More than 40 years after the state’s affordable housing law took effect, Milton is grappling with the prospect of the first development to be built in town under the statute.
A 300-unit development planned for a largely wooded area on the western edge of town has seen opposition from some residents, and town officials rushing to take action.
Mill Creek Residential Trust, a Texas-based company that specializes in apartment buildings, has marked out an approximately 19-acre slice of land on Brush Hill Road for the development. It would consist of three- or four-story buildings with rental town houses and apartments.
Mill Creek has not filed an official proposal, but the company’s vice president of development, Robert Hewitt, said it plans to make a filing within a month. Mill Creek executives met with Milton officials in October to discuss their plans.
“We feel that Milton is an exceptional town and that we can add benefit to the town by creating this housing product,” Hewitt said in a recent interview. “It gets [the town] on progress toward the affordable-housing goal.”
But residents near the project see it differently.
“A development of 300 families stacked on top of each other with no way to accommodate traffic is just not fair to anyone,” resident Denise Swenson said on a recent drive through the woods near her home.
The development would be proposed under the state’s Chapter 40B law, a 1969 statute that aims to encourage moderately priced homes in towns where fewer than 10 percent of the housing units meet the state’s criteria for being considered affordable.
In communities that don’t meet that threshold, 40B allows developers to bypass certain local zoning ordinances if at least 20 percent of the units in the development are set aside for people or families with low to moderate incomes.
Across the state, the law has often been controversial, as residents argue that 40B developments are too large or out of character with the neighborhoods. Still, with the help of 40B, towns such as Canton and Duxbury have made gains toward or met the 10 percent target.
Milton, however, has long been a town of single-family homes and only about 4.5 percent of its housing is classified as affordable.
“Milton just wants to remain as residential as it possibly can,” Selectman Tom Hurley said. “Anything the town sees as a threat to the residential/rural feeling tends to get pushed back. It’s just the way we are.”
Milton officials admit that the town now is facing the consequences for not setting up a plan to build affordable housing.
“As a community, we have generally been reactive,” Planning Board member Emily Keys Innes said at a recent meeting, where members discussed the need to act against the looming Mill Creek proposal.
The Planning Board, along with the Board of Selectmen, has decided to draw up a Housing Production Plan to try to stave off the project.
A Housing Production Plan specifies areas the town deems appropriate for affordable housing, along with a timeline of when that housing would be built. The Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, one of the government bodies that reviews 40B proposals, requires towns to increase their stock of affordable housing by 0.5 percentage point a year in order to be exempt from 40B proposals.
Aaron Gornstein, department undersecretary, said a town’s efforts to meet the affordable-housing requirement is an important factor when the department evaluates 40B proposals.
“If there’s not a track record of producing affordable housing in the town, they’re going to have less leverage,” he said. “It’s something we encourage towns to be proactive about.”
Now, Milton is in a race of sorts against Mill Creek. The town wants to get its Housing Production Plan drawn up and submitted to the department before Mill Creek receives approval from MassHousing for the Brush Hill Road project.
The Planning Board will ask Town Meeting in the spring for the money to create such a plan, which Hurley said could cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 and take three to six months.
“It’s something that should have been done a long time ago,” he said. “Not to stop affordable housing, but to properly identify places it should be.”
Though the timetable is unfavorable for the town, officials say they plan to try anyway. Even if the Mill Creek development gets approved, having an affordable-housing plan in place would help Milton attain the state’s 10 percent target.
Hurley said it also might be able to avert a 90-unit proposal for a 6-acre parcel on Randolph Avenue that has been put on hold due to wetlands mitigation issues.
Without a Housing Production Plan, the town is “basically at the mercy of the developer,” said Alexander Whiteside, Planning Board chairman.
The area eyed by Mill Creek is blanketed by trees, with a few clearings where three large houses sit. Those three owners have agreed to sell their land. Sonia Scheller, who resides on the largest of the three properties, declined to comment on her reasons for selling. The other two families could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, the neighbors can’t imagine how a 300-unit development could work in that area. They are concerned about traffic, the environment, property values, and quality of life.
Bordering the property is Hemenway Drive, a private road shared by 14 homeowners who are spread out among the woods, which they say are also home to coyotes, wild turkeys, deer, and owls.
Residents on the drive and in the surrounding acres say they bought their properties with the understanding that they would share the space with other single-family homes, not a development with hundreds of families.
“We were under the impression the land would not change,” said Mary Jeanne Langevin, who has lived with her husband, Gene, on Brush Hill Road for more than 16 years.
MassHousing’s site approval or denial generally takes 60 to 90 days. If approved, Mill Creek will apply for a comprehensive permit from the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, opening a public hearing process that could take up to six months.
This is the stage where residents can voice their concerns. Gorstein said “dozens of conditions” are usually imposed on a plan during the zoning board’s hearings.