Local builder, Frank Zarrette, is trying to gain approval for Westborough Woods, a 314,230-square-foot project consists of 250 rental apartments, of which 62 would be affordable housing. It would contain a 6,234-square-foot clubhouse with outdoor swimming pool and a 5,234-square-foot retail building. This is according to the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs on the Environmental Notification Form (MEPA). The project is set to be decided on before the Zoning Board of Appeals on May 6th.
The school committee estimates a minimum of 120 new students will be introduced to Westborough Schools at a cost of an additional $1.5M-$2M annually for taxpayers. In a town where the recent town meeting featured intense debate over the existing school budget, the voluntarily addition of another near $2M annually to a school budget that is already cut to the bone ought to concern taxpayers, parents and voters.
The potential immediate cost to Westborough Schools actually understates the problem. The elementary aged kids from Westborough Woods would go to Armstrong Elementary which is already at capacity. A surge of new students there would further increase class sizes to a point where academic performance inevitably suffers OR causes the administration to be forced to re-district Westborough’s elementary schools. Considering Hasting and Fales are already facing serious class size issues themselves, there is the VERY real possibility Westborough residents in the near future are then going to be asked to vote on the construction of another elementary school. The cost of this to the town will run into the tens of millions of dollars.
Proponents will say that we will eventually have this number of new homes built in Westborough over the next few years anyway adding the same number of kids so what is the difference? The difference is that we will have a glut of students dropped in our laps virtually all at once vs the trickle in from other scenarios. Smaller, more economically advantageous projects for the town makes absorption of the additional students far easier to handle.
For what? What are we getting for this? The tax revenue vs expenditures the town receives from an apartment complex like this is minimal when compared to a development of single family homes. If we look at a comparision property, the Fountainhead apartment complex just across route 9 from where Westborough Woods will be built, the town receives $635k in tax revenue from it or $1100 for each of the 562 units (>220 students). From the average single family home in Westborough the town receives nearly $8k in tax revenue. That means ~79 single family homes produce the same tax revenue as the 562 units at an apartment complex.
The increased strain on our water and sewer facilities also have to be considered. In a town that regularly has water bans for most of the summer, do we really need another 45,000 gallons of water per day being withdrawn for this complex? Do we really need the additional 2000 car trips per day on our roads Westborough Woods will provide?
So, what is the reason for approving it? Affordable housing. Under Massachusetts law when a town does not have 10% of its housing designated as affordable builders are allowed to push through projects with very little that a town can do about it.
The project is being forced on residents because it features affordable housing units. Because of that, Westborough “allegedly” cannot deny it because we do not want it or the project is fiscally detrimental to Westborough residents. I would note here that construction of a development of single family homes or condos could accomplish the same thing in terms of fulfilling the affordable housing requirement. Further, the 250 units proposed are the maximum number of units that could be proposed before a “large project” exemption could be invoked by Westborough to deny the project.
Currently Westborough is just under the State mandated 10% minimum for affordable housing. For those who do not know what this means, we need approximately TWELVE more affordable housing units in town in order to reach the mandate. Initially it was presumed that the current project across from the Post Office on E. Main St would satisfy our requirement under 40B (and they could then deny Westborough Woods). Unfortunately, those units are being built without full kitchens so they cannot be counted as affordable housing and thus do not bring us up to the 10% minimum.
The vast majority of Westborough officials seem resigned to simply approve this development and incur the negative fiscal consequences to the Town and taxpayers it will bring. Why aren’t they doing everything in their collective powers to stop it?
The question now becomes, “do we really have to approve this”?
In my opinion, no, we don’t, at least not in totality and we have a few ways to prevent this project or change it.
The argument that we have to approve this is a simple one. Having our “region” defined as the Town of Westborough brings our percentage below the 10% threshold, therefore, we have no choice to grant the permits unless we can prove “public safety concerns.” This has been the sole focus of recent hearings on the issue.
