austin in November. “Our petition has 2,000 signatures [showing] how widespread people’s interest is in opposing this project.”

Fast forward to this week, Austin and two other homeowners who were the project’s closest abutters are now expressing their support of a “modified” updated parking plan, much to the disappointment of many who have lambasted the private school for its plan to raze the native landscape to pave the land to put up a parking lot. After a series of meetings with the school facilitated by Mark Paolillo, chair of the Select Board, and Town Administrator Patrice Garvin, “I’m satisfied with the outcome of our negotiations,” said Austin.

The agreement by the three nearest abutting homeowners – Austin and her neighbor on Rutland and a resident whose property will be adjacent to the facilities building – came as the school presented its “modified” proposal before the Planning Board on Tuesday, Feb. 7, as the board restarts the design site plan review process that originally started in October 2022.

“This might have been different if this were a request for a special permit but based on my conversation with town council for a design site plan review, it is more of an administrative hearing … the requirements are less formal,” said Matthew Lowrie, chair of the Planning Board.

The development will occur on a total of 7.1 acres of which one acre is paved, 4.8 acres are woodlands and the remaining lawns and gardens. Under the development plans, 1.7 acres will be cleared and 1.2 acres used as parking with half-an-acre landscaped.

Primarily a day school, 437 of the school’s 464 pupils commute daily from 84 communities across New England; a new parking scheme will allow the school to manage its long-term parking goals better. The revised plan is essentially a tweaking of the original blueprints presented in the fall of 2022. Released this week, the major modifications include:

  • Removing the proposed outdoor above-ground fuel storage tanks at the facilities building.
  • Shifting the parking lot layout to increase the distance from the closest abutters.
  • Moving the fence between the parking lot and the property line; no closer than five feet from the pavement.
  • Relocating the facilities building further away from an adjacent property, reducing the number of parking spaces by three.
  • Adding additional plantings to reduce visual and environmental impact.

Those changes were enough for three owners of the most impacted properties to change their opposition to the plan to voicing their support for the school’s project.

“Our goal was convincing the school to voluntarily take the steps we would have to argue before the board or a legal appeal,” said Austin. After a series of meetings with the school facilitated by Mark Paolillo, chair of the Select Board, and Town Administrator Patrice Garvin, Austin said that “I’m satisfied with the outcome of our negotiations as the increased setbacks would mean less disturbance of wildlife and “to at least try to preserve the character of the area.”

While the proposal has restarted, the school has moved forward with peer review of the development – paying for outside professionals to appraise the school’s design – to determine the impact a finished project will have on parking, lightning, waste water drainage and other issues the Planning Board will oversee in the design site review. The school also has the Belmont Animal Control Officer confirm there are no endangered species occupying the land.

Critics at Tuesday’s meeting reiterated points made earlier that the project would result in the destruction of wildlife habitat and century-old trees on some of the last significant parcels of undeveloped land in the Belmont Hill neighborhood. Campaigners have gathered approximately 2,500 signatories on a petition opposing the project and have sent nearly 100 letters and emails to the Planning Board against the school’s plans.

One thousand residents who signed a petition in 2022 in opposition to the Belmont Hill School parking project.

Residents who have spoken out against the plan are facing difficult legal hurdles in their efforts to halt the development. The first obstacle is the school’s use of parking and the facilities structure are allowed under the town’s zoning bylaw in Single Residence District A. The town simply requires site review approval rather than than the more stringent special permit for a non residential building of more than 2,500 sq.-ft. and the creation of more than six parking spaces.

The second is a state law that limits communities from hindering certain developments. When a resident asked during a recent Select Board meeting how can the school proceed to build on the property, Board member Adam Dash bluntly said “The Dover Amendment.” The Massachusetts General Law hampers communities from restricting construction for agricultural, religious, and educational uses.

