MIDDLESEX - A little over a year ago, Lynnfield’s voters stunned developer Angus Bruce by handing his proposed “Woods at Lynnfield” elderly housing complex a lopsided defeat at Town Meeting.
But this April, when Bruce unveiled plans to construct a 15-lot subdivision along the same northern stretch of Main Street by the Sagamore Springs Golf Course, it was Lynnfield’s turn to be caught completely off-guard.
Late last month, a handful of town residents and environmental activists, forming an ad hoc working group in response to the latest threat to the community’s overstrained groundwater drinking supply by the Ipswich River watershed, pitched a bold alternative to the “Hanna’s View Estates” proposal: Convince citizens and town officials to spend $2.7 million to buy the bulk of the land in question.
Specifically, under Bruce’s submission to the town’s Planning Board, the vast majority of the single-family homes would be constructed on an approximate 20-acre parcel being dubbed the Richardson-Green property at 1452 Main St. The land would also be combined with a handful of other parcels, including a portion of 1414 Main St., the same address associated with the failed elderly housing proposal from 2019. Based off of the subdivision plan and records from the Lynnfield assessor’s office, an existing 1.59-acre house lot on Main Street, as well as parcels by an abutting side street known as Sagamore Place, would also be involved.
However, before Bruce can finalize the real-estate transaction with the Richardson-Green ownership group, the municipality must determine whether it will exercise its right of first refusal under Mass. General Law Chapter 61, which grants cities and towns the right to purchase property from landowners who enjoy special property tax rebates for agricultural and forest land.
Should Lynnfield agree to exercise that option, the town must commit to slate the land for protected parkland and conservation purposes.
“Currently, this is something that really needs to be thought through to determine if it’s in the best interests of the town,” conceded Planning Board member and ad hoc group spokesperson Katherine Flaws during a virtual Board of Selectmen meeting last month. “We want to be fair to the landowner and the developer, but what’s really important is being fair to the people of this town.”
“This piece of land is really unique…It will really change the character of our town with the loss of this land,” she later remarked.
So far, the selectmen, equally worried about the impacts of the proposed subdivision, have agreed the land acquisition — which could potentially be offset through grant money and private donations — is worth exploring.
And thanks to the COVID-19 crisis, the community nows has months longer than is customary to render a final decision, until a few months ago, state law required communities to act within a 120-days of receiving a formal notification about the pending sale of Chapter 61 eligible land.
According to Lynnfield Planning Director Emilie Cademartori, state legislators, recognizing the incredible strain being put on municipal officials due to the pandemic, froze that timetable indefinitely. Under the special state law, passed as part of a broader COVID-19 relief package, the official clock for Lynnfield to exercise its right of first refusal now won’t begin until 90-days after Governor Charles Baker lifts the present state of emergency.
“The timelines are a little unusual given the COVID-19 emergency. Typically, the town would only have 120-days to take action. That’s pretty tight,” admitted Cademartori of the pre-pandemic version Chapter 61. “But that timeline has been suspended, so the town has the time to look at all of its options.”
“We don’t just want to take this time because we have it,” later advised the planning director, who argued the community still has an obligation to act in good faith. “We want to at least set our own timeline to keep the town on track.”
Though Bruce submitted the subdivision proposal to the Planning Board in April, the Richardson-Green ownership group didn’t formally notify the town about the pending sale until July 31, according to a copy of the certified letter posted on the Town of Lynnfield website.
Under the “worst-case” scenario outlined by Flats, even if Lynnfield raised the whole $2.7 million asking price through a 10-year bond, the typical cost for the average homeowner would amount to about $32 a year.
In full agreement with Cademartori’s opinion that both the landowner and developer deserve an answer as soon as possible, various town officials and citizens insist that Lynnfield has plenty of reason to block the subdivision from moving ahead.
One of the earliest municipal boards to respond to the subdivision plan, Lynnfield’s Health Department Director Kristen Esposito on May 12 immediately raised concerns about potential impacts to Lynnfield’s surrounding groundwater protection district.
Specifically, as Esposito pointed out, the 20-plus acres of land sit within Lynnfield’s Center Water District (LCWD), where the town’s fire department and area homeowners already struggle with a limited supply of well water sources.
In fact, according to a climate change preparedness study completed by engineering firm Comprehensive Environmental Inc. (CEI) last winter, municipal officials should seriously consider taking steps to protect the water resource area around the Ipswich River and Reedy Meadow conservation land.
“The site is located in the Lynnfield Groundwater Protection District. The water main does not extend to this area of Lynnfield. Private wells for each of the proposed lots will require individual permits from the BOH. However in the planning phase, a form of a hydrology study should be undertaken to assess the existing neighboring wells and the impact of adding 20 additional wells,” wrote the public health director.
Notably, worries about future development’s impacts on the LCWD and groundwater supplies was cited as a major reason for blocking Bruce’s original senior housing proposal — not to mention an unrelated 55-plus townhouse development on the nearby golf course in 2018.
Specifically, during an Annual Town Meeting in 2019, Lynnfield’s voters in rejecting a proposed zoning change essentially declaring the northernmost stretches of Main Street as off-limits for any type of development outside of the underlying single-family zoning designation.
By rejecting the 66-unit, duplex-style housing complex, the community dismissed with it a substantial development pact package that included a lump sum $650,000 payment to offset project impacts and additional pledges from Bruce to construct a 60,000-gallon cistern to bolster firefighting protection services.
However, now faced with the singe-family home subdivision, opponents of the newest proposal realize the alternative is even worse.
“That development would have had a new private water supply installed. The [water] withdrawals would have been regulated by the [state Department of Environmental Protection],” summarized Flats at a recent Board of Selectmen meeting. “We cannot afford to put in jeopardy this water field when it’s the source of 30 to 60 percent of our water supply.”
“We believe the potential loss of this significant parcel of land to development cannot be ignored. It starts with drinking water. In protecting this property, we protect the supply of the Lynnfield Center Water District and the existing property owners with private wells on the northern part of Main Street,” Lynnfield resident and Ipswich River Watershed representative Ken MacNulty also remarked.
According to Chris LaPointe, the director of land conservation for environmental advocacy group Greenbelt, he believes the town has the chance to raise a large amount of the $2.7 million asking price through state grant money and fundraising efforts.
Given the extended Chapter 61 timeline, LaPointe, whose organization works to protect conservation spaces in Essex Country, pledged to render his expertise to the community should the selectmen agree to pursue the acquisition.
“We are an organization that can help,” said LaPointe, who explained that Greenbelt has helped cities and towns buy around 18,000 acres of land for permanent conservation uses. “We believe we can do better than the worst-case scenario.”
Some of the grants and alternative funding sources being eyed by the ad hoc group include:
• As much as $300,000 in special Conservation Commission funds set aside specifically for land acquisitions;
• A state Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) grant award of up to $1.5 million;
• Up to $300,0000 in funding through a drinking water protection grant;
• And a potential award of up to $750,000 through the state’s Land and Water Conservation Fund.