© The Stoneham Independent

STONEHAM, MA - The town's Board of Selectmen on Tuesday night agreed to visit flooding-prone land on Gerald Road to consider the prospect of erecting a Chapter 40B eligible senior housing complex on the Weiss Farm area parcel.

In an unexpected twist to the decades-long saga involving the future of approximately 1.5-acres of land owned by Gerald Road's Martin Wantman, the Franklin Street area resident approached the town officials this week and pitched a so-called "Friendly 40B" project for the site.

Though not referencing any concrete building plans, the developer, who has permission to construct a five-lot subdivision on the land, suggested the site might be ripe for a 48-unit housing development.

Though stopping well-short of endorsing the concept, the elected officials did agree to visit the land and explore the idea.

"Any time we can provide affordable housing in our town, especially for people looking to sell their small homes and move into something with less maintenance, [we should consider it]," said Selectman Shelly MacNeill.

Wantman just over a month ago appeared before a Special Town Meeting assembly to ask the town to order offsite drainage improvements aimed at eliminating flooding woes on his land. Though the warrant article passed, town officials say they lack the funding to pay for that fix.

The Gerald Road resident made his most recent presentation this week while explaining a proposed warrant article to be submitted for consideration at May's Annual Town Meeting.

The new article, as currently written, seeks to appropriate as much as $250,000, so the town can commission a study examining whether a senior housing project at the Gerald Road site has any merits.

Wantman was quick to admit that $250,000 figure is a wild exaggeration of the likely expense, but since financial articles can not be amended to appropriate more money than initially requested, he inserted the amount as a placeholder.

"I think it would certainly be suitable for senior housing, and if I understand the friendly 40B process, I would need the blessing of the selectmen. My basic goal is to see if I can get the selectmen to do a site visit to Gerald Road,' said Wantman.

"Certainly, I haven't attempted a friendly 40B before, and I don't know how it works. But what I'm suggesting is that it certainly is consistent with local needs," added the local resident, referencing deliberations in Stoneham over a Housing Production Plan, in which additional affordable housing will likely be cited as a top need of the community.

Already, the Town of Stoneham is engaged in a protracted legal battle involving another considerable 40B project in the immediate area by Weiss Farm.

Under that proposal, Braintree-based developer John M. Corcoran & Company has asked for permits to construct as many as 264 apartments on the 26-acre farm owned by Donna Weiss. The Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), which described the petition as far too dense and against the interests of the community, has ruled the project cannot be built unless its limited to 125 units.

However, the applicant has challenged the ZBA decision with the state's Housing Appeals Commiittee (HAC), which deals exclusively with appeals filed under Chapter 40B, the state's affordable housing law.

Under the state regulations, communities like Stoneham, which don't have 10 percent of its housing stock dedicated for affordable buyers and tenants, face a significant legal disadvantage in trying to reject or reduce the scope of 40B applications.

The affordable housing regulations have proven extremely controversial in Massachusetts' communities, because builders are allowed to skirt virtually all local zoning bylaws.

However, under the "friendly 40B" process pitched by Wantman, the community, rather than taking a traditional adversarial approach to an affordable housing petition, would instead work cooperatively with the would-be developer to shape the project.

Stoneham does have some history in that 40B approach, as the same process was utilized for the Langwood Commons project at the old Boston Regional Medical Facility (BRMC). In a decision that many critics have cited as the paving the way for the present day Commons at Weiss Farm battle, the town subsequently allowed the BRMC proponents to remove the affordability component from the mixed-use redevelopment.

"I've been saying for years that had we done anything [to increase our Chapter 40B inventory in recent years], we would't be in the situation we're in with Weiss Farm," said MacNeill, echoing that very argument this week.

Wantman has a lengthy history with the Weiss family, as the Franklin Street farm abutter has for years accused the landowners of exacerbating flooding at his Gerald Road property by not running a pump house that discharges stormwater runoff into an upstream culvert.

The feud between the two neighbors apparently dates back to 2004, when Wantman reportedly attempted to buy a portion of the farm in order to facilitate his proposed subdivision.

The following year, Wantman filed a complaint with the Conservation Commission, alleging that Weiss Farm was violating wetlands, health, and zoning violations. The abutter also claimed that the farm owner's composting activity was altering the flow of runoff from the 26-acre parcel, causing flooding on the land he wanted to subdivide.

After a five-year battle, Weiss prevailed in that dispute, but in June of 2010, Building Inspector Cheryl Noble was asked to investigate a complaint that the composting activity at the farm is illegal, as it's not permitted under the state's agricultural exemption.

Noble found no evidence of illegal composting, but did order Weiss Farm to halt the storage and sale of sand and rock at the property. Later in the year, after state officials were asked to verify whether the farm is even eligible for the agricultural exemption, Weiss Farm has that status stripped away.

That led to Noble's order that all composting activity, as well as the sale of mulch and other landscaping materials, cease.

In May of 2013, when Donna Weiss explained her reasons for selling the land to the Corcoran Company for the 40B development, she listed the fallout from that protracted legal battle as a major contributor.

"During the past five years, I have learned the difficult lesson that my ability to control outside forces that affect the [f]arm has become less and less," said Weiss of her struggles. "I have spent many years in stressful litigation with one of my neighbors; although the outcome was a favorable one, it took a toll emotionally and financially."

"Currently, I am still involved with an ongoing dispute with our Town and the state Dept. of Environmental Protection just to keep operating the farm at a significantly reduced capacity," the Franklin Street resident furthered. "My ability to earn a living from the business has decreased and is uncertain at best."

In January, Wantman did express regret at the way the fight over his subdivision shaped out. In seeking approval for the offsite drainage ditch fix, he implored citizens to consider the impact to his land, which is frequently submerged under several feet of water.

This week, the local resident told the Board of Selectmen he is willing to make great compromises in order to see through the development of his land. He insisted he has no desire to be dragged into another protracted legal fray with town officials and neighbors over a controversial 40B project, so he is willing to listen to any ideas resulting from the selectmen's upcoming site visit.

"I'm already down hundreds of thousands of dollars, and I have a subdivision that can't be built because it's underwater. This would allow me to recoup my money," said Wantman, who is hoping to break even through the senior housing project. "If we do a friendly 40B, we're in this together, and there's less dispute and less money wasted."

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