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‘The school literally wants to pave paradise to put up a parking lot’: Belmont Hill proposal divides town

A view of the Belmont Hill School campus and the surrounding neighborhood in Belmont. The wooded area in the foreground would be included as part of a proposed project to build a new parking lot and facilities building.Peter Joll

Belmont Hill School’s proposed plan to build a new parking area on a vacant residential lot has touched off an increasingly bitter debate among residents, pitting school supporters against critics who argue the project would threaten the environment and endanger wildlife.

But officials at the century-old private boys’ school said it needs more parking, and more than a year ago, proposed a new lot on land it owns adjacent to its campus just south of Route 2.

Greg Schneider, the head of school, said the parking spaces would serve students who have to commute from other towns. It would make the traffic flow smoother, and safer, he said, and address parking issues during activities on campus.

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“We feel like we did exactly what the town has asked us to do, and we’ve tried to really navigate the public process as transparently as possible,” Schneider said.

More than 2,600 people have signed a petition demanding Belmont officials block the project. Many opponents have urged the town’s Planning Board to conduct a study investigating the proposal’s potential impact on wildlife and the environment before making a decision.

Opponents have summoned sweeping arguments against the project — citing the threat posed by climate change, the need to protect trees and wildlife, and quoting Joni Mitchell lyrics — in their entreaties to town leadership.

“The school literally wants to pave paradise to put up a parking lot,” said Elaine Dimopoulos, one of the opponents of the project, in a December letter to the town. “Don’t let them.”

Supporters of the school have hailed Belmont Hill as a good neighbor that offers its facilities to local sports teams and its grounds to residents to enjoy as a bucolic refuge.

“The Belmont Hill School is a boon to the community,” resident Jennifer Carter said. “I believe it is an asset to the town and neighborhood, and this project will only make it better.”

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Matt Lowrie, the Planning Board chairman, declined to comment on the board’s review.

The Belmont Hill School has about 460 students in grades 7 through 12, and about 150 staff, the school has said in project filings.

The school is proposing the project under the state’s Dover Amendment, which grants projects proposed by educational or religious organizations freedom from some local zoning regulations.

The school owns six single-family house lots clustered together on about 7 acres near the traffic circle at Park Avenue and Prospect Street. The proposal would involve about 2 acres of the site, and create a roughly 140-space parking lot with direct access to Park Avenue and Prospect Street, the school said in project filings.

The project also would install four electric vehicle charging stations; make traffic improvements in the area; and add a 7,000-square-foot facilities building off of Prospect Street, according to the school. Belmont Hill already has about 270 parking spaces on campus.

New trees and landscaping will be used to screen the parking lot and the building from abutters.

Karl Ivester, who backs the school’s proposal, said the plan is about more than a parking lot.

“It is a facilities center, with space to park cars, hundreds of trees being planted, landscaping, and a design consistent with the Belmont Hill School campus — a fixture in this community for 100 years,” Ivester said.

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Town officials also have tried mediating the issue in hopes of cooling tempers, and they were able to secure an agreement between the school and three abutters in early February.

“From where I sit, if you can get people in the room talking, it always helps,” said Patrice Garvin, Belmont’s town administrator. “The purpose was to bring the fever down in the community.”

The compromise included the elimination of an above-ground fuel tank, more plantings, and increased setbacks from property lines.

Tanya Austin, one of the abutters who signed onto the agreement, said the changes would help alleviate some of the concerns about the impacts on wildlife.

“As far as protecting the immediate neighborhood, I think that we and the school have reached an agreement that will do that,” Austin told members of the Planning Board during a recent hearing.

But support for the compact between the school and some neighbors is not universal.

“We’re in a climate crisis, and we are certainly not facing a parking lot crisis,” said Lois Pines, a former state lawmaker and longtime Democratic advocate, during the same hearing.

Deran Muckjian said he was concerned a new parking lot would make traffic worse. He also worried about its ecological impact.

“What it’s going to do to our environment, it’s terrible,” Muckjian told board members. “It baffles me that as a town, we’re even allowing this to happen.”

Schneider, Belmont Hill’s head of school, said he understands the concerns raised and wants to work with residents.

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“I was not surprised that there was resistance, and I have a lot of empathy for the abutters,” Schneider said. “These have been residential homes for a long period of time, and that’s changing.”


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.