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Stoneham

Town considers hiring lawyer to fight apartment proposal

A proposal to build up to 300 rental apartments on the Weiss Farm site is being met with stiff opposition in Stoneham, as the town considers appropriating funds for an attorney to represent its interests.

Selectmen recently scheduled a Sept. 3 Special Town Meeting to take up the funding request after a group of residents opposed to the project, Friends of Stoneham, submitted a petition to require the meeting.

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John M. Corcoran and Co. is seeking to build apartments on the 26-acre Franklin Street site under the state’s affordable-housing law, Chapter 40B, which lets builders bypass local zoning if at least 25 percent of their units are affordable and their development is in communities where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is affordable.

Russ Wilson, a member of Friends of Stoneham, said the group believes strongly that the project is too big for the property. “We are opposed to 300 units at Weiss Farm,” he said.

Wilson contended that only about half the site is buildable because of wetlands, so accommodating 300 apartments would require a density of about 21 units per buildable acre, well above the state standard of eight units per acre.

He said the group also believes a project of that scale would worsen traffic on Franklin Street, exacerbate flooding problems, and increase the level of contaminated runoff from the site.

“Our concern is to make sure the right thing is done, and that requires some research and some intellect,” he said.

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Robert Sweeney, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said his board has the same concerns about the project, but he believed there was no need for a Special Town Meeting since the town has sufficient funds in an existing $25,000 budget account to hire a lawyer. He said more money could have been approved at the fall Town Meeting in October.

However, Wilson said the group wants to make sure the funds are allocated specifically for the Weiss Farm proposal. Sweeney said selectmen would not oppose the appropriation, whose amount has not yet been determined, at the Special Town Meeting.

Margaret Murphy, a real estate consultant to Corcoran, said the firm is not daunted by the prospect of the town hiring an attorney to address the project.

“We look forward to coming before the town and talking about our plans for this development and hopefully we will end up with a housing option that the town likes and that is a benefit to the town,” she said.

Murphy said Braintree-based Corcoran, which owns and manages about 10,000 apartments, most of them in Massachusetts, reached an agreement this past spring to buy the farm from Donna Weiss.

Corcoran has not officially filed its plans for Weiss Farm, but expects to begin the process this fall, Murphy said. The proposed $50 million development would have mostly one- and two-bedroom apartments, with some three-bedroom units.

Twenty-five percent of the apartments would be priced for moderate-income households.

“This will be a very nice community, with nice amenities, such as an outdoor pool, a game room. We find that there is a need for this in many communities, a need for nice apartments,” Murphy said, noting that there is already a waiting list for the affordable units.

She said the town would also benefit with additional revenue from real estate taxes “in excess of what any municipal costs there will be for the development. We will take care of our own development as far as streets and lighting. We have found that when you have one- or two-bedroom apartments, very few school-age children result from that.”

Weiss Farm began as a small retail dairy farm in Chelsea in 1910, run by Solomon Weiss and his son, Samuel.

It relocated to Stoneham in 1928, according to the farm’s website. In 1970, the farm shifted to bulk milk sales to wholesalers, and a few years later, replaced its cows with boarding horses. Currently, the business consists of selling landscaping products to local homeowners and professional landscapers.

In a letter to the town released by Corcoran, Donna Weiss said she had resisted selling the farm for years, but had decided to sell because of the many years of “stressful litigation” with one of her neighbors and an “ongoing dispute with our town and the state Department of Environmental Protection just to keep operating the farm at a significantly reduced capacity.”

Under the agreement, Weiss will retain ownership of her home and surrounding yard on the farm.

Weiss said she chose Corcoran as the buyer because “I believe they will be sensitive to the community and the environment.”

But Town Administrator David Ragucci said Stoneham would oppose a project that called for 300 units on the site.

“There are issues on that property as it stands now,” he said, citing the existing flooding and the traffic problem on Franklin Street. He said it was due to the traffic issues that the town several years ago opted not to choose the high school campus, on Franklin Street, as the site of its new middle school.

“A project with 300 units is naturally going to add to the problem,” he said.

But Murphy noted there is already truck traffic in and out of the farm property. She said the development would result in additional traffic, but that it would be mainly during a few peak hours in the morning and afternoon.

She said Corcoran is undertaking a traffic study that would be presented to the town during permitting.

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