The fate of a new affordable housing development that could add hundreds of cars to the area near the Billerica Road exit to Route 3 remains up in the air following a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on Thursday night.
Facing a packed room of neighbors and questions that left the board wondering if it should continue the process or deny approval of the plan for the time being, the board postponed a decision on the possible 120 unit affordable housing development in lieu of additional information on the site.
Proposed by Princeton Properties of Lowell, the proposed development would be on Mill Road directly across from the off-ramp and on-ramp to the Billerica Road exit to Route 3 Southbound.
For towns that have less than ten percent of their housing stock committed to affordable housing, options of Zoning Boards to deny approval of a variance for incoming affordable housing projects are limited under Chapter 40B of Massachusetts General Law.
However, towns do receive what are known as “regulatory safe harbors” if they can provide an affordable housing plan that says how they will get to ten percent or they’ve recently added new affordable housing.
Following recently a recently approved project coming soon to Littleton Road, this is the case for Chelmsford, and Princeton Properties spokesperson Steven Schwartz told the board his client is willing to compromise with the board on a project of similar density, but said if the plan was denied now, Princeton Properties would likely return after the safe harbor period ends in June of 2014.
“We come here acknowledging that we have no leverage in this situation. We came here and filed this application on the expectation from that it would be welcomed from the town from what we saw on the affordable housing plan and other discussions with the town,” he said. “We’ve come here in good faith.”
Throughout the evening, neighbors urged the board to deny the plan outright and also try to use other methods to challenge the plan if it returns in June.
Most notably they highlighted what they saw as potential safety and environmental concerns that could trump 40B from earlier project presented to the town, also noting other concerns that they believed would harm the town and the neighborhood but were likely outside of the Zoning Board’s purview.
“The state is forcing these projects on towns where they don’t belong, and to do them under duress is completely wrong,” said Town Meeting representative Brian Latina to the board.
Throughout the evening, Community Development Director Evan Belansky reminded members of the board that the decision before them was whether to continue with the process now under the safe harbor or not, but the consensus among the board was that determination couldn’t be made without more information, particularly a site walk.
“It really is a difficult site to imagine for residential housing, but I understand the need for residential housing,” said board member Brian Reedy. “I’d certainly rather work with a smaller density project, but as it is right now, I am not sure if we should move forward or not.”
A site walk was scheduled earlier, with neighboring residents also invited to participate, but that was cancelled out of courtesy to Princeton Properties due to the lack of clarity over where the project would proceed.
After the confusion, Schwartz said his clients would be happy to help with a site walk even if the plan does not go forward. The board scheduled the walk for Saturday Dec. 14 at 11:30 a.m.
According to a presentation at the beginning of the meeting, Chelmsford has 7.7 percent of its housing allocated to affordable housing, short of the ten percent goal by 316 units.