Still No Decision on Chiofaro’s Marsh Road Subdivision

Photo: Monday’s meeting on the Chiofaro subdivision.

It’s somewhat appropriate that the name of the road servicing a proposed subdivision off Marsh Road will be called Sleepy Hollow Lane as it’s taking the town about as long as Rip Van Winkle slept to render a decision on the development.

In a packed, overheated Board of Selectmen’s Room at Town Hall on Monday night, March 27, a majority of the Board of Survey – made up of the three Board of Selectmen members – declared that enough new information on the proposed five house development by Marsh Road resident and Boston developer Don Chiofaro had been presented that they would take an additional week to ruminate before making a final decision on homeowner on Monday, April 3

“There is a lot for us to review,” said Mark Paolillo, chair of the board, who agreed to the delay coming from his colleagues Jim Williams and Sami Baghdady, although he had announced his vote to deny a waiver to Chiofaro to increase by a third the length of an elevated public cul-de-sac running from Marsh Road to the back of Chiofaro’s property at 178 Marsh Rd. which abuts Habitat Education Center and Wildlife Sanctuary, the 88-acre Massachusetts Audubon Nature site.

While his fellow members needed more time, Paolillo told the audience and Chiofaro that his “no” vote against the 210-foot roadway extension is that it will set the wrong precedent on future requests.

“We have heard from hundreds of folks against this development,” said Paolillo, who noted that a scaled down project of three large houses “is in the best interest of Belmont.”

The meeting, with nearly 70 people in the room and the hallway, was a continuation of a public meeting earlier in the month in which Chiofaro sought to add a bit more than 200 feet to the 600-foot public cul-de-sac he is allowed to build on his property to construct five large “McMansions” homes. Under “by-right” regulations, Chiofaro could build three homes in his backyard which borders the Habitat on its north side.

For Chiofaro and his supporters, the public benefits of a larger development with the 810-foot road include tax revenue, an emergency-access road from Woodfall Road and several inground infrastructure improvements he is willing to make that would help alleviate spot flooding on Marsh Road during heavy rain storms. Chiofaro noted that he could not build due to expense the underground culverts or the “safety” road with a shorter roadway.

The Chiofaro team pointed to some “dead end” roads in Belmont which have been expanded by past Board of Surveys beyond the 600-foot restriction with Pinehurst and Snakehill at more than 1,200 feet.

To Habitat supporters, which made up two-thirds of the audience, an expanded housing development close to the protected lands and near to wetlands would be detrimental to not just the Audubon sanctuary but surrounding woodlands.

The night did have its testy moments such as when Habitat supporters laughed in derision when Chiofaro – a lifelong Belmont resident who is known for building some of Boston’s iconic office towers such as One International Place – said the upscale development was “a good idea” for the town as it would allow “other people to live there.”

Someone who does not have a reputation of shrinking to criticism, Chiofaro said for the three years he had been actively pursuing this development “there has been a whirlpool of naysayers” who said of his proposal: “not in my backyard.”

“Well, this is my backyard,” Chiofaro noted, saying this is not being created “out of spite” but with the realization that “you just need to do the math with tax revenue.”

“One last thing, prohibiting development is not a good thing” for any town to consider, he said.

When the meeting was open for public comment, it was Anne Paulsen, the former selectman and state representative, who gave historical backing to those who oppose the expanded roadway. She was on the board that signed the 1989 bylaw that rewrote town survey regulations that are now on the books. She noted then the town was under pressure from developers and required a particular length of “public ways” for safety reasons including keeping them in repair which is hard to maintain.

Paulsen countered Chiofaro’s team’s assertion that the town had given several extensions over time, noting most were before the 1989 rewrite and of those after, many were for very short amounts; 50 feet on one street, seven on another.

She reminded the board of “how important your decision is in future” proposals.

