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Medfield explores uses for hospital site

Medfield State Hospital buildings would be torn down and contamination cleaned up before redevelopment.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Medfield State Hospital buildings would be torn down and contamination cleaned up before redevelopment.

A Medfield committee is working to make sure that the town has a seat at the table when the site of the former Medfield State Hospital is eventually redeveloped.

So far, however, there’s no consensus in town about what should be done with the property.

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The Medfield State Hospital Redevelopment Committee was set up last spring to explore possibilities at the site.

Discussion continues over what should be done with the 90 developable acres even as a separate town committee is meeting with the state behind closed doors over how to clean up another portion of the site. That area is contaminated with ash containing hazardous materials from a former coal-fired power plant on the property.

Stephen Nolan, chairman of the redevelopment committee, said it’s unlikely that there will be much headway on development proposals until the cleanup issue is resolved.

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“That makes it so hard for a developer to be interested, when there’s a cloud of uncertainty over the site,” Nolan said.

But the redevlopment committee still has been gathering ideas from local residents.

Town Administrator Michael Sullivan said suggestions have ranged from a wind farm to a golf course to a college campus. Some in town, he said, want to see business development that would bring commercial revenue to a town whose property tax base is around 95 percent residential. But, Sullivan said, the site is likely too remote to support businesses.

“It has no public transportation,” Sullivan said. “It has no major highways.”

Sullivan said most people who have studied the site have concluded that it’s most suitable for residential development. In fact, the town and the state agreed several years ago to a plan that would put 440 units of housing at the site of the former mental hospital, which closed in 2003. Sullivan said he still thinks that’s a good plan, but there’s one problem — the site isn’t zoned for residential use, and changing the zoning requires a two-thirds majority vote of Town Meeting.

“I think that would be hard to zone at Town Meeting,” said Nolan, of the Medfield State Hospital Redevelopment Committee, which was set up last spring. “It’s a lot of units. I know there would be considerable resistance. Whether it could get through Town Meeting, I’m not sure.”

Nolan said he and other members of the study committee have to weigh the desires of the state — which will presumably want a large project to maximize the purchase price for the land — against the desires of some residents who want a small development that won’t strain the town’s services.

The costs associated with demolishing the aged hospital buildings make it unlikely the town would buy the land itself, officials said. “I think, ideally, people in town would like it to remain just as open park land, but I don’t know if the town can afford that type of use,” said Osler Peterson, a Medfield selectman.

Nolan said the fact that the land needs to be rezoned in order to accommodate housing is a “wild card” that gives the town leverage to advocate for a project that residents want. But, he said, if the town simply vetoes all projects, the state could decide to sell the property to a developer for a so-called Chapter 40B housing development ­— named after the state law that allows developers working in communities that lack affordable housing to skirt local zoning if they set aside at least 20 to 25 percent of their units as affordable.

A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance said in an e-mail that state officials are continuing to work with the town on a cleanup plan for the contaminated portion of the site.

The spokeswoman said redevelopment plans would follow a policy to advance the state’s job creation and development strategies but ultimately allow communities to drive the redevelopment of the land. The approach endeavors to avoid delays and to head off any disagreements between the state and communities, she said.

Nolan said his committee is looking at whether the town could ensure that a portion of the developable land at the former hospital site is set aside for town use, such as open space or community-supported agriculture, in any eventual housing plan. He said it’s also possible a housing complex could be accompanied by a restaurant or some limited retail space.

Calvin Hennick can be reached at calvinhennick@yahoo.com.
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