In its first public hearing on an affordable housing proposal that would transform the open landscape of Weiss Farm into a large apartment complex, the Stoneham Board of Appeals challenged the developer’s basic premise: that the town needs it.
Acting on the advice of special town counsel Jonathan Witten, the appeals board at its recent hearing informed the developer, Braintree-based John M. Corcoran and Co., that it considers Stoneham to be “consistent with local needs” with regard to affordable housing, in part because its inventory of housing available to those earning low or moderate incomes meets the state threshold based on land use.
A community achieves affordability either by having 10 percent of its housing stock considered affordable — the most commonly used benchmark — or by having at least 1.5 percent of its developable land devoted to affordable housing.
It’s that latter standard that the town meets, the appeals board contends.
If the state Department of Housing and Community Development agrees with the Stoneham board’s assessment, Corcoran would have no right to appeal any conditions that the appeals board places on the project, Witten said.
“If Stoneham is deemed to be consistent with local needs, the applicant would either have to accept any conditions the board places on the project or walk away,” Witten said.
He was quick to note that such a finding by the state would not relieve the town of its obligation to review the proposal. “The board cannot reject an application out of hand,” Witten said.
Stoneham ‘is not opposed to development, but the size and scope of this project is simply out of scale. It’s too much.’
Corcoran has 15 days to dispute the town’s assessment. It is expected to take several weeks for state officials to render a decision on the appeals board’s position based on land use.
The Weiss Farm development is being proposed under Chapter 40B, the state’s affordable housing law.
The statute allows builders to bypass local zoning if at least 25 percent of their units are affordable for low- to moderate-income buyers or renters and their development is in a community that does not meet affordability thresholds.
According to the latest figures, Stoneham has 9,399 housing units, of which 495 — or 5.3 percent — are considered affordable.
Under state guidelines, affordable is defined as being within the financial means of those earning no more than 80 percent of the median income for a four-person household; in Stoneham, the income limit would be $67,750, according to MassHousing, a public agency that provides financing for affordable homeownership and rental housing.
After securing site approval from MassHousing on June 24 following more than a year of discussions with local and state officials, Corcoran submitted an application that proposes to build 264 units of rental housing — 66 of them affordable — with a pool and fitness center on the 26-acre swath at 170 Franklin St.
The former dairy farm has been in the agriculture business for more than a century and now sells landscaping products.
The property is near Stoneham High School, the Boys & Girls Club of Stoneham, and the Melrose line.
Melrose Mayor Robert J. Dolan has outlined several concerns about the Commons at Weiss Farm proposal, including possible drainage issues and potential adverse impacts on an already strained Massachusetts Water Resources Authority infrastructure.
The proposed development “is too large, too dense, and out of character for the neighborhood where it would be located,” said state Senator Jason Lewis, who was the only member of the public to speak at the Stoneham board’s July 24 hearing.
He noted that the project’s proposed density of 20 units per buildable acre far exceeds state guidelines of eight units per acre. However, opposition to the plan has been intense. A group of residents, the Friends of Stoneham, has echoed Lewis’s unease about the density of the project and the impact it would have on traffic and flooding. The group also is worried the project would cause an increase in the amount of contaminated runoff from the site.
The Winchester Democrat, whose district also includes Stoneham and Melrose, said the project would be comparable with Lynnfield Commons, a luxury apartment complex that Corcoran built in 2009
. The Stoneham development, Lewis said, would “exacerbate flooding issues” in the area and increase traffic on Franklin Street, a road that is already heavily traveled.
Traffic issues on Franklin Street compelled the town years ago to abandon the idea of building its new middle school on the high school campus.
Margaret Murphy, a real estate consultant to Corcoran, said she is hopeful that the appeals board’s review process will result in a housing option that benefits the town.
“This project would take a farm 12 miles from Boston and destroy it,” said Russ Wilson, who joined the group to ensure the appeals board gives proper weight to the concerns of area residents.
Outrage over the plan prompted Special Town Meeting in September 2013 to appropriate $250,000 to hire outside counsel to represent the town’s interests. The Board of Selectmen, by unanimous vote, subsequently retained Witten, a Duxbury attorney and law professor.
At the recent hearing, the appeals board informed Corcoran that the developer’s application for the Commons at Weiss Farm “is seriously incomplete” in terms of both scope and content, and asked the developer to provide funds for the town to use to hire experts to help review the application.
According to Witten, the appeals board could require the services of traffic and civil engineers, a landscape architect, a land-use planner, a stenographer, and a financial consultant, among others.
Robert E. Engler of Stockard Engler Brigham LLC, a consultant to the developer, asked that Corcoran be allowed to “review the scope and fee” of each expert and “see the qualifications of the people [the town is] going to.”
The developer’s attorney, Steven L. Cicatelli, opted not to make a presentation at the hearing, choosing instead to “deal with all the issues that have been raised . . . and just wait for the continued hearing.”
The hearing is scheduled to resume at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17 in the Town Hall auditorium on Central Street.
As the town continues it opposition to the proposed Weiss Farm project, Stoneham leaders are exploring the possibility of moving the proposed apartment complex to the 13-acre Stoneham Oaks Golf Club, a par-3, town-owned golf course located at 101 Montvale Ave. near Interstate 93.
The Board of Selectmen is pursuing the potential for a land swap, an idea that Selectwoman Ann Marie O’Neill said the developer appears willing to consider.
However, the deal would require state approval, because the golf course property must be used for open space under state law.
“We’re operating on two parallel tracks,” O’Neill said. “We’re working on the land swap in case that is a viable option and does work out, but we’re doing that while we’re fighting the development of Weiss Farm.”
She said that the town “is not opposed to development, but the size and scope of this project is simply out of scale. It’s too much.”