Hundreds of residents filled the auditorium Tuesday night to meet with lawyers and learn more about the by Gatehouse Group LLC of Mansfield.
Residents were frustrated by the lack of specific answers from Town Counsel Mark Cerel, who said the purpose of the meeting had changed. He had originally planned to hold an informal meeting with residents to “speak candidly” about the project but the Board of Selectmen then wanted to attend so it became an official public meeting, which was then publicized and attended by local media and videotaped for local cable television.
Cerel said that a Gatehouse representative, as well as the company's lawyer, were at Tuesday’s meeting “simply to observe.” Gatehouse did not make itself known despite much prodding from the audience.
Cerel was joined on a legal panel by attorneys Jason Talerman and Barbara Saint Andre, both experts in the fields of municipal law, land use, and the state’s affordable housing law known as “Chapter 40B,” which requires each town in the Commonwealth have a minimum of 10 percent affordable housing units.
Medfield has approximately 4.4 percent.
Until the state minimum is met, essentially the towns are at the mercy of the developers, who can use the law to bypass local zoning requirements after filing an application with the Massachusetts Housing Authority. Any local objections are usually overturned by the state.
The latest proposed project, The Parc at Medfield, calls for four buildings of one, two and three-bedroom rental units on 9.22 acres of land near the former Potpourri building between West Street and Route 27 on “an underutilized industrially-zoned property that is extremely well-suited for re-use as a multi-family infrastructure," according to the Executive Summary of Gatehouse’s application filed with the state.
Cerel said that Gatehouse is expected to file its application with the town within the next month, after which a public hearing will be posted within 30 days, the hearing process could take approximately 180 days (with extensions if granted), and the town has 40 days to render its decision after the hearing is closed.
Residents are able to make their concerns known during the hearing process but the issues that impact the project’s success are very few if the town does not meet its 10 percent, said Cerel.
Issues raised by the audience such as how an influx of children would affect the schools, or constructing housing in a wet area close to the Charles River that is zoned for industry, cannot impact a local decision and would likely be overturned by the state.
“What has no real relevance to that [40B] process in terms of the siting and approval of one of these affordable housing projects, is the issue of impact on the schools, whether it’s fiscal or demographics … it’s simply not legally relevant and it’s inappropriate,” said Cerel.
“It’s probably the ‘poster child’ for a piece of property that should be left alone and not developed but that’s the beauty, if you will, of Chapter 40B, it allows the developer to trump the local zoning and land use controls,” said Cerel.
Some issues that can affect the approval are public safety concerns, traffic, infrastructure and the potential loss of industrial tax revenue.
During the process, the Zoning Board will ask for input from other local boards, particularly the Board of Health and the Conservation Commission, which can only apply state wetlands law, not local law, as well as the police and fire chiefs.
When residents asked how they can prevent other such projects from being built, the legal panel encouraged the town to look at its current housing plan.
“There have been cases when towns have prevailed but you have to be able to show, not only that you have been carefully planning in your town … but you have actually implemented that plan,” said Saint Andre.
Said Talerman: “At the end of the day, I think the bigger question is ‘does it fit in with a good and fairly implemented housing plan?'”
State Representative Denise Garlick, who represents a portion of Medfield including the West Street neighborhood, attended Tuesday’s meeting and told the audience she will assist however she can and that she has secured a technical assistance grant to help with the process.
The Chapter 40B segment of the meeting ended at 9 p.m. and was followed by a discussion regarding the status of the former site.
Call for comments
If you could ask the developer, Gatehouse Group LLC of Mansfield, a question, what would it be? Tell us in the comments.