In the face of neighborhood opposition, the Beverly Housing Authority has received the final permits required for a project that would put two affordable town houses, including one for a returning disabled veteran, on land next to the Montserrat MBTA Station.
The roughly $1.2 million development will add four units of affordable housing — two in each town house — to the plot abutting the train station parking lot and bordered by Spring and Essex streets, and will repair a single-family affordable home already on the site.
But neighbors are incensed over what they say has been a lack of transparency on the part of the housing authority in regard to the project, which has been in the works for five years.
The Montserrat Neighborhood Group has opposed the project since first learning about it through local newspapers in 2007, citing concerns over safety and decreased value of neighboring homes due to affordable units coming in.
“The lack of transparency and openness more than anything is appalling, how they can exclude the neighborhood from the entire process for this many years,” said John Hall, a resident of Colon Street and member of the neighborhood group.
But city and housing authority officials said it’s an “as-of-right” project because the authority, which is not a city agency, owns the land and can build anything on it as long is it does not violate any ordinances or zoning laws. There is no obligation to hold public forums.
The housing authority purchased the land for $10 from the MBTA in 2002.
“They own the property and they have the right to develop it as long as it conforms to the building codes . . . just like any other [private] developer,” said Steven Frederickson, the city’s building commissioner.
Even so, Beverly Housing Authority executive director Kevin Ascolillo counters resident assertions that they were “stonewalled” in recent months by the authority, contending that his office was more than open to detailing its plans with anyone who asked.
“I absolutely disagree with that,” Ascolillo said in a phone interview. “Two months ago the Ward 4 city councilor came and met with me and I told him at that time that I would be happy to meet with any of the abutters, any of the residents, one-on-one in my office. . . . I even gave him a copy of the plans and specs, and no one called me and no one wanted to meet me.”
Councilor Scott Houseman said Ascolillo did agree to a meeting but wanted to wait until plans and funding were in place for the project before actually sitting down with neighbors.
But Ascolillo says it was not until Mayor Bill Scanlon approached him with correspondence from concerned residents that the housing authority held an informal meeting with the neighborhood association earlier this month.
“Finally the mayor did get us a meeting with the BHA but they made it on a Tuesday at noon and told us we could only bring six people,” Hall said. “That was the closest they’ve gotten to any kind of public meeting throughout the process.”
The project did not require any special permits or a City Council vote, so the Montserrat Neighborhood Group has been attempting to have it derailed at the state level through Representative Jerry Parisella, a Democrat from Beverly.
According to Patrick Lucci, another resident of Colon Street, Parisella has stated that nothing can be done, but Lucci and others suggest that his ties to Tom Alexander, the Beverly-based attorney who represents the Beverly Housing Authority, has prevented Parisella from taking action.
“[The BHA] is a state agency, so if your rep can’t get involved, where do you go to stop it?” asked Lucci. “And as it turns out, we believe the primary reason Jerry can’t do anything is because he’s still on staff at Tom Alexander’s law office.”
Parisella says he never did any legal work on the project with Alexander, but looked into it when he began receiving calls from neighbors.
“I’m not trying to ignore the neighbors or their concerns,’’ Parisella said, “but this is a project that meets all the legal requirements and therefore they have a right to build it.”
Multiple telephone calls to Alexander’s office were not returned.
The housing authority finished securing funding for the project from a variety of federal, state and local sources this year. Construction is scheduled to start in the fall.
As for safety in the area, which the Montserrat Neighborhood Group questions due to the location and size of the lot — Lucci described it as “postage-stamp sized” — Ascolillo does not see any issue.
The parcel owned by the housing authority is about 20,000 square feet, with about 4,000 square feet on the other side of a fence where the train station parking lot has space for about 13 vehicles, according to Ascolillo.
He says the plan is to keep the fence in place, use a few of the spaces for excess resident parking, and work out an agreement that would continue to allow the MBTA to use the rest.
Neighbors also object that any children who live in the development will be surrounded by a busy road and a set of train tracks, and are also against the primary parking spaces at each new building, which will require residents to back out onto Essex Street.
“Almost every house on Essex Street . . . they have to back onto Essex. That’s a non-issue,” Ascolillo said. “And I think the safety thing with the children, I don’t think that’s an issue at all . . . it’s no different than most of the other houses on that street.”