Friday, April 29, 2005
Benfield Task Force favors Plan B, ballfield in back
After three Community Planning Days and months of sometimes heated disagreement, the Benfield Task Force has finally reached a verdict — sort of. The choice between Plan A (ballfield in front, housing in back) and Plan B (both ballfield and housing in back) must still jump through a few more hoops, including Town Meeting approval, but at this point the Task Force has tentatively decided to come out in favor of Plan B. "Unless there's a strong veto from PAL, it's B," said task force chair John Ballantine. PAL is the Public Archaeology Lab, whom the town is paying $11,365 to dig holes and search for arrowheads and sacred artifacts on the Benfield site. "If there's a strong veto from PAL," he continued, "then it's neither A nor B."
The Board of Selectmen meeting on April 26 featured a presentation of all the accumulated information by the Task Force and justification of the Plan B recommendation.
The Town acquired Benfield Parcel A on South Street after a vote at Town Meeting in March 2004. Of the 45 acres in Parcel A, 26 acres have been set aside for conservation and 19 acres are available for potential development, including 26 community housing units and one active recreation field. There has been little if any opposition to the affordable housing, but the ballfield issue has raised more rancor than a Yankees-Red Sox game. South Street residents do not want a ball field on the site.
Default plan is Plan A
A default plan to locate the field next to the road (Plan A, where an open field already exists) was approved at the March Special Town Meeting, but the Community Planning sessions and Task Force meetings have uncovered copious opposition to that idea. Present thinking is that the open field next to South Street would remain unused, since abutters fear that a ballfield there would cause parking headaches and safety issues on the narrow scenic roadway. Placing the ballfield back in the interior of the Benfield property next to the affordable housing complex would isolate the commotion from existing abutters, have less of a wetland impact and separate the traffic from the hordes of parents and children who would use the field. However, if Plan B is not approved at Town Meeting by June 30, 2005, the site deed restrictions automatically revert to the default Plan A. To add to the complications, Plan B must pass by a two-thirds majority at Annual Town Meeting to be accepted, since Plan A was approved by a similar majority.
Additional cost for Plan B
The additional cost of Plan B, which provides a housing cluster around a commons and with an adjacent playing field, is estimated to be somewhere between $100K and $150K out of a total cost of $7M. Some items such as tree and ledge removal will cost more, but this is offset somewhat by less expensive ballfield irrigation from the nearby housing water supply. The housing in Plan B by necessity is more tightly clustered, but "aesthetic integration of housing and recreation fits a smart growth, sustainable community," said John Winslow of Winslow Design Associates. He displayed four full-color three-foot by four-foot drawings of the proposed Plan A and B layouts. Both plans feature farmstyle buildings located at the end of a winding 1,700-foot roadway that connects the building site to South Street at the existing entrance location (south end of field). "Farmstyle buildings will consist of a mixture of main house, shed, and barn-like structures containing 26 housing units," he explained. Cost for construction of the 26 affordable units, based on 31,200 square feet of total living space at $135 per square foot, is identical for the two plans at $4,212,000.
Not everyone is thrilled with Plan B. David Hart of Fifty Acre Way began the evening's proceedings by saying that Plan B is in is his back yard. "I'm 100% for affordable housing, but putting the ballfield next to the housing instead of along South Street is a form of bait and switch," he said, referring to the March Special Town Meeting vote for Plan A. "I also believe that the Plan B ballfield will cost a whole lot more than presently estimated." Selectman Doug Stevenson lamented that the ballfield is diverting everyone's attention away from the primary goal of building affordable housing. "Don't jeopardize the affordable housing by linking it to the ballfield," he urged. Recreation Commission chair Maureen Tarca, stated, "Once the deal is completed, the ballfield will be forgotten unless it is linked in with the original agreement."
Alan Leveillee of the Public Archaeology Laboratory (PAL) hasn't started digging his 80-85 holes yet to determine the authenticity of claims that the Benfield land contains sacred Indian relics. Native American interests insist that the site features over 60 ceremonial structures and falls exactly on top of the area identified for affordable housing. The Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) has said that before any proposed construction is begun, any historical or archeological resource must undergo an intensive survey under a permit from the State Archaeologist. Ballantine hopes that Leveillee will have results from his test holes before Town Meeting on May 23.
How to pay for it
Even if, by some miracle, the town reaches consensus on Plan B, there is a slight problem of how to pay for it. The total cost of almost $7.7M doesn't include the $2M already paid for the land, which was financed entirely using Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds, collected as a 2% surcharge on property taxes. Habitat for Humanity has shown interest in building six of the 26 units, reducing the total cost to $6,460,000. Ballantine called additional support from the state of from $50K to $60K per unit as "really critical" to funding the project. Even with help from the state, the town will need to authorize almost $1M in additional funding before the units are completed. For the time being, he is asking for $50,000 for predevelopment, to be used for engineering, environmental, legal, architectural, financing, and project management work. This doesn't include the $10K funding for Leveillee to dig holes and sift for arrowheads.
Critics of the escalating costs say the town is pouring money down a black hole and that Carlisle has no business being in the real estate business. Others say that the town must take on risk in order to ensure that all units are affordable rather than the 25% provided by a private developer working under Chapter 40B. Clearly, this continuing rumble of discontent won't go away and will manifest itself again on May 23. There should be no problem gathering a quorum this year for the Annual Town Meeting.
© 2005 The