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Needham seeking 40B plan changes

Developers proposing to build a 300-unit apartment complex on Greendale Avenue in Needham will get a third hearing Aug. 15, even as local officials and residents are urging a change in the project, citing its size and the effect it would have on traffic and the surrounding neighborhood.

The project is being proposed by Mill Creek Residential Trust LLC under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable housing law. The developers received permission from the quasi-public Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency in January to take their five-building, 262,000-square foot proposal to Needham’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

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The town has the 6-acre site zoned so that a maximum of four residential units can be built on one acre, although town officials said guidelines would allow up to 10 units per acre for affordable developments.

But the developers are able to bypass local zoning laws to propose building 50 units per acre under Chapter 40B, a state law that encourages affordable housing construction,.

Such an exemption is allowed under the law for projects in towns where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is considered affordable by the state. Seven percent of Needham’s housing is affordable under state guidelines.

This project, which would offer 75 affordable rental units and 225 market rate units, would push Needham over the 10-percent threshold, said Dan Matthews, Board of Selectmen chairman.

But many residents and town officials are opposed to the proposal, citing the project’s high density, proximity to the highway, and negative pollution and traffic effects.

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“The developer has complete disregard for what the town wants,” said Mindy McGinn, who lives near the parcel. “They want to clear six acres of trees, which would expose the neighborhood to noise and pollution from Route 128.”

Officials appealed to the state agency in June to revoke the developer’s 40B eligibility, pointing out that the project would sit over a town sewer easement that would require the developer to get Town Meeting approval.

“The developer doesn’t have a legal right to do what he is proposing without Town Meeting approval,” Matthews said. “The easement is in the middle of the property, and they’re proposing to put three of their five buildings on it. We have gone to MassHousing saying this is a reason to reconsider, a reason to redefine site control.”

But the agency has said that the project’s eligibility would stand.

“The issue of the sewer line easement is an issue that should be worked out between the town and the developer,” said spokesman Eric Gedstad in an e-mail.

Developer representatives said the project’s blueprints could be rearranged to avoid the easements.

Margaret Murphy, a real estate consultant for Mill Creek, said developer Robert Hewitt “has said he can make it work by not moving the sewer easements.” She said that she wasn’t sure if developers would have a redesign to submit by the mid-August zoning hearing.

“We will, I’m sure, at the end of the day make changes to the plan,” she said.

Matthews said officials will look at any redesign submissions, but said the town would not support a new plan that adds height to any of the buildings.

“The buildings they proposed are up to five stories tall, which is twice the height of other homes in the neighborhood, and if they went higher, for example to seven stories, that would be even more so,” he said.

Murphy said she could not say if developers would be open to drastically reducing the number of units in the complex, but she noted that project plans usually change as a result of the zoning hearings.

“At this time, there are no plans to make any specific changes for the plan,” she said. “That’s not to say that couldn’t happen along the way.”

Murphy also said that if zoning officials deny or approve the project “with conditions so onerous it doesn’t work,” Mill Creek intends to appeal to the state’s Housing Appeals Committee.

Matthews said the local zoning hearing process could take up to six months to complete, and that he expects zoning officials to hand down a decision by this winter.

“There’s a likelihood that no matter what the board’s decision is, somebody — whether it’s the town or developer or the neighbors — will be unhappy and there will be an appeal,” Matthews said.

Murphy said current project plans call for one- and two-bedroom apartments with gourmet kitchens and in-unit laundry machines. The complex would feature an outdoor swimming pool, a fitness center, a WiFi lounge, an underground parking garage, and a pet-friendly policy.

“It’s going to be a very lovely development,” she said.

However, McGinn said many neighbors think the development’s size would overwhelm the neighborhood, and that hundreds of residents have attended the hearings this summer to show their disapproval.

“I agree that Needham is an expensive place to live and it would be nice to have more affordable options,” she said. “If they wanted to put 60 affordable housing units on that property, I’d be all for it. But they don’t want to do that because it’s not economical.”

McGinn said she sits on a citizens’ committee opposing the development, and that the group has hired a lawyer to represent them at zoning hearings and provide other legal counsel.

“We’re just against the density,” she said.

The zoning hearing begins at 7 p.m. at 500 Dedham Ave. in Needham. For more information on the project, go to www.needhamma.gov and click on “hot topics.”

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com

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