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Affordable housing is forum agenda

CPA panel’s aim is to head off 40B projects

By L.E. Crowley
Globe Correspondent / November 12, 2009

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The Norwell Community Preservation Committee will meet today with two affordable-housing agencies to look at housing options for Norwell, a move that Town Planner Todd Thomas believes is long overdue.

“Norwell is in a deep hole when it comes to affordable housing, and if we don’t do it on our own, with some modicum of control, we’re going to continue being targets for 40Bs,’’ Thomas said.

Community Preservation Committee members will meet with Sharon Sylvester, director of the Norwell Housing Authority, and Jerry McDermott, director of South Shore Habitat for Humanity, tonight at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.

Town officials said the housing authority is interested in expanding its facility on Assinippi Avenue for developmentally disabled people to a site on one of several town-owned properties. South Shore Habitat for Humanity might be interested in other town-owned sites for a single-family home or two.

Gregg McBride, chairman of the Community Preservation Committee, said affordable housing is one arm of the committee’s mission. The tax surcharge raised through the Community Preservation Act can be used for open space, historical preservation, and affordable housing. But since Norwell’s committee was formed in 2001, McBride said, its work has been geared more toward open space and historical restorations than affordable housing. Although money has been spent on land for housing, the land remains empty, he said.

McBride said the theme of the committee’s annual meeting this year is affordable housing, a hot topic that has been dominated by controversy over 40B developments.

“The conversation has been about unwanted developments and not affordable housing,’’ McBride said.

The state’s Chapter 40B law imposes special conditions on communities where less than 10 percent of the housing units meet the state’s criteria as affordable. In these communities, developers can largely bypass local regulation in projects where at least 20 to 25 percent of the units are affordable.

The law has been controversial because many towns and residents have argued that the developments proposed under the law are out of character with the neighborhoods, or would strain town resources by bringing in too many new residents.

In Norwell, 4.1 percent of the housing units are classified as affordable.

Peggy Etzel, a Planning Board member who is also on the Community Preservation Committee, said tonight’s discussions will focus on affordable housing that could be created with the committee’s help.

“We’re trying to be proactive,’’ Etzel said.

According to Town Planner Thomas, proactive is not what the town has been, at least in the more than three years he has been there. “The philosophy has been to remain open to 40Bs and fight them,’’ Thomas said.

Thomas said developers are attracted to town because the affordable housing stock is under 10 percent. Nearly all of the projects wind up creating controversy, lawsuits, or appeals, he said. “You can fight them with deep-pocketed abutters for so long,’’ Thomas said. “They eventually win in the end.’’

According to Thomas, the town should develop its own affordable housing and try to reach the 10 percent threshold with projects that give the town a bigger bang for the buck. The way things have been going, he said, the town will never meet the threshold, but will gain more housing than it ever wanted - most of it at market prices.

“Right now, most of these large-scale 40B projects are giving us only 25 percent affordable units . . . at that rate, we could have about 5,000 [total housing] units, or 40 percent more than the 3,400 we have now. Every time a 40B is built, the target moves,’’ he said. “There’s a better way to do it, and this meeting is a first step.’’

Selectman Richard Merritt said he does not agree that the town has not been proactive. He said the town recognizes the need for affordable housing, but getting projects built is another story. He partially blames a not-in-my-backyard mentality and what he calls the “no-win’’ effect of the state’s 40B law.

“Many, many, many of the townsfolk say they are in favor of affordable housing, but when it’s located near their house, it’s not a good location,’’ Merritt said.

And rightly so, Merritt added, especially some of the large condominium and apartment complexes like Norwell Commons, a proposed 198-unit apartment complex that was planned for South Street. Norwell zoning laws do not allow apartment complexes, and Norwell Commons could not be built unless the developer proposed it under 40B.

“I think we have been very proactive and accommodating to reasonable, workable projects that involve affordable housing,’’ Merritt said. “That said, we have fought hard against overly dense, environmentally insensitive and unworkable projects that are likely to be profitable for the developer, but detrimental to the town both today and down the road.’’

A coalition of 400 residents formed Friends of Norwell and South Street to fight Norwell Commons. In the face of opposition, the developer withdrew the application, and at annual Town Meeting in the spring, residents voted to buy two parcels in the heart of the project, preventing the developer from ever moving forward on the plans.

Merritt said the town has also been handcuffed by appeals from residents and developers who believe the requirements approved by town boards are too stringent, as is the case with Simon Hill Village, a Prospect Street condo complex approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals for 80 units. The developer originally proposed 200.

Although the project has received approval, the developer, Jack Sullivan of Woodland Development LLC, has appealed the zoning board’s decision because of the 138 conditions set by the board. Dozens are being disputed by Sullivan.

“If it isn’t the residents who appeal or go to court, it’s the developer,’’ Merritt said.

L.E. Crowley can be reached at lecrowley1@yahoo.com; visit www.boston.com/norwell for more news about Norwell.