© The Stoneham Independent
STONEHAM, MA - Though widely agreeing on the merits of the development concept, the Board of Selectmen this week refused to endorse the use of tax dollars to study a possible senior housing development on Gerald Road.
During their most recent meeting in Town Hall this week, the Board of Selectmen, deeming the expenditure of public money on a private venture as inappropriate, unanimously recommended unfavorable action on Article 23 for the upcoming Annual Town Meeting on May 7.
However, a majority of the elected officials made clear their stance should be interpreted as based on financial principles, rather than as a wholesale condemnation of local resident Martin Wantman's proposal to build a senior housing complex on a 1.5-acre parcel of land by Weiss Farm.
"Marty, you know how I feel," said Selectman George Seibold, who along with other board members spent a bit of time walking the Gerald Road site in recent weeks. "I think it should come under you as the owner of that land. I don't think the town should be in the real-estate business."
"I did visit your property, and I like the concept. My biggest concern is spending public dollars on a private development. So while I think there might be a away for the town to work with you moving forward, I don't think that should be at the taxpayer's expense," Selectman Shelly MacNeill later remarked.
Last March, Wantman approached the Board of Selectmen and proposed a so-called "Friendly 40B" project for a 1.5-acre parcel of land he owns at the end of Gerald Road. According to the local resident, who has received permission to construct a 5-lot subdivision on the undeveloped space by Weiss Farm, the area would be perfect for a 55-plus senior living complex with 48 housing units.
Under the state's Chapter 40B statute, 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).
Under his Town Meeting proposal, local citizens are being asked to appropriate as much as $250,000 to commission a formal study of that development concept. Since submitting the warrant article, Wantman has admitted the $250,000 figure is nowhere close to accurate, as the study he would like to see conducted would likely cost somewhere around $20,000.
This week, in light of the selectmen's comments, he offered to reimburse the community for the price of the development analysis, should a future housing project break ground on his property.
However, Town Administrator Thomas Younger made clear the overall arrangement, in which municipal money is being used to facilitate a private development, is likely illegal and should not be entertained at Town Meeting.
According to MacNeill and Board of Selectmen Chair Anthony Wilson, the likelihood the annual assembly will be deterred from taking action on the petition should not be regarded as a defeat, as they'd like to further discuss the development possibilities in the future.
"We do need a lot of affordable housing. A lot of what you said is true, so let's not make this the end," said Wilson.
"I was very intrigued by the concept. I would love to see you work to expire that option. My 'no' vote does not mean I'm against you," MacNeill added.
According to Wantman, since his land is situated so close to Weiss Farm, where Braintree-based John M. Corcoran & Company hopes to build a 264-unit apartment complex by taking advantage of the state's Chapter 40B regulations, the area could be further developed to ensure Stoneham is in full compliance with the affordable housing regulations.
Specifically, the Gerald Road resident has proposed two options, including one in which he and town officials would approach Corcoran about combining his parcel with another 3.6-acres of land at the farm for a 55-plus senior retirement community.
Under state law, such zoning designations, in which the primary household owner cannot be under 55-years-old, can only be established for projects being built on five or more acres of land. Wantman, whose land essentially locks the remaining Weiss Farm space from being developed, believes Corcoran will be amenable to the joint venture, because it will otherwise have no other options for maximizing its use of the 26-acre farm parcel off of Franklin Street.
According to Selectman Caroline Colarusso, the local resident's scenario ignores the fact that town officials are currently trying to block the Commons at Weiss Farm development, which is currently the subject of several legal appeals and court challenges.
"You have the right to exercise the process at Town Meeting, but we don't know what's going to happen yet at Weiss Farm. So having that ambiguity hinders the ability for you to have some certainty regarding your property," she said.
Wantman contested that notion, as he believes his property still presents a prime opportunity for Stoneham to make headway towards developing new housing for seniors.
He further suggested that should the Commons at Weiss Farm apartment plans be rejected, town officials will have even more reasons to pursue a friendly 40B initiative, as the community will find itself well below the state's 10 percent affordable housing threshold.
"I think you're in a position where you can pick and choose what you want to do," agreed Seibold. "You have an approval for a 5-lot subdivision and you're landlocking Corcoran because you have that frontage they want. So as a private citizen, you could make a lot of money on this."