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A truck struggles through flash flooding on on Fawcett Street on Monday in this still from a video posted by the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance.

A truck struggles through flash flooding on on Fawcett Street on Monday in this still from a video posted by the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance.

Despite testimony from residents and officials shocked by Monday’s savage morning thunderstorm, flash flooding and even the touchdown of a tornado in Revere, an order aimed at saving the Silver Maple Forest from development – and shielding Cambridge, Arlington and Belmont from even harsher weather as climate change takes hold – wound up as watered down Monday evening as the region itself.

City Manager Richard C. Rossi is to arrange a meeting as quickly as possible with his equals in Belmont and Arlington to see whether the communities have the combined will to save the the 15-acre forest between Route 2 and the Alewife Brook Reservation from development by Philadelphia-based O’Neill Properties. Because councillors are given 36 hours to call for reconsideration of their votes, their orders can’t be acted on immediately by the City Manager’s Office, and as of Wednesday afternoon the order to arrange a meeting hadn’t been received.

Update on Aug. 1, 2014: The meeting is to be held at 8 a.m. Thursday at Cambridge’s City Hall.

At its introduction, the order from councillor Dennis Carlone called, among other things, for much broader action by Rossi “to convene an open meeting with officials from Cambridge, Arlington, Belmont and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, along with representatives of other interested parties, to discuss all possible options for the preservation of the Silver Maple Forest.”

But it was whittled down bit by bit in debate that started in hour five of a 6.5-hour meeting, with  councillors skeptical Cambridge and its 2.7 acres of Silver Maple Forest would have much impact in a project permitted in Belmont’s 12.9 acres of forest. Arlington’s interest lies mainly in the floods faced by East Arlington as changes in land use and climate result in the equivalent of “100-year storms” taking place now about every 30 years.

Fears of big talk, weak results

Talk about buying the property from O’Neill was also met with skepticism.

“If you try to organize a meeting there’ll be a group of people saying you absolutely have to do everything you can, spend as much money as you can, to preserve this,” Rossi told the councillors, reflecting some public comment from earlier in the evening. “And then you ask the the town and they say they have made no appropriations to do anything.” (Belmont’s Community Preservation Act allocations from May do not include money for the forest.)

“And they may not be interested in an adverse land taking in their communities if the land is not for sale,” Rossi said, referring to talk of seizing the land by eminent domain proceedings. “I see this thing spinning with people believing that passage of this order is going to lead to a resolution that they want, and I’m trying to be honest with people and say, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

The Residences at Acorn Park

O’Neill wants to build a five-story building of nearly 300 units and around 500 parking spaces in the Belmont Uplands. The $70 million plans for The Residences at Acorn Park introduced in 2005 have been fought fiercely by environmentalists and lovers of the densely wooded forest and its wildlife, but the company has made the project all but unstoppable by building under the state’s so-called Chapter 40B laws, promising to make at least 20 percent of the project’s units (or about 40) low- and moderate-income housing in a town where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is for low- and moderate-income residents.

The Legislature appropriated money to protect the forest in 2008, but Gov. Deval Patrick vetoed it “because he supported having affordable housing,” said Tim Toomey, a state representative as well as city councillor. State Rep. Dave Rogers, who represents all three affected communities and spoke during Monday’s public comment, later tried to get Silver Maple Forest funding into an environmental bond bill, but it was not accepted.

“Even if it was, the governor would have probably vetoed it again,” Toomey said.

In his comments, North Cambridge resident Rogers spoke not just about the project – “We do need affordable housing and we need the jobs that come from the building trades, [but] development in this place is a very bad idea for a wide variety of reasons” – but about its effect on traffic in the region. The nearby Alewife rotary joining routes 2 and 16 is ranked an “F” by the state Department of Transportation, he said, and even with improvements he is working on would still be a “D.” With some 2,000 units of housing on the way that includes those in the Belmont Uplands, “it’s only going to get worse.”

“I’m not anti-development,” Rogers said, “but I’m very opposed to this one.”

Resident concerns

Supporters of saving the Silver Maple Forest from development rally June 28. (Photo: David Mussina)

Supporters of saving the Silver Maple Forest from development rally June 28. (Photo: David Mussina)

Most of the dozen public speakers on the forest project focused on its educational and environmental aspects, including Amy L Mertl, an assistant professor in Lesley University’s Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics who testified to the forest’s economic value in flood protection, air quality and climate change mitigation. “We know the aesthetic value, we know the recreational value, just the human value of having those type of open spaces,” Mertl said, arguing for gathering municipal funds to buy the land from O’Neill. “There’s also a pure monetary value to those type of spaces that really exceeds the value of condos.”

The widespread, intense rains early Monday turned Somerville’s Union Square into a lake, created geysers in parking garages near Central Square and closed businesses such as the Porter Square Potbelly Sandwich Shop and the Pinkberry frozen yogurt in Somerville’s Davis Square.

Belmont educator Anne-Marie Lambert was leading a student nature walk Monday by the forest, and said that while the forest itself was flooded and impassable, the ditches on each side of  it were dry – the forest’s 70- to 90-foot trees had absorbed the rains. But urban flooding returned farther down Acorn Park Drive, where the forest fell away. “Regulations are not keeping with the climate change reality in our region,” Lambert said. “If [the forest] is cut down, there will be problems that are not accounted for in the current design.”

Before her, resident Michael Nakagawa showed councillors a map of big developments bringing population to the area while cutting back on green and open space, capping it with a kind of punchline: “The unfortunate part is, this is a flood map, not a planning map.”

Official actions

Councillors were sympathetic listeners – vice mayor Dennis Benzan seemed particularly shaken by the tornado’s touchdown and predicted “we’re going to see a more of this” – with Carlone calling his order urgent because O’Neill could be clearing trees imminently. But there were also doubts about what action Cambridge could take.

Mayor David Maher as well as Rossi said the developer, when threatened with Cambridge’s refusal to provide water and sewer hookups, has essentially shrugged and said they would go through Belmont instead.

That leaves a financial option, but Toomey cited the developer’s disinterest in selling and questioned whether there would be money coming from any source but Cambridge. “I can’t support Cambridge being the only one to come to the table,” he said, wondering if some of the city’s wealthiest residents would step forward to contribute toward the amount necessary – perhaps around $50 million – to buy the land.

Carlone countered that Cambridge had bought land outside city boundaries before to ensure infrastructure such as water supply, including using $1.2 million in Community Preservation Act money to buy 53.6 acres of watershed land in 2012 to protect its water, which flows to the Cambridge Reservoir, from being tainted by development.

His fellow councillors weren’t equally convinced of the urgency. After Craig Kelley deemed this a “harmless order, but we’ve been here a gazillion times,” they set about paring down his requests  to back away from an “open” meeting, then eliminate elected officials until only Rossi, Arlington Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine and Belmont Town Administrator David J. Kale – until 2012, Cambridge’s budget director – would meet to see how much interest there was in acting to spare the forest.

The text of the order as it was voted:

Over the past 15 years, the City Council has adopted no less than 12 policy order resolutions in support of the Silver Maple Forest, now therefore be it ordered that the city manager be and hereby is requested to work with staff to convene a meeting with town administrators from Cambridge, Arlington, Belmont and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to discuss all possible options for the preservation of the Silver Maple Forest, including funding commitments from other communities.

When the final version of the order was voted, it passed with eight councillors approving and Carlone quietly voting “present.”

This post was corrected July 31, 2014, to correct that “100-year storms” are now seen every 30 years.