Friday, January 23, 2009
Housing Trust reviews Benfield developer selection process
Members of the Housing Authority used the forum of the town’s Affordable Housing Trust meeting on January 15 to defend the openness of the developer selection process for the Benfield Land on South Street. Abutter and Selectman Alan Carpenito had sent a letter to the Mosquito in which he questioned certain Housing Authority decisions which he believed had cut off community review and input.
Jim Bohn, a member of both the Housing Authority and the Trust, noted that a survey letter was issued to all abutters, a note appeared in the Mosquito asking for input, and meeting time was set aside to hear input from the community. There was substantial feedback, he said, particularly from people interested in joining the waiting list for units in the planned senior housing project. Currently 45 residents are on that list.
Bohn said the Request for Proposals (RFP) was issued by the town on August 13 and legal procurement procedures were followed, including an ad in the Boston Globe. Three proposals were received by the deadline of October 15. Bohn said, “We were generally very impressed by the detail and quality.” The proposals were available to the public at Town Hall by appointment, and community input was sought at meetings. In addition, extensive reference checks were conducted.Two consultants, Karen Sunnarborg and Michael Jacobs, were engaged by the Housing Authority to help vet the proposals.
On December 18 the proposals were discussed and a developer, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) of East Boston, was chosen by the Housing Authority. According to Bohn, the decision was based on community input and a ranking of the six criteria set out in the RFP. Those included construction experience, financial strength, feasibility of plan, quality of design, ability to control costs based on past experience and track record working with the state on affordable housing.
Community input questioned
Carpenito who noted he was present as an abutter and was recusing himself as Selectman, asked if the RFP had been circulated to other boards. Barnett responded that “It wasn’t, but it wasn’t unusual that it wasn’t.” Carpenito expressed concern that “the Planning Board was right out of the picture,” noting that townspeople “rely on the expertise of the Planning Board to maintain the character of the town.” He was also concerned that the RFPs were not openly available until November, and that meetings with potential developers were held in executive session, closed to the public. “We were told this would be an open and transparent process. I don’t believe it was.”
Housing Authority responds
Bohn noted the Housing Authority had been concerned that “there was some risk of information leakage that would put one proposal at a disadvantage” and leave the town open to a lawsuit. Proposals in front of the Planning Board usually concern one developer rather than several bidding in competition for a project but “the RFP information was of a more sensitive nature.” “I agree with you” that the proposals should have been public from the beginning, but the Housing Authority wanted to proceed cautiously, Bohn added. “It’s a learning by doing process.” He defended the use of executive session so that the board could “veer into more sensitive areas” regarding finances. Added Housing Authority member Steve Pearlman, “We asked Town Counsel and that’s what he said to do, so we did.”
Greg Peterson, member of the Planning Board and the Housing Trust, asked for details of the process for neighborhood input. Susan Stamps noted that about 25 letters were sent out and response was extensive.
The Housing Authority had previously detailed criteria for a development, “The neighborhood responses lined up with the Housing Authority responses.” A spreadsheet containing all comments was appended to the RFP, and Stamps noted, “To us it was the most important element.” Pearlman noted the developer chosen, “was especially strong (in incorporating community input) and really took it to heart and did the best job.” He added that many abutters attended meetings, and “I don’t think we’ve heard from other abutters they felt left out.”
Schematic plan review?
Peterson said the Planning Board wants to see the detail of a schematic plan, and asked, “At what point will other boards have an opportunity to weigh in?” Pearlman responded, “We’ve got quite a ways to go before we get to that point.” It was noted that if Town Counsel review of the proposal is completed quickly, a schedule of steps for the project should be available in time for the Housing Authority presentation to the Selectmen at the end of January.
Project permitting options
Peterson noted a new set of rules and regulations for the Zoning Board of Appeals are in process and counseled the Housing Authority, “Be careful what precedents you set.” He suggested that the project could be brought to Town Meeting for permitting “as of right” with a 2/3 vote. This would allow “an honest back and forth versus a process that is highly constrained” and communicate to the state the town’s support.
“I would encourage you to open this process up a bit more,” added Peterson. “Let’s try to do this in a truly communitarian kind of way.” Selectman Doug Stevenson underlined that point, noting the Board of Selectmen “wants and really needs the Planning Board to have support of the project before we’re too much farther down the road.”
Bohn agreed, and Stamps noted that “The Housing Authority wants to make this as open a process as possible” and where this hadn’t happened “it’s only been to protect the town.” ∆
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