September 28, 2023
• Last year, the purchase of a portion of property called Castle Farm was approved. However, when changes in the execution of the deal arose, a return to Town Meeting became necessary. Land deals are, by nature, complicated. But the purchase of a parcel of land off of Charles River Road has been dramatic, as well. Involving a potential development, a commitment to open space, fear of overdevelopment, and issues around conservation and affordable housing, this transaction has taken a lot of time, patience and good will from all parties involved. The next chapter in the story is set to be written in October. This week, the Select Board closed the Special Town Meeting warrant with an article which asks if they wish to move forward with the revised plan. The resulting vote could impact more than just this one piece of property.
In October, town meeting members will deliberate on a non-binding resolution regarding zoning. In this context, ‘non-binding’ implies its approval would not alter existing laws. This functions more like a survey, allowing town officials to gauge if it’s worth investing the next six months in crafting zoning language for the original three-party deal. The deal involves buying 34 acres of open space, part of the Castle Farm Property adjacent to the town-owned, Ridge Hill Reservation. The primary buyer, Northland Residential, has planned to purchase the entire property for $21 million. Their proposal includes the development of 28 acres, ear-marked for 70 age-directed townhouse units with 5%, or four units designated as affordable housing. This deviates from current zoning regulations, and was initially intended to be addressed through the state’s local initiative “Friendly 40B” program. However, progress is hindered by a shortfall of affordable units within the plan. “The state has said to us that under a local initiative program, even though before they had previously said that 5% was acceptable, in writing, on several occasions, they have now said that it would need to have 25% affordable housing,” stated Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley. The typical threshold for becoming eligible for a 40B project where developers can override local zoning regulations for large scale developments is 25%. However, as the town has reached the 10% affordable housing benchmark, town officials expected the granting authority, the DHCD*, would extend some flexibility to this rule. Marianne Cooley explains,”This particular question is not prohibited in the law. But DHCD has always chosen to apply it in such a way that they stayed at the 25%. I also observed that, when they’ve applied it, that generally speaking, it’s been with towns that were not already over the 10% threshold.” Now, the alternative option, rezoning, comes with its own set of challenges. It requires a majority vote at Town Meeting. While town meeting members may be willing to support a project of this scale in return for access to an equivalent-sized meadowland, clearing hurdles for future multifamily developments all at once in a single family zone is a different matter. This is why the Select Board decided to include an opinion-seeking resolution in the October Special Town Meeting warrant. “We recognize that zoning is different from just an outright purchase,” said Cooley.”And so it’s important to check in with Town Meeting again.” Doubts have surfaced among other boards, including the Planning Board. At a Joint Meeting with the Select Board, Planning Board member Jeanne McKnight asked about raising the affordable housing requirement to 12.5%. “We have a goal expressed in our town’s Housing Plan of uniformly applying a 12.5% affordability requirement throughout our town, and I hate to get away from that and say this is an exception because the town wants to acquire this land.” Select Board chair, Marianne Cooley explained the requirement is not economically feasible. She emphasized the main objective of the deal is not to create more affordable housing, but rather to secure open space, a long-standing goal of the Conservation Commission. “We know that the cost of each affordable unit is somewhere between, you know, $200 and $300,000. That’s the additional cost to do that kind of unit. Somebody has to bear that cost. Either the developer has to bear that cost, the seller has to decrease his price, to be able to afford those units, you know, or the town has to be willing to put in that amount of money. Given all those factors, it didn’t seem like that was the right decision.” “The town is really focused on working with MBTA Communities,” Cooley continued. “And the plans that are part of there, and trying to make more housing able to be built by right. That is the focus, and we think a better area, really, for continuing to develop more affordable housing that’s more accessible in town.” Cooley pointed out, if Town Meeting expresses interest in October, the property owner intends to continue working on the original deal and will wait for the zoning clearance, which would be presented at the 2024 Annual Town Meeting. “We actually take that as a good sign, that they’re willing to wait,”she said. They have indicated to us through their trustees that they believe the proposal from the town and the developer that creates clustered zoning and creates a significant amount of open space in that property is really what their parents would’ve wanted to see happen.” If rejected, the owner may pursue a different path. “Certainly, we know the proposals that the sellers had in the past have been for single family housing in that area, that will create a very different space than what it would be if the town were able to participate in acquiring it. The town would also lose access to that beautiful meadow.” During several community meetings, the developer had previously presented to the public what could be built under current zoning. Twenty to twenty-five single family lots. The proposal in the deal includes a 100 foot buffer with the adjacent neighborhood on Whitman Road, and preserves 50% of the land as green space. Last October, despite opposition from Whitman Road residents, the borrowing for land acquisition was approved by Town Meeting with 163 in favor and 33 opposed.