Belmont has its own rich experience with the law as it was instrumental in the approval of the opening of the Church of Latter-Day Saints’ Belmont temple in 2001. Lowrie noted Belmont Town Counsel George Hall has written an advisory saying the board would be in violation of the Dover Amendment if it attempted to deny the school’s application by demanding Belmont Hill first look to its main campus to accommodate the vehicles or for it to determine the number of parking spaces that are for “educational use.” Calculating the school’s supposed parking need was a deep dive by project critic Matthew Schwartz who determined the school could easily eliminate half the lot and still meet its educational needs.

In a new challenge to the project, residents with some support from the Select Board are increasingly calling for the project to undergo a Development Impact Report which is allowed in the zoning bylaws. Under a DIR, the Planning Board would determine the scope of the report including environment, social, physical and infrastructure impact, than issue a Request For Proposal that a professional development team would perform. The team would than produce an in-depth review for the Planning Board to review.

But according to Lowrie, the process is less than ideal, noting that in the past three decades, a DIR was not requested for major town developments such as the Middle and High School, the Senior Center, and several McLean parcels.

“What’s the difference between Development Impact Reports and what we’ve been doing instead which is peer reviews? Spoiler alert, the peer review is a better process,” said Lowrie.

According to Glenn Clancy, the head of the town’s Office of Community Development, the DIR is less flexible than a peer review – who are selected by his department – which can alter the review’s scope on the fly which assists in resolving conflicts between developers and the the town. Also, the cost for a peer review is picked up by the developer. Additionally, while the town can ask a developer to pay for a DIR, it may not be permissible under the Dover Amendment.

“What would a DIR add? Certainly delay,” said Lowrie, noting that the DIR “doesn’t authorize anything that can’t be done in the peer review process,” a view Clancy seconded.

“I believe professional engineering design, peer review, and compliance with section 5 has allowed the Planning Board to achieve the same purpose as if utilizing the Development Impact Report process … I think by de facto you guys are already operating under a DIR process. It’s just not specifically by that name,” said Clancy.

The parking project will return before the Planning Board on Tuesday, Feb. 14 at 7 p.m. with an emphasis on landscaping and the current tree layout.

Q&A: Residents Standing Firm Opposing Belmont Hill School’s Parking Proposal As Project Comes Before Planning Board [VIDEO]

Photo: Rutledge Road’s Tanya Austin whose family house abuts a proposed 150-vehicle parking lot on property owned by the Belmont Hill School.

When Tanya Austin and her family were looking to decamp from Central Square two years ago, they wanted a location near the bustle and restaurants of Cambridge but with more living space and where she could set up shop to continue working from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Harvard Law grad, with her husband and daughter, found what they were looking for in a 1940s-era garrison colonial on Rutledge Road, just two doors from their good friends who move to Belmont years before.

“We were scoping this place online three weeks before it actually went on the market. We really wanted this house,” Austin said.

A big bonus buying on Rutledge for Austin is the ramble of brush made up of shrubs, old trees, and vines left for years to run wild that occupies the land adjacent her small backyard.

“In the summer, there are raspberry bushes which are great, and sunlight comes through the trees on sunny days. It’s just a beautiful, quiet whole area out there,” said Austin.

It was also the location of the Belmont Hill School, the nearly century-old prep school located south of the Prospect Street rotary, aiming to create a 150-space parking lot and above-ground fuel tanks, a building for the school’s facilities department. It is part of a parking plan that includes formalizing and adding spaces behind its sports facility on Marsh Street and reconfiguring the parking and drop-off area at the school’s main entrance.

Primarily a day school, 437 of the school’s 464 pupils commute daily from 84 communities across New England to attend; a new parking scheme will allow the school to manage its long-term parking goals better.

Over the past decade, the school has been purchasing parcels just north of its campus to develop the land and finalize parking.

The parking lot proposal by the Belmont Hill School (credit: Belmont Hill School)

Where now Austin sees deer bound through the underbrush, there is a thin white pole that demarcates the property line where, if the school prevails, an eight-foot-tall wooden wall will run the length of the lot.

It was then when the proposal became real, said Austin.

