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.

Planning Board Ends Public Hearing On Belmont Hill School Parking Plan; Debate, Possible Vote On April 11

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.

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.