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Coalition continues its battle against Belmont Uplands development

A coalition of homeowners and environmental activists battling to stop development of a prized tract of Belmont woodland is vowing to fight on despite a setback in state court.

A Middlesex Superior Court judge last month rejected an appeal of a decision by state regulators to give the green light to a $70 million housing development planned for the Belmont Uplands.

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Thomas Bracken, a lawyer for project foes, said his clients plan to appeal the ruling within the next few weeks. The first step, he said, is to seek a court injunction to prevent O’Neill Properties Group from cutting down trees and doing any site work until opponents have a chance to have their appeal heard.

The case involves two suits that have been combined, one by the Belmont Conservation Commission, the other by the Coalition to Preserve the Belmont Uplands. “Obviously, if they go and cut down the trees and fill in the wetlands, damage will be done that can’t be undone,’’ he said.

O’Neill Properties Group has spent years pushing plans to build a 298-unit apartment complex. The proposal calls for most of the units to be rented at market rates, but would include dozens set aside for lower-income families. The project would take shape on privately owned land amid the 120-acre Alewife Brook Reservation on the Belmont-Cambridge line.

The decision, issued by Judge S. Jane Haggerty, rejects arguments by project opponents that construction of the complex would violate the state Wetlands Protection Act, and the developer’s plans for replacing lost wildlife habitat are inadequate. In the only potential concession, the judge sent part of the case, dealing with concerns raised by the Conservation Commission related to neighborhood flooding, back to the Department of Environmental Protection for clarification. The earlier decision by the DEP did not clearly lay out all the reasons for rejecting the Belmont commission’s concerns, Haggerty stated in her ruling.

“The DEP will review the existing record and prepare an explanation as to why the project meets the storm water standard, and will send that information back to the court,’’ said Joe Ferson, a spokesman for the state agency.

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The process delays a decision on this aspect, but is not enough to stop the developer from moving forward, Bracken said.

Opponents contend the original decision by the DEP to approve the project is flawed, ignoring several hours of expert testimony. “The disappointment was strong, because we felt we had a good case,’’ said Ellen Mass, co-chairwoman of the Coalition to Preserve the Belmont Uplands and president of the Friends of the Alewife Reservation.

Still, before O’Neill can move forward, the developer will first have to get a building permit.

After applying for a permit more than a year ago, the O’Neill group is still working to meet conditions set forth by Belmont’s building commissioner.

Steve Corridan, O’Neill’s project manager, said the developer is completing some paperwork and will file for a building permit in roughly two months.

While O’Neill remains determined to move forward, the developer will weigh a number of factors to determine when to launch construction, including market conditions, he said.

Corridan contends that project opponents are simply trying to tie the project up in court and prevent a badly needed housing development from moving forward. Roughly half the 15-acre property would be protected conservation land that can’t be built on, he said. “We are doing everything absolutely above and beyond what is called for in the regulations,’’ Corridan said.

The court decision was the latest battle in a years-long tug-of-war over the Belmont site, dubbed the Silver Maple Forest by project opponents. Having unveiled plans in 2007, O’Neill has said the project would fill a shortage in rental housing, especially affordable housing.

Opponents, however, say their beef has nothing to do with affordable housing, but rather the development of a site they contend is an environmental asset and should be preserved.

“The coalition isn’t trying to drag anything on,’’ said Idith Haber, cochairwoman of the Coalition to Preserve the Belmont Uplands. “It’s the belief in the law.’’

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