Smart growth inches forward

Paperboard project stalled by appeals

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2011

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State lawmakers approved the Chapter 40R “Smart Growth’’ Act in 2005 to give communities the ability to better control high-density building proposals, something that had been lacking under the older, Chapter 40B affordable-housing law.

Under the 2005 act’s provisions, cities and towns can decide where such development will occur and establish Smart Growth Districts, with accompanying stipulations on what’s allowed.

Natick and Belmont are among the 30 communities statewide that have implemented Chapter 40R, establishing districts that allow for dense development in strategic locations, such as near transportation hubs or commercial centers. In return, the cities and towns received hundreds of thousands in initial cash incentives from the state, and the promise of $3,000 more for every affordable housing unit ultimately built.

But the smart growth program has not moved forward as steadily as legislators hoped, with only a handful of projects completed. In some cases, the tight economy proved to be the obstacle, and in others, opposition by neighbors.

In Natick, court challenges by a nearby housing complex have blocked a plan for 138 apartments and 12 townhouses on the former Paperboard Factory site on North Main Street.

Some residents and town officials feared a developer would submit a Chapter 40B affordable-housing proposal for the property after the factory closed in 2005. The law allows developers to bypass most local zoning restrictions in exchange for including a certain percentage of income-restricted housing units.

The development company, Barberry Homes of Wayland, was approached by the town and agreed instead to build a smart-growth project on the 6.4 acres.

Natick voters approved the Chapter 40R district, and the town got a $200,000 incentive payment from the state. Barberry Homes principal James Williamson says the financing is in place, and he’s poised to begin.

But Michael Carr, vice president of Natick Mills, an 83-unit apartment complex adjacent to the factory site, has filed a slew of court challenges to Williamson’s permits. Carr said his opposition has nothing to do with fear of competition; his apartments are predominantly affordable, while most in the new complex will be rented at market rate.

Carr said he is convinced that the project’s approved storm-water management plan won’t be adequate. “We are concerned that once it’s built, our property will be physically harmed when the flooding begins,’’ he said. “It will flood the entryway that is our access for the handicapped.’’

The opposing sides are trying to settle their differences through mediation.

Natick’s town planner, Patrick Reffert, said the smart-growth project is part of an ongoing plan to enliven the downtown and return empty buildings to viable uses. The factory site is near public transportation, and along the town’s water and sewer system — all factors that make it an ideal smart growth candidate. “We’re really looking forward to having the derelict buildings taken down,’’ Reffert said.

If the project is built, Natick would receive $414,000 in bonus funds from the state in addition to the initial payment of incentive money. Reffert said the $614,000 total would eventually help with infrastructure improvements.

Some smaller projects, meanwhile, have moved forward more easily, as in the case of Belmont’s smart-growth plan for 17 housing units on a former Catholic church property. Our Lady of Mercy was shuttered in 2005 during a series of parish consolidations by the Boston Archdiocese. The Belmont property included the church, convent, rectory, hall, and parking lot.

A local group, the Oakley Neighborhood Association, worked with the town’s planning department and the builder, North Shore Construction and Development, on the proposal, which called for 15 town-house condominium units and two single-family homes. There was some initial discussion of reusing the existing buildings, but they were eventually demolished, and construction is underway.

The church site is ideal for smart growth, said Belmont’s planning coordinator, Jeffrey Wheeler.

“This is an example of what 40R was supposed to achieve,’’ he said. “It’s in an area of single- and multifamily homes. It’s near Cushing Square, one of Belmont’s main commercial centers, and the trackless trolley line.’’

While there were some complaints along the way over the project’s design, Wheeler said, those were addressed. Belmont received $10,000 as its initial incentive payment, is slated to get another $39,000 once the units are built.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development requires participating communities to file yearly progress reports. An agency representative last month said it is not surprising that projects aren’t proceeding as quickly as initially expected, since the economy has changed dramatically since 2005.

While the Smart Growth Act contains a “claw back’’ provision requiring communities to return incentive payments if there is no progress on a project after three years, officials said, the point is to get the housing built, not reclaim the money. No funds have been returned, the agency said.

Christine Legere can be reached at