Town officials are asking for a second access to the project and Zarrette is refusing based on cost concerns (it will cut into his profits). Several hearings on the issue have been held and there is still contention on whether or not it should be required. Westborough's Building Commissioner, Tin Htway, expressed his concern about the safety of a single access at several ZBA hearings and seems to be the sole official trying publically to do the fiscally responsible thing for taxpayers. The secondary access issue is an important one. I cannot think on any other development in Westborough of this proposed size that has only one way in and one way out and certainly not another one that features Rt.9 as its sole access.
This parcel of land abuts the Westborough Little League fields next to Target on Route 9. In 2006 Westborough Little League opposed the project because plans then had the trees that shade the fields from the setting sun being removed. This is a very legitimate concern because at sunset it is extremely difficult to see a ball coming at a child playing certain positions until the sun hits the treeline. Fortunately, because of the trees this is a brief period of time. Removing those trees would extend that period and make the fields unnecessarily hazardous to kids or eliminate the ability to play games during those hours as a majority of the game would be played under those conditions. Recently that objection was removed so I am assuming the current plans call for the trees to remain. This should be clarified however, as we do not know the answer.
Should the permit be denied by the town the builder then could appeal it to the state board of appeals. The appeals board would then ask “is this project consistent with local needs for affordable housing?” The town could then argue and attempt to define our “region” as our town as well as surrounding towns. In fact, the MA legislature and courts admit there is no actual definition of what constitutes a “region” in the Affordable Housing legislation:
The two most recent cases on 40B projects are the Sunderland and Lunenburg cases they were discussed in great detail in a recent Massachusetts Bar Association Article. From the Mass Bar Association pg. 18-20
“This comparison of the regions that were accepted in the Sunderland and Lunenburg cases highlights the importance of defining the “region” within the meaning of G.L. c. 40B, §§ 20, 23. In its Sunderland decision, the HAC (Housing Appeals Committee) began its analysis of the regional need for affordable housing with the following observation:
At the outset, we must address the regional affordable housing need — a term that is not clearly defined in Chapter 40B, § 20 or our regulations and yet which is critical since it is the need that is to be balanced against local concerns in determining whether the proposed housing [is] consistent with local needs. Sunderland, 2010 MA. HAC. 08-02 at *3.
“Until the term “region” is clearly defined, either in the Act or the regulations, this critical element of the regional need for low and moderate income housing standard will continue to be decided on a case by case basis and will remain vulnerable to inconsistent interpretation. “
It is also really important to note in the Sunderland and Lunenberg cases, both the Towns and the developer were arguing over what defined the Town’s “region”. Here is the point, both sides defined the “region” as Sunderland/Lunenberg and several surrounding towns. The argument was NOT over whether the region was “just Sunderland or just Lunenberg” but the argument was over “Sunderland/Lunenberg and what other towns make up its region.
Again from the article linked above:
“The DHCD’s Comprehensive Permit Guidelines also do not define the term or provide
guidance for determining what constitutes the pertinent “region” within the meaning of G.L. c. 40B, §§ 20, 23. As a result, the HAC is left to define the region on a case by case basis...“
If we were to define our “region” as Westborough, Northborough and Marlborough (because housing prices are similar, it is our “economic region” in term of housing) then we would easily be in excess of the 10% minimum and be able to deny the application. Now, the builder may fight that in court and redefine our region as one that suits his desires, but he would face incremental legal costs and substantial delays in the project.
Is that our only solution? No.
We are under no obligation to approve a 250 unit complex. We could approve this as a 125 unit complex and with 31 affordable housing units. There is nothing in the State regulations that says we are forced to approve the project size as submitted so long as the final approval has us meeting the minimum 40B requirements.
The Town could easily say to Mr. Zarrette, “cut the size in half and we’ll approve it”. In that instance he would have no recourse, but to build it or walk away as we would be well within the 40B regulations. Should he walk away, it is his choice and we could then entertain reasonably sized projects from other builders that will get us to our required minimum. Remember, we are only taking about 12 units. A few small condo projects would easily get the job done.