The neighbors and residents across Belmont Hill have been mobilizing to bring the proposal to a halt. Nearly every property along Rutledge and throughout the area has become home to lawn signs questioning the proposal. In addition, an ad hoc group of residents have created a website ( detailing the opposition, while a internet petition has collected more than 2,000 supporter signatures.

As critics have been organizing, the school is moving forward with its efforts as it has formally introduced its plans before the town in September in a detailed, one-hour-long presentation before the Belmont Planning Board.

While the school sought a quick turnaround, unforeseen delays hit the proposal. Due to the sudden departure of the Planning Board’s chair and while finding replacements – the newest member will be voted by the Select Board on Monday – the proposal is coming before the board on Tuesday, Nov. 15, for the beginning of the design and site plan review.

The link to the virtual meeting is:
Webinar ID: 880 2534 2855

With a white pole indicating the property line with the Belmont Hill School, Tanya Austin speaks about the school’s proposal that will place 150 parking spaces into the Rutledge Road neighborhood.

Speaking along the property line, Austin spoke about the proposal and its future.

Q: Why is this land of brush and old trees important to you, your neighbors, and the wider community?

A: The seven acres of woods are important not only for what they are – a stand of decades-old trees, a habitat for all kinds of wildlife, and a safeguard for the adjoining protected wetlands – but for what they represent. The area is one of the few remaining open, wooded spaces in Belmont, and our Town should be committing to the long-term preservation of our environment, rather than to fulfillment of the short-term wants of the Belmont Hill School.

Q: What would the destruction of the land into a parking lot mean to abutters and the neighborhood?

A: For immediate abutters, the replacement of the woodlands with a 150-space parking lot and equipment maintenance facility would of course be devastating. No one wants that kind of noise, light, and pollution mere feet from their backyards.

But it doesn’t just affect us, it affects everyone who drives down Prospect Street or Park Avenue, where commuter traffic is already at a standstill during rush hour; it affects all residents of Belmont, since the school will not be paying taxes on the adjoining houses it demolishes to complete its plans, thus reducing funds available to the Town; and it affects our children, who will learn the unfortunate lesson that environmental and community concerns apparently do not outweigh the short-sighted plans of a private school with money to spend.

Part of the land which the new parking lot for the Belmont Hill School is being built

Q: When did it become apparent to you and the neighbors that Belmont Hill School was determined to move forward with the proposal for a 150-space parking lot, a facilities building, and above ground fuel tanks?

A: We first became aware of the proposed project in November 2021, and actually attended two meetings that winter, one public and one private, with the school at which they presented their plans. We were hopeful at the time that the school would be willing to work with us, or at least give due consideration to our stated objections: the environmental impact, the effect on traffic, and of course the consequences to immediate abutters.

But it wasn’t until our third meeting with the school on May 25, 2022 that it really became clear that they were not at all interested in hearing what we had to say. We were literally told that no changes would be made to their plan unless the Town forced the school to make them, and at that point we knew we had to take action.

Q: What has been the relationship between the neighbors and the school? Has the school been receptive to neighbors concerns? Can you point to one incident that would highlight the interaction?

A: Until about a year ago I would have said that the neighborhood had a good relationship with the school, which has always touted its openness to community concerns and its collaboration with neighbors. But despite its claims to wanting to work with us and adapt its plans to our needs, the school has done nothing substantive towards that goal– instead, it has made cosmetic changes that have no real effect on the scope of the project, and attempted to pass them off as compromise.

One of the most egregious examples is the school’s oft-repeated claim that in response to our concerns that the curved driveway into the parking lot would cause approaching vehicles’ headlights to shine into neighbors’ yards, the school took the significant step of purchasing the property at 20 Park Ave., allowing the driveway to be straightened. However, it’s our understanding that the school had been attempting to purchase that property for years, well before anyone expressed concerns about the driveway, characterizing their purchase now as an act of benevolence is just disingenuous.

Q: Has the neighbors and supporters reached out to town officials such as the Town Administrator, Community Development and the Planning Board? What has been their response?

