Opinion: Belmont Hill School lot turns back progress on environment

Belmont is facing a challenge to its commitment to our environment, our community, and our future.

The Belmont Hill School has submitted a proposal to the Town, to cut down acres of trees and demolish a house in a residential neighborhood, and replace them with a maintenance building, two above-ground fuel tanks, and a 150-car parking lot with nighttime lighting.

Planned: gas and asphalt

To put this in perspective, according to its proposal, the Belmont Hill School will be leveling and paving an area larger than the Star Market parking lot.  And storing 500 gallons of gasoline above ground, all just tens of feet from the yards of neighboring homes and the protective buffer around wetlands.

The benefits to the Belmont Hill School are obvious.  Moving its maintenance building and fuel tanks from its main campus will allow the school to build a more spacious dining hall for its students.  With the new parking lot, faculty, staff, visitors, and every student with his own car will be assured a place to park at the school.

But what are the consequences for the Town?

The Belmont Hill School insists it is “a good neighbor.”  Although the school does not pay taxes to the Town, it does allow residents some access to its athletic facilities, and 10% of its 465 students are from Belmont—with eight of these students receiving financial aid.

Turning back environmental progress

And yet, the Belmont Hill School’s proposal runs contrary to the Town’s own effort to look to the future.  Out of concern for the environment, the Town recently eliminated 90 parking spaces at the new high school.  Now the school proposes to nullify the Town’s progress by cutting down acres of trees and building 150 new parking spaces for itself.  The school’s proposal for above-ground fuel tanks also runs counter to the town’s judgment that such tanks are an unacceptable environmental hazard.

The Belmont Hill School’s motto urges its student to have “foresight.”  Yet the school’s proposal lacks any foresight into the environmental future of its own students and our Town.

When challenged on these matters by residents, the Belmont Hill School has refused to make significant changes in its plan, asserting that its proposal is allowed “by right” under the so-called Dover Amendment. However, the Dover Amendment empowers the Town to set limits on parking, setbacks, open space, and traffic safety.  Moreover, there is the question whether the Belmont Hill School’s proposal for a parking lot, maintenance building, and fuel tanks on a piece of land entirely separate from the school’s campus meets the legal requirement that the use of land must be “predominantly educational” to qualify for Dover Amendment exemptions.

Unless the Town takes a firm stand on this matter, no part of Belmont will be safe from having houses demolished and all manner of things noisy, dirty, and hazardous placed tens of feet from neighboring homes, based on dubious claims that the Dover Amendment says so.

The challenge for Belmont’s Planning Board and Select Board is to stand firm and look to the obligations we all owe to the future of our community.