As neighbors raise objections to a 230-unit housing development proposed in Norton, the Board of Selectmen has decided to seek a change to the state’s Chapter 40B affordable-housing law, both by home-rule petition and by direct appeal to legislators.
On Thursday the board met with an attorney to discuss its options. The goal, says vice chairman Robert Kimball, is to allow residential developments approved under the 40B law, but not yet built, to count toward each community’s 10 percent quota for affordable homes.
The change would see Norton exceed the quota, with about 12 percent of its residential units designated affordable, Town Manager Michael Yunits said. In the meantime, the town does not meet the minimum, and therefore cannot block unwanted housing developments that sell or rent at least 25 percent of their units (or 20 percent, in limited situations) at rates deemed affordable by the law, even if those developments do not conform to local zoning.
The exemption from zoning leads officials in many communities to chafe against Chapter 40B. “The town really isn’t in support of any projects that are able to be developed that don’t meet the zoning requirements of the town,” Yunits said.
Norton is in the midst of hearings on two 40B proposals, one of which has drawn significant opposition from nearby residents and will be the subject of a continued hearing on Monday.
The project, which does not have a name other than its address, 274 East Main St., would involve building 230 or 232 apartments on 14.7 acres on Route 123. It would consist of eight main residential buildings of three stories each, a clubhouse and pool, a small playground, a lawn dubbed the “Village Green,” and storm water retention ponds.
The main plan calls for 230 apartments, but the town and developers are talking about saving a historic home on the property, so the developers, Campanelli and Thorndike Development, have proposed converting the house into two additional apartments.
Neighbors say the high-density development would have far more units per acre than surrounding properties, would increase traffic, and could threaten the Canoe River Aquifer.
“We just want to be sure that if it does go through, our concerns are dealt with,” said Leland Goldberg, an informal spokesman for residents of Red Mill Village, an adjacent development of owner-occupied homes built by Thorndike. A petition expressing objections has been signed by 125 people from 75 households in Red Mill Village, he said.
He said that East Main Street is too small and winding to easily handle the extra traffic, and that the amount of pavement would cause storm water runoff. He also said the land contains a vernal pool, an environmentally sensitive wetland feature.
Maureen Sroczynski, president of the condominium association at Kingsberry Hill, another development nearby, said 40 homeowners have signed a petition to voice concerns about the scope and density of the project.
“We want to make sure everyone understands we are not opposed to affordable housing,” she said. Rather, the group worries about flooding, because their land is lower; the number of parking spaces, which she characterized as inadequate for the number of units; and the chance that local law could force Kingsberry Hill to tie into a sewage system being installed at 274 East Main St.
Kingsberry Hill has a well-functioning septic system, she said, and tying into a sewer could cost $500,000. She said the town has pledged to “work with” residents on the septic issue, but there is no guarantee residents would be exempt from tying into the sewer.
Like some other neighbors, Kingsberry Hill residents also object to the overall size and density of the apartment complex, she said, adding that no other homes in Norton look like the proposed buildings.
“Why does affordable housing have to be crammed into higher-story, intensely developed houses?” she said.
Campanelli and Thorndike are developing the land in a joint venture. Both are construction companies, but Thorndike is taking the lead in permitting and design, while Campanelli will do the property management for the apartments, according to Lloyd Geisinger, managing partner at Thorndike.
Geisinger said that Thorndike specializes in traditional-style neighborhoods, and that the Norton project adheres to that aesthetic, with sidewalks in front of the buildings, parking in the rear, and a pedestrian-friendly, Back Bay-like feel. He is trying to communicate to the public that the development will be high-quality, he said.
Each building would have garages residents could rent. The garages would be integrated into the first floor and accessed from a rear alley. As with other Chapter 40B projects, units designated affordable would be priced below market value and occupied by people who meet income eligibility requirements.
Geisinger said the project has no special name because names breed a sense of separateness from the larger community. Buildings will face East Main Street, and the sidewalk will connect the property to stores down the street.
Although some residential developments have stalled in the struggling economy, occupancy rates for apartments are high, Geisinger said, because people have delayed buying homes and because the children of baby boomers, by their numbers, created a surge in demand.
“At this time, the need for apartments is just compelling,” he said.
At Monday’s Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, an engineer hired by the town with funds from the developers is expected to present a review of the proposal.
Thomas Noel, chairman of the zoning board, declined to reveal his opinion of the project in an interview. He called the Chapter 40B law flawed, saying it makes calculating a town’s number of affordable homes difficult, and that the number seems to constantly change.
The other 40B proposal, Island Brook, consists of 100 single-family homes on 43.35 acres, also on East Main Street. The zoning board’s hearing on Island Brook continues March 18.