A: We have repeatedly reached out to the Planning Board, Select Board, and the Town Administrator to discuss this issue. In fact, they are probably tired of hearing from us! In general they have been very open to hearing us out. Several board members and the Town Administrator have come out to view the property in person, rather than relying on the maps submitted by the school, and have encouraged us to attend and speak out at board meetings to make our voices heard in the review process. However, I’m not sure that this will be enough if the school isn’t willing to compromise.

Q: What is the neighbors seeking from the school, such as reduction in size or placing the parking on the main campus? Has the neighbors communicated with the school on these areas of compromise?

A: As a group, the neighbors have made many suggestions, both general and specific, as to how the school could revise its plans in a way that would be satisfactory to both the school and the Town. Unfortunately, the school has flatly refused to consider them, instead making minor changes that pay lip service to the idea of compromise, while accusing our group of being inflexible. Many of our suggestions have been met with the claim that the school has already deemed them to be impossible or impractical– without any further discussion of how they arrived at that conclusion.

At this point, the problem is not so much the specific details of the plan– though obviously increased setbacks from residences, reduction in the number of old-growth trees cut down, and significant reduction in size and use of the parking lot and maintenance facility would be welcome– but the school’s dogged adherence to its original plans without room for discussion.

Q: The Belmont Hill School has many tools as they move forward: the land parcels were purchased from willing sellers in an open market, it has a proposal that meets the town bylaws, and they can use the Dover Amendment as the sword of Damocles to any opposition. Are the neighbors playing with, as they say in poker, a Devil’s Hand (a set of weak card)?

A: I don’t believe that the school, for all that it claims to be within its rights under the law, can necessarily claim to have a trump card (to use a different card game analogy) in the Dover Amendment. Even under the Dover Amendment, the school has the burden of demonstrating that its proposed use of the land has an educational purpose, and even if it can meet that burden the Town is entitled to impose “reasonable regulations” on things like setbacks, open space, and parking. Perhaps in tacit acknowledgment of this fact, the school has not yet formally invoked the Amendment. The bottom line is that the Town has the power to regulate the school’s project if it sees fit– we are simply asking the Town to exercise that power if the school cannot come to a compromise.

Q: While not giving away any future plans, I understand an attorney has been advising the neighbors of their rights. Is litigation a possibility? 

We have indeed retained counsel to assist us in this matter. As one would expect, we are hopeful that litigation will not be necessary– no one wants a protracted lawsuit, which could take years to resolve. That being said, we are not afraid to file suit if it comes to that point; this issue is too important to let go after only token resistance, and we believe we have the public support necessary to take this as far we need to. Our petition has 2,000 signatures, which just goes to show how widespread people’s interest is in opposing this project.

Q: What should the greater Belmont community to know about this issue? 

A: We can’t emphasize enough that this is not just a localized issue, that only matters to our immediate neighborhood. It’s not even a “Town of Belmont” issue, though of course Belmont residents will feel the most immediate effects. It’s bigger than that; how we (and by “we” I include the Belmont Hill School) act here is an indicator of how we will act in the future, when the next choice has to be made between sustainability and convenience; between looking to the future or remaining mired in the past. Belmont Hill School has been educating children for almost a century. We should all think about what they’ll learn from this, and act accordingly.

With Chair’s Departure, Planning Board Left Short And Belmont Hill School Parking Project Delayed


A few weeks ago, Planning Board’s Vice Chair Matthew Lowrie had just finished writing his resignation letter from the board. The longtime Belmont resident was preparing to move from the Town of Homes “in the not so distant future” and wanted to provide the board’s chair, Steve Pinkerton, time to fill his post on a committee facing a heavy agenda for the year ahead.

But as Lowrie prepared to press ”send” on his letter, “a funny coincidence occurred,” as he noticed an email from Pinkerton. The subject of that correspondence: Pinkerton’s own resignation.

