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Walpole

Affordable-housing proposal gets the cold shoulder

In the town whose official motto is “Walpole, the friendly town,” many are decidedly unfriendly toward a proposed 174-unit affordable-housing complex on Moose Hill Road, a quiet rural street of small homes tucked between three busy roads in this community of 24,000 residents.

“They’re going to be squeezing in hundreds of people and hundreds of cars; it will devastate this neighborhood,” said Brian Atkinson, who lives about 200 yards from what would be the entrance to the Residences at Moose Hill in Walpole.

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The plan calls for three 60-foot-tall apartment buildings and five two-story townhouses, with one- and two-bedroom units, on 13.5 acres.

Barberry Homes wants to build the rental complex under the state’s Chapter 40B law, which allows developers to bypass some local zoning rules if they dedicate at least 25 percent of the units to low-income residents. The law applies to communities where less than 10 percent of the housing is deemed “affordable” by the state; the state says Walpole is at 5.2 percent.

Under current zoning, a developer probably could build fewer than 20 homes on the property, according to a letter that Walpole selectmen sent to the state last month expressing their concerns about the Moose Hill proposal.

Those concerns center on the size of the project and worries about increased traffic and excessive burdens on the town’s water supply, sewer capacity, and schools, as well as the town’s ability to provide fire protection to the high-rise buildings. The Planning Board wrote a letter outlining similar concerns.

State Senator James Timilty announced his opposition to the project earlier this month, urging Barberry Homes “to abandon this reckless proposal and instead pursue a more responsible development elsewhere.”

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Besides ruining the small neighborhood — which he described as a “slice of New England life” — the project would harm the trout dependent on adjacent wetlands that feed the Neponset River watershed, Timility said. The developer is taking advantage of the Chapter 40B rules to circumvent local zoning protections, he said.

“It’s not often I get involved in local issues, and it’s not to suggest that [the developer] doesn’t have a right to do something,” Timilty said. “But if you had to list 10 reasons not to do it there, it would be pretty easy to get to nine. It’s too big. It doesn’t fit.”

“We think it’s a good site,” said Barberry Homes spokesman Jim Williamson, adding that Timilty had never spoken with the company about the project. “It’s located between Route 1, Route 27, and I-95 and also between a Walmart and the Walpole Mall. It’s not a densely congested neighborhood at this point of time, and close proximity to shopping should be useful to our residents.”

“Like any 40B there are legitimate concerns, and we’re in the process of addressing those,” Williamson said. “We’ve had a traffic study done, a water study done, and a sewer study. We’ve brought in a fire protection expert and delineated the wetlands. It’s a very workable site and we will continue, as we have since last fall, to get a project that they find acceptable.”

This would be Barberry Homes’ first 40B project, Williamson said. He said the Framingham company primarily builds single-family homes, although it plans to start construction in the fall on a Chapter 40R — transit-oriented affordable housing — project in Natick that would put 150 units at the site of an old factory on 6.3 acres, he said.

Williamson said his company had been looking at Walpole for a while, despite what he called its “history” of opposing 40B projects.

Walpole’s first 40B rental project — the Preserve on Route 1 — opened in 2005, according to Town Administrator Michael Boynton. Since then a 16-unit, owner-occupied 40B project was built on Oak Street, he said. Another proposal for the Walpole Woodworkers site in town fell through.

The town’s opposition to the Preserve was part of a Tufts University study of controversial 40B projects, which concluded that many of Walpole’s fears were unfounded. The study also noted that the town negotiated to reduce the size of the project from 408 to 300 units.

The study discounted officials’ worries about the impact on Walpole’s sewer system, although the town is “dealing with an ongoing sewer odor issue in that area now and working closely with the Preserve to help resolve it,” Boynton said.

Bruce Norwell, chairman of the Walpole Housing Partnership, said his committee has not taken a position on the Moose Hill project, weighing the need to increase the amount of affordable housing against the potential adverse effect of such a big development.

“It’s more the scale than the nature of it that gives people pause,” he said. “It’s a problem that’s not unique to Walpole. How do you increase your affordable-housing stock without having all the negative impacts that a large development would pose?

Atkinson said he and his neighbors had no problem with the affordability aspect of the Moose Hill Road proposal. “It’s truly just a sheer size issue — this huge development on what’s essentially a side street,” he said.

Norwell and his wife moved to Moose Hill Road from Dallas in December 2011 and love its small-town atmosphere, annual Christmas tree lighting party, and neighbors who know one another’s names.

“In an ideal world, Barberry would have a change of heart and realize that though they have every right to make money,’’ he said, this development “doesn’t make any sense for current residents, future residents, or the town of Walpole.”

The project is currently before the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency for site approval. The developer could then apply to the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals for a comprehensive permit.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.

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