Let’s say we do it and it works, either we kill the project or cut it down to a manageable size. What do we do then? We have to assume more homes will eventually be built in Westborough and we will have to eventually build or acquire more affordable housing.
We could do what other towns are doing (Hudson for example) and buy three family/duplex homes and designate them as affordable housing. Currently that would require the purchase of units at historically low interest rates. The salient point here is this action would most likely be a revenue producer for the Town (collecting of rent) or we would see minimal expenditures (assuming below market rents) rather than the massive drain Westborough Woods is inevitably going to be. According to Trulia there are several properties on the market now.
Now, all those in favor of this will say the arguments above “might “ not hold up or that we “might” not be able to do them. Here is the thing, there is no black and white here. The law and the courts have all admitted this is a massive gray area open to a wide range of interpretations. While my thoughts above might not hold up at the end of the day, they also may. If they do, aren’t they worth pursuing to save taxpayers millions of dollars?
The seemingly obvious conclusion is that those making the decision here either are not aware of the guidelines or actually want this project. I’ll assume that the issue has been looked into thoroughly so they are aware of the guidelines and the massive swath of ambiguity in them, these are smart folks. If they haven’t, then we must do further research into the Town's ability to stop or limit the scope of this project.
That leaves us with only one other option, they want the project.
Selectman Denny Drewry and Leigh Emery (and other officials) spoke at ZBA hearings about what a "good neighbor" Mr. Zarrette has been. Many of us in town have been good neighbors and volunteers for our community. I am not sure why that because Mr. Zarrette clearly has friends on the Board of Selectmen he is entitled to build a project in town that will be a huge drain on financial resources, leaving the rest of us with a higher tax bill and overcrowded schools.
But, is Mr. Zarrett a “good neighbor”?
Let’s talk about the Toll Brothers development across from the Train Station (Westborough Village). Mr. Zarrette was the original developer of the project and it was approved to be 20% one bedroom apartments (reducing the number of students) and an affordable housing component that would have put Westborough over the 10%. The project ran into trouble in the housing crash of 2006-08 and Mr. Zarrette faced the banks calling in his loans and he alleged he lacked funds to meet these obligations.
In order to meet them, Zarrette approached Toll Brothers to purchase the development, but needed concessions in both the number of affordable units they had to provide AND the number of single bedroom units. Zarrette then made several highly emotional pleas to Westborough officials indicating that if the sale did not go through to Toll Brothers, he faced severe financial consequences. Officials made substantial concessions and Zarrette made the sale. In short, Westborough bailed him out.
One can only wonder why Mr. Zarrette fails to see the need now to even consider reciprocating the accommodations he was once given. I’m of the opinion this is pure unadulterated greed as he took advantage of the graciousness of Westborough when he was desperate and now plans to line his pockets at its expense. Further, I would ask how these actions qualify him as a “good neighbor”?
Let Mr. Zarrette build single family homes with the needed number of affordable units. We would see increased tax receipts and lower financial drain on town resources and a much lower number of new students into our schools in a single year.
So, next year when we are all at town meeting and you want to stand up and ask why spending for our schools is jumping (or projected to jump) by millions of dollars, or in a few years you can’t believe we need yet another elementary school, remember this project. The School Committee and Administration have spoken out strongly against it but apparently have been ignored. Be sure to ask officials why every possible avenue to either stop or reduce its scope was not explored. Make no mistake, there are going to be very real negative consequences to taxpayers and our schools because of it. Specifically ask Ms. Emery and Mr. Drewry the possible justification that a “good neighbor” should be allowed to increase your tax bill.
The reply will most likely be “it wouldn’t have worked”. The response you should offer should be “we’ll never know because it was not tried”. The point to remember here is that there is NO clear law here and the courts have admitted as such in decision after decision. We cannot “know” what any result would be unless we actually attempt it.
Do we need affordable housing? Yes. Should we have a bit more? Yes. But we do not need this fiscally irresponsible project at this time to meet our needs?
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