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Boston may annex land in Dedham for housing

In a deal that would make Theo Epstein proud, Dedham officials and Mayor Thomas M. Menino are working on an elaborate plan that, if consummated, would mark the first time in nearly a century that Boston expands its geographic boundaries.

Dedham wants to jettison a 40-acre piece of property slated for a large-scale residential development because, officials said, the town can't afford to educate all the children that might move in.

On the other side of the border, Menino has been pushing for more affordable housing in Boston. The prospect of 1,850 family-friendly units in the new residential development is tempting to some people, since much of the new housing being built in Boston is luxury units. Menino met with Dedham officials at City Hall earlier this month and is expressing interest, although he said he is concerned about the size of the project.

"It's an interesting proposal that has been put on the table," Menino said by phone. "It's serious density. . . . We want to make sure it's a well-planned neighborhood that is put together in concert with the people who live in the neighborhood. Some of them have lived there for 75 years or more."

The annexation proposal, which Dedham might consider at a Special Town Meeting this fall, is an unusual move in the decades-old debate among suburbs who fear the costs of new, large-scale housing developments that bring in new schoolchildren. That debate often includes almost apocalyptic predictions of overcrowded classrooms, needs for multimillion-dollar school projects, and the need for massive tax increases.

In a few cases, such as the huge Westwood Station project in Westwood, where 1,000 condominiums and apartments could go up, towns considering developments often seek to negotiate multimillion-dollar penalties that the developer would pay if the new housing attracts more children than anticipated.

The Campanelli Cos. of Braintree want to build an 1,850-unit development called Neponset Village on a 72-acre plot that straddles the Dedham-Boston line near the Readville neighborhood. Part of the land is currently home to a Stop & Shop warehouse. Campanelli, which bought the property for $26.6 million in 2004, has said that it wants to create a small village with some retail and restaurants that would support the community of one-, two-, and three-bedroom condominiums or apartments.

Before development begins, the annexation of the 40 acres that lie in Dedham would need approval from Dedham Town Meeting, the Boston City Council, and the Legislature. But Dedham officials are openly touting the annexation idea, saying they fear the increase in school population would not be covered by the tax dollars brought in by the new housing.

"Our school system is strained now; we can't afford to approve any other development that would put a strain on our system," said James MacDonald, a Dedham selectman who is chairing a special town committee on the annexation issue.

Campanelli approached Dedham with the idea of annexation two years ago after Dedham officials balked at a request to rezone the land on its side of the town line from industrial to residential. The developer believes that residential is the best use for the land because the site is hard to get to from major highways.

The property is land-locked by railroad tracks and conservation land, and there is one main access road from Neponset Valley Parkway in Hyde Park. To reach the property from Dedham, a driver would have to go through Boston. Because the primary entry to the property is in Boston, the city is currently the first to respond to police and fire emergencies, even those on the Dedham side.

The developer's proposal also comes when Dedham has been hit with an unexpected housing boom, after decades of stable or declining population, which is now 22,000. About two dozen new children have enrolled at elementary and middle schools this year with the opening of a 300-unit affordable housing complex, which is still leasing units. And the town is bracing for more children with the construction of another 285 units of affordable housing and a complex of 82 duplexes and a single-family house on an old railroad yard.

"God knows if there's something else in the weeds," said Shaw McDermott, president of Citizens for Dedham Neighborhoods Alliance, a grass-roots group that was started two years ago by those concerned by development.

Monday night the selectmen held a meeting to address public outcry over the recent spate of development. Earlier this month, School Committee members voiced outrage over the number of families with children moving into the new affordable housing units. Although school enrollment of about 2,870 is down by about 100 students compared to several years ago, the School Committee is grappling with some aging buildings, as well as budget constraints that forced the elimination of 10 teachers and eight other positions for this fall.

"We are developing so quickly, and for years we thought we didn't have any more buildable land," said Tracy Driscoll, chairwoman of the School Committee. "Now we have to plan: What are we going to do with the kids, where will we put them, and what will the staffing demands be?"

The old Stop & Shop property generates $187,000 in tax revenue annually, but the developer has offered Dedham a payment of $2.5 million if annexation succeeds. Town officials said they consider the offer a good starting point for negotiating. If annexation fails, the developer will have to rethink plans for the property, MacDonald said, because the town is adamant about not rezoning the land for residential use.

The Boston city councilor who represents the adjacent area says he wants the community to examine the idea carefully before he decides whether to support it.

"I'm definitely open to annexation," said Councilor Robert Consalvo, who represents Readville, "but it would have to benefit Boston."

Menino emphasized that the first step in the process must be Dedham's approval of the annexation. "It's a decision the town of Dedham has to make," he said .

Many residents enjoy living on dead-end streets that are gated off from the old Stop & Shop property, though some residents are already preparing for more traffic when an old elementary school reopens in their neighborhood.

"I would go nuts if I had 500 or 600 cars going up this street," said Dan Onishuk, 53, a sports nutrition sales representative, as he sat on the stone wall in front of his house while watering the lawn. But he added: "It needs to be developed. It's underutilized, and the city could use the tax income."

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