Chiofaro’s defenders told of his lifelong support for educational and sporting endeavours, and his commitment to quality with new construction in a town where half the 10,000 homes have been built before World War II. (Although there was a humorous moment when a Chiofaro supporter told the audience that there was a “fear” of “building McMansions on open land …” at which point a loud cheer broke out from Habitat defenders, “Thank you!” said one hailing the realization. The supporter did say that the developer would build a quality project.)

Habitat advocates questioned many aspects of the project, including the emergency road cutting through their private road, the amount of fill required to build the roadway and homes which will need to be elevated from 4 to 12 feet due to the depression of the property and nearby wetlands and whether there was any “public” benefit to the town from the larger project.

Placing a coda on the public statements, Belmont Conservation Commission Chair James Roth said may on both sides of the issue were only seeing the trees at the expense of the forest “by not looking at the entire project.”

“Who is going to maintain this town road?” he pondered, noting that culvert such as Chiofaro has promised with the larger development will at times only last four years without constant repair.

After two hours of discussion, it was if the meeting was called due to collective exhaustion. For Baghdady, who will be leaving the board two days after Monday’s meeting, there was the hope “that a compromise could be found” between the developers and the other side” by next week.

For Chiofaro, he would only say that he will be back next week.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

On Trail: Habitat Creates Path to Accessibility

Alex Nolin has been a big “birder” –  those whose hobby is bird observation – since middle school.

“I’ve liked birds ever since I was a kid watching a lot of nature films,” said Nolin.

But for a person who travels exclusively in a motorized wheelchair, the woods and meadows Nolin would like to travel to make his observations is fairly limited. That included Belmont’s own Habitat Education Center and Wildlife Sanctuary off Juniper Road on the top of Belmont Hill.

The routes through the Habitat were tough ones to maneuver over with large roots, very narrow sections, stones and no way to get very close to areas such as wetlands.

“It was very hard to transverse. I had to go off the trails. It was pretty bad since I don’t have a very high clearance with my wheelchair,” he said.

That was before Sunday when Nolin, who returned for the first time in about 10 years, used the newly-installed accessible trail constructed this spring.

On that day, the 22-year-old Belmont resident easily traveled to Habitat’s Turtle Pond where, sitting on a platform overlooking the water, he spotted a Kingfisher, a small-sized brightly coloured bird, one of the birds that he has wanted to spot for a long time.

“It’s now off my life list,” said Nolin.

Roger Wrubel, director at Habitat Education Center and Wildlife Sanctuary, said contributions and a $41,000 state grant raised the $108,000 over two years to paid for the trail’s construction. Trail builder Peter Jenson designed and built the half-mile long loop that transverses the sanctuary’s meadow and the Turtle Pond.

The trail is compacted half-inch and smaller rock with a boardwalk near the wet lands and an observation deck at the pond, which is the most popular spot in the Habitat, said Wrubel.

“It’s smooth with a nice grade without steep inclines or descents,” said Wrubel, who said it is now a different experience for those who like the more “wild” trails.

The trail – which takes walkers and riders through the sanctuary’s different ecological areas – also has spurs allowing a variety of traveling options.

Making the trail wheel-chair accessible to American with Disability Act code is also advantageous for seniors who may not be as agile and parents who are pushing a stroller.

“This trail is now navigable for people who have trouble with the narrow bumpy trails,” said Wrubel.

Students from Lexington’s Cotting School, which accommodates pupils with mild to severe learning disabilities, and the Belmont Senior Center have been invited to use the trail for a “test run,” said Wrubel.

“[The Cotting School students] couldn’t wait to get onto the next stop. It’s a real blessing,” said Chadine Ford, one of Habitat’s walk leaders and teachers.

“It’s gotten good reviews,” said Wrubel, including one from Nolin.

“I really appreciated it. [The trail] was very smooth and much wider. It’s now appropriate for my wheelchair,” said Nolin.

“Now I can come visit more often as I live so close by and enjoy it,” he said.