The housing market is finally picking up in Scituate, and after more than a decade of discussion, two Scituate housing developments are about to pick up with it.
The slump in the housing market played a role in slowing down the projects: the 74-unit Stockbridge Woods apartment complex and a 28-unit condo and apartment development called Walden Woods.
As the timetable stretched out, developers offered scaled-back plans that were better suited to a weak market and more palatable to Scituate residents, who feared dense developments that would clash with their suburban neighborhoods. As the same time, as opponents ran short of energy and money to fight the proposals, disdain has been replaced by resignation.
“What happened with all of these projects . . . was they got approved and the economy went into the tank and no one could get financing. And detached condo units, the market for those went south,” said Peter Morin, chairman of Scituate’s Zoning Board of Appeals. “In both these cases, the owners of the projects came back on a periodic basis for revisions. . . . The modifications, almost all of these, were modifications that were driven by economic circumstances.”
Both Stockbridge Woods and Walden Woods were proposed under the state’s 40B affordable-housing law. In towns where less than 10 percent of the housing is classified as affordable, developers can bypass many local bylaws if they offer at least 25 percent of their units at an affordable rate. “Affordable” is typically defined as a home that can be rented or purchased by someone making up to 80 percent of the area’s median income.
With only 4.3 percent of its homes classified as affordable as of last May, Scituate has been ripe for 40B developments, which began popping up around town in the early 2000s.
Stockbridge Woods, which was called Satuite Woods when it was proposed in 2001, initially called for 96 homes in a mix of single-family houses and one condominium building, all on 20 acres off Stockbridge Road.
The zoning board rejected the proposal in 2002, but the following year approved plans for 69 units, most of them in a four-story condominium building.
Still, neighbors balked at such a large development in their backyard and voiced their displeasure when the developer came back before the town in 2008, looking to shift the condo-rental mix more toward rental.
Morin recalls that the increased rental component had some residents worried that the project could end up badly managed in the future.
The board approved the change anyway, classifying it as a small, warranted change. Since then, the neighborhood opposition has subsided.
“I think as the economy continued to tank and rental housing became more viable and condos less viable, I think that [Stockbridge Woods’] modifications have gone even more in the direction of rental,” Morin said. “And by the time the last modification came before us, there were no [neighborhood opponents] at all. It’s a fait accompli. They began to understand a bit better that this was not going to end up being a ‘project’ in the urban sense. Rental housing was not something they needed to fear.”
Even after approval, however, financial considerations kept the project at a standstill. Developer Michael Juliano came on board last year and has helped move the project forward.
Juliano, who hopes to complete the purchase of the property once all the paperwork is approved, overhauled the plans by scrapping the large condo building and replacing it with 18 townhouses with three to six units each.
White garages dot the first floor of the two- to three-story buildings, all done in classic Colonial architecture. The project, reconfigured to 74 units, is also entirely rental.
“The public that showed up were very pleased with the changes,” Juliano said about a hearing last June that discussed the alterations. “They though it was a much better fit, more aesthetically pleasing, fit with the neighborhood better.”
Michael Sacchitella, who lives in a senior complex next door, agreed that the development would not detract from the neighborhood.
“It wouldn’t bother me in any way, I’m sure. But I’m sure the character of the neighborhood would change. Right now it’s an empty, vacant lot,” Sacchitella said. “The other side of the coin, they will pay taxes.”
For Walden Woods, neighbors still remember the uproar over the project, but also have thrown in the towel.
The 28-unit development, proposed in 2002 for 4.5 acres nestled between Tilden Road, Brook Street, and Hazel Avenue, faced neighbors’ opposition in the Housing Appeals Committee, Land Court, and the Department of Environmental Protection.
Joan Williamson, whose 26 Tilden Road home is next to the development, recalls the fight.
“We went to [Housing Appeals Committee] and had meetings with lawyers and all that, but you call a lawyer on the phone and they charge you, so we ran out of money. We gave [money] on a monthly basis . . . so it really cost us quite a bit, but at least we put [the development] off for 10 years,” she said.
Williamson said she still does not like the project. The developer recently cleared a large number of trees from the woods in her backyard. “This is a little neighborhood of houses and they will put this housing project right in the middle of us all. . . . We just can’t fight it any longer. I’m 83 now. I just can’t go on anymore,” she said.
Although the project had cleared all regulatory hurdles by 2009, it stalled while the developer waited for the housing market to recover.
With construction ready to begin, the project has retained much of its original character — several two- or three-unit buildings with built-in garages — there has been one significant change neighbors appreciate. Rather than placing a large water-treatment plant on site, surrounded by 8-foot-tall concrete walls, the project will tie into the town’s sewer system.
Developer Paul Marrocco has also agreed to build a sidewalk connecting the development to the adjoining streets.
Still, John Danehey, a selectman and member of the Housing Appeals Committee, was unsure how these 40B developments would affect the town. For one thing, the density near the waterfront is apt to change, as both are within walking distance from the harbor.
However, Danehey is already optimistic about the effect on lower- and middle-income residents.
“If the townhouses are going to be one to two bedrooms, which a lot are going to be, it will increase the tax base and provide affordable housing for many people in town,” he said. “The impact on some of our institutions like schools will be marginal.”
He added that three- to four-bedroom homes, which are not common in these plans, would have a bigger impact on schools, but the net effect would still be positive because of the increase of affordable housing.
One thing the developments will not do is push the town close to the 10 percent threshold. Although all of Stockbridge Woods, and seven of Walden Woods’ 28 units, will count as affordable housing, Scituate’s percentage of affordable housing will rise to about 5.4 percent.
Jessica Bartlett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.