Pinkerton’s sudden resignation along with Lowrie’s pending departure has highlighted the shortage of members and has brought to a halt a proposal by the Belmont Hill School to install a parking lot and facilities building near its central campus that was going before the board for a vote at the Planning Board’s Oct. 11 meeting.

Lowrie said Pinkerton had ”very good reasons” to leave his post on the board which he has led for the past two years with ”[grace] and aplomb,” noting his leadership as ”one of the real drivers” in changing town bylaws to address the trend of “supersizing” residential properties.

With Pinkerton’s departure, Lowrie has decided to step into the chair role – “we’ll see for how long” – until new members are appointed to allow the board to move forward with some semblance of continuity.

With so many changes over the past weeks, the proposal by the Belmont Hill School to add to and revamp its campus parking got caught up in the board’s turmoil.

“I think we’re highlighting that we’re in a little bit of a tenuous place at the moment,” Lowrie told the Zoom audience.

The parking plan – made up of a new parking lot and Facilities Building on land east of Prospect Street, a more formalized parking area adjacent to the Athletic Center and redesign of existing parking and drop off site at the front of the school at Prospect and Marsh streets – has received “a lot of input from abutters and others,” said Lowrie, noting that a greater number of participants were attending via Zoom.

The delayed vote was to begin the design site review, which requires three ‘yes’ votes to proceed. The site plan review process provides a level of review that ensures the project will meet development policies and regulations as defined in the town’s bylaws as well as design practices that are commonly accepted within the community.

With Pinkerton resignation, member Karl Haglund not at Tuesday’s meeting and member Renee Guo recusing herself from the process, the school would need to receive an unanimous vote from the remaining three members to move the project forward.

While that was likely, the board and the town began talks with the school to withdraw the application for the time being to “let us get our planning board back in order” said Lowrie with the Select Board adding at least one full-time member in the next weeks.

“Do you think it would be cleaner and neater if you were to withdraw?” Lowrie asked Kelly Durfee Cardoza, a principal of the Avalon Consulting Group who was representing the school at the meeting. “I don’t see it in anybody’s best interest for there to be a vulnerability to whatever decision we reach based on the composition of the planning board,” he said.

Cardoza told the board that while the school wished to proceed with the review vote rather than having to wait an undetermined amount of time, Lowrie’s suggestion along with the board’s assurances that the delay would be a short one, the school will withdraw the current application without prejudice to refiling at the board’s next meeting on Oct. 18.

The next step is to seat a full-time member and be prepared to once again accept the school’s plan in the first weeks of November.

“Sounds like a plan,” said Lowrie.

This Weekend: Benton Open House Saturday, A-B Chamber Chorus on Sunday

• The Benton Library, Belmont’s independent library located at Oakley and Old Middlesex, is holding it’s annual Open House on Saturday, Dec. 6, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Join the board of directors and volunteer staff to celebrate the season. Everyone in the community is welcomed to attend and anyone who hasn’t tried the Benton is urged to stop by.

• Students from Belmont’s Powers Music School are performing  their winter recitals with a holiday theme as they tour the area. They will be performing at the Watertown Mall, 550 Arsenal St. in Watertown on Saturday, Dec. 6 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Come early as the group will be a special holiday music story at 2 p.m. On Sunday, Dec. 7 at 1:30 p.m., the group heads to the Mall at Chestnut Hill in Newton.

• The Belmont Hill School’s Winter Concert will take place in Hamilton Chapel on Sunday, Dec. 7 at 2 p.m. Performing will be the school’s orchestra, jazz band, piano trio and the Belmont Hill B-Flats, the senior choral group, as well as the 9th grade’s A-Sharps. The concert is open to the public. 

• The Arlington-Belmont Chamber Chorus under conductor Barry Singer presents NOT-QUITE-WINTER CONCERT on Sunday, Dec. 7, beginning at 3 p.m. at Payson Park Church, 365 Belmont St. The concert will consist of six masses each from a different century and songs of poets over five hundred years. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and $7 for 17 years old and younger.