A controversial plan to build an apartment complex behind the Derby Street Shoppes in Hingham has been quashed by the town’s surprising deal to buy the property for $3.75 million and build a wastewater-treatment plant there.
Town officials have been quietly negotiating a purchase since September with AvalonBay Communities Inc., which was planning to build a 177-unit apartment complex on the 18-acre site under the state’s 40B affordable-housing law.
Officials said they have been seeking the property in order to accommodate the expanding industrial complex in the area. But the purchase, announced Thursday, also was welcomed by residents who have opposed the project since it was proposed in June 2012.
Hingham Town Administrator Ted Alexiades was optimistic about how neighbors would respond to the agreement. “The type of impact one small building will have on a site — a several-thousand-square foot building on an 18-acre site — compared to the development in the woods proposed [by Avalon] should be extremely well received,” he said.
“We were totally surprised,” said Judy Kelley, who lives on nearby Harvest Lane and has spoken out strongly against the development. “Our initial reaction is a sense of relief that we won’t have to deal with this negative impact from this large development anymore. But we’re also looking forward to finding out what the . . . plans are for this area.”
Kelley added that if the water-treatment option is as good as it seems, she would encourage her neighbors to support the project at Town Meeting.
Michael Roberts, AvalonBay’s vice president of development, said the company was able to reach the agreement because of its relationship with the town.
“The town came to us, and there was a unique situation that they had a desire to buy the land and had a use for the land, so we were happy to work with them and come to the point where we are today,” he said.
Selectmen on Thursday signed a purchase-and-sale agreement, which requires approval at next month’s Town Meeting. Money for the purchase would be borrowed, with the debt paid out of the town’s operating budget.
According to Alexiades, a portion of the cost — whatever is eventually used by the wastewater treatment plant — would not be paid by the town, but would be covered by betterment payments by the plant’s users.
For selectmen chairwoman Laura Burns, the construction of a wastewater treatment plant, initially planned for a four-acre site within the South Shore Industrial Park, is the starting point for attracting commercial growth — and therefore commercial taxes.
“If we’re actually successful in this plan, it will change the whole picture there in terms of land use,” Burns said. “Land that is under one low-intensity usage now because they can’t support the septic . . . the land will have a different kind of value, and all these chess pieces will shift on the board quite a bit. We can’t say how because it’s all private property and they will make their own decisions, but our goal is to facilitate that.”
Selectman Bruce Rabuffo said the project is part of a master plan that selectmen hope to develop in order to guide the transformation of the entire area.
But making the wastewater treatment plant a reality, even after the land is purchased, requires several more steps.
Town Meeting has appropriated money for an engineering study for a plant. The town also has to test the site to determine where the treatment plant can go, obtain money to design the plant (anticipated for Town Meeting in 2015), and fund construction of the plant (anticipated for Town Meeting in 2016).
The town also will also have to negotiate with Aquarion Water Co. on how to get water to the site. Those conversations have begun, Rabuffo said.
Regardless of what lies ahead, this process essentially closes the door on the planned development, which encountered staunch resistance from neighbors and town officials.
The plan called for several buildings in the densely wooded area across from Pilgrim Skating Arena.
Under 40B law, in towns in which less than 10 percent of the housing units meet the state’s definition of affordable, developers can avoid many local ordinances and streamline approvals, as long as 25 percent of the units are affordable. The state says Hingham’s affordable housing has not reached the 10 percent threshold, but the town disagrees.
AvalonBay’s proposal has been winding its way through the approval process and had been expected to return to Hingham’s Zoning Board of Appeals soon.
Though the 40B proposal is all but dead, Hingham officials said they will continue to expand affordable housing.
“The town of Hingham has been and remains committed to affordable housing,” Alexiades said. “We did feel this project in this location was not smart growth and was exacerbating problems in a specific area of town.”
AvalonBay already has a 40B development at Hingham Shipyard. Roberts said the company had no immediate plans to develop elsewhere in Hingham, but that it was always a possibility.
“We always have a long-term approach to our developments,’’ he said. “We’ve always had a history of being able to do repeat business in the towns we’ve had developments in . . . . Hingham is a great town and we’re happy to currently be a part of it and will always look for new opportunities.”