The friendly three-way collaboration among the towns that hosted the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station — now the site of a massive development project called SouthField — may be coming to an end.
SouthField’s developer plans to file legislation that would weaken the local board overseeing the redevelopment of the property and return zoning and permitting powers to Abington, Rockland, and Weymouth. Starwood Land Ventures LLC is also seeking more leeway to change the master plan that all three communities approved in 2005, saying such changes are necessary to kick-start redevelopment of the base, which closed in 1997.
But Starwood’s push to change a locally approved plan that took years to create has put the three towns on the defensive, and Selectman Edward F. Kimball of Rockland, for one, says he is very concerned.
“It’s Star Wars,” he said, describing the feelings of uncertainty and distrust among some local officials as Starwood prepares to bring its plan directly to the Legislature, without first seeking a vote from the towns. “We have a developer who wants to change the legislation, for whose benefit: for the three communities, or their own? Think about it. Why do they need to change it so badly?
“It’s almost like a takeover,” said Kimball.
As it stands, the South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp. represents the three towns and acts as the municipality of SouthField, and any major change to the master plan requires approval from all three towns. Starwood says that layer of bureaucracy is unnecessary.
If it gets its way, the property would essentially be broken into three parts, and each town would have authority over its own portion of the former base. But not all parts are equal: Weymouth’s portion is where all of SouthField’s newly built homes are, and where most of the development will occur. Rockland’s section contains the Bill Delahunt Parkway. The Abington territory is where a waste-water treatment plant might be built.
Starwood officials have said the 18-hole golf course slated to be built on Abington and Rockland’s part of the base is not economically feasible. Residents and officials wonder what other changes might be in store.
The SouthField plan “was supposed to be smart-growth, not just market-growth,” said Kimball.
Starwood is “trying to divide and conquer,” said John R. Ward, a Rockland resident who serves on Tri-Town’s board of directors. “I don’t like their approach. They’re trying to do an end-run around Tri-Town.
“They’re trying to get around the phasing and zoning” that was approved by all three communities, he said.
In addition to weakening Tri-Town’s role, Starwood wants to expand Tri-Town’s board of directors, which consists of five members appointed by the three towns, by adding two state appointees and two residents of SouthField. Starwood says it wants to add the two SouthField seats so SouthField residents can be represented on the board, and two state appointees who can bring state-level expertise to the table and help ensure the state continues its investment in the project.
Eric Miller, president of the SouthField Neighborhood Association, said the addition of two SouthField residents to the Tri-Town board would be welcome. With no residents on Tri-Town’s board now, “it’s taxation without representation,” said Miller.
Miller said he also likes the idea of the towns’ taking over their respective sections of the base. Right now, SouthField residents are caught in the middle, living in a brand-new community nestled among three different towns.
“We’re not really part of Weymouth, and we’re definitely not Rockland and Abington,” said Miller. “We’re SouthField. We’re in this awkward position.”
Town Councilor Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth also found Starwood’s proposal encouraging.
“For the first time in a long time, I’m optimistic about the future of the project,” he said. “The key piece of the whole puzzle is the financials. We want to make sure it’s profitable. The devil’s in the details. There’s a lot of stuff we need to look into.”
Others remain wary, given the unknowns.
“I haven’t seen the whole proposal yet,” said Selectman Michael Franey of Abington. “It does seem like they’re trying to remove local control of the project. For a project that took so many years to develop, it seems like a rush to get it done.”
Robert Glantz, vice president of land for Starwood Land Ventures, said the company is ready to invest up to $40 million in creating permanent water and sewer infrastructure — an important step necessary to move forward with the project to build some 2,855 homes and 2 million square feet of commercial space.
Town Councilor Jane Hackett of Weymouth said she is happy that Starwood is willing to invest in water and sewer, which has long been a hurdle for redeveloping the property.
“I’m thrilled they’re coming forward with a significant water and sewer investment,” she said. “That is a key component to getting commercial developers” into SouthField.
Hackett said Starwood’s proposal would make it easier for Weymouth to plan and budget its municipal services. For now, Weymouth provides public safety and education services to SouthField on a contractual basis.
“It’s very difficult to be the predominant service provider with year-to-year contracts,” she said.
Starwood is expected to appear before Rockland’s Board of Selectmen on Oct. 21. The Abington Board of Selectmen also plans to invite Starwood to attend one of its meetings.
Glantz said Starwood aims to have the legislation drafted by the beginning of November, and submitted to the Legislature before the end of the year.