The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 25, 2010

Income-mix changes proposed for Benfield Farm

All units still to count toward 40B housing quota

Wrapping up the Benfield Farms 40B hearing for the proposed 26-unit senior development, the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) met Monday night to discuss the draft conditions document. This document contains conditions that would ultimately be attached to the 40B special permit, if granted, to the applicant Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH). NOAH is a non-profit working with the Carlisle Housing Authority to build affordable housing on the town’s Benfield Land off South Street.

ZBA Chairman Ed Rolfe led the four- and-a-half hour meeting, going line by line through the conditions. Conditions ranging from specifying the building size, the number of washing machines and dryers, identifying a neighborhood contact, to the number and type of pets to be allowed in the development were discussed. Landscaping and fire safety requirements continued to generate discussion. However a new issue was raised regarding how many units would be reserved for low-income versus moderate income households. NOAH requested greater flexibility in affordability criteria in the ZBA permit conditions, which could impact whether or not income limits would be permanent.

Town counsel Rich Hucksam, Jr. delivered the draft conditions, which synthesized all of the input from town boards, abutters and other concerned parties to the ZBA on June 11. NOAH, represented by Phil Giffee and Toby Kramer as well as their attorney, provided their own edited version of Hucksam’s draft, based on their data and understanding of issues. The ZBA’s version of the draft was over 40 pages long; previous versions apparently containing upwards of 80 pages, and applicant Toby Kramer commented that it was “hard to get through” and “extremely repetitive” and hoped that they could all create a revised document that contained “conditions specific to property.”

Affordability restrictions change – greater flexibility requested

Regarding the number of low-income units, ZBA Chairman Ed Rolfe noted that the number from NOAH’s original application and the numbers presented in their draft of the conditions document had changed. Rolfe asked NOAH for an explanation and Hucksam concurred, saying “I think this is an extremely significant change.”

Toby Kramer later explained that NOAH is proposing to reduce the number of units reserved for households with incomes at or below 60% of the area median income (a.m.i.). Originally, 22 of the units would be at 60% a.m.i., but NOAH would drop it to seven units. The remainder of the 26 units would be at 100% a.m.i. She pointed out that they are still exceeding the requirements originally set by the Housing Authority’s request for proposals, which specified only that a quarter of the units meet 40B minimum requirements of 80% a.m.i.

According to Carlisle Housing Coordinator Elizabeth Barnett, the median annual income in this area for a family of two is currently $65,000 a year. Housing normally qualifies as “affordable” under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 40B if it is restricted to an income level at or below 80% a.m.i. However, because they are rental units, all the Benfield housing will count as affordable housing under 40B.

Will the income restrictions be permanent?

There is already a permanent deed restriction on the land that any housing built be limited to households at or below 100% a.m.i. This restriction was required because Community Preservation funds were used in the land purchase. Kramer says that any income restrictions placed in the ZBA conditions would also be permanent. She said that for financial reasons, NOAH hopes fewer restrictions will be in the ZBA document. The mix of low- versus moderate-income units that would be most likely to win state or federal funding can change, so they won’t know the exact mix they will need to win grants until later in the funding process. Kramer said that often grants are easier to get when the proportion of low-income units is high. However, NOAH has to balance that, she said, with the long-term financial implications. For instance, federal subsidies for low-income units may only last for say 30 years. If the subsidies were not renewed, NOAH would then have to maintain the property in succeeding decades with significantly reduced rental income, according to Kramer. Barnett notes that Carlisle Village Court includes low-income units under federal “section 8 certificates”, which were renewed after they expired.

At the meeting, Rolfe said, “My concern is to a) identify this as an issue; and b) do we take this up as an issue at Thursday’s meeting. I think we are helping fewer families at 60% of median income with these new numbers.”

Kramer said, “If there is no state money coming in, making capital improvements will be very difficult. We need to make sure that the project stays viable.” Giffee added, “ We’d prefer much more flexibility during financing. We are not looking for less affordability in the short term.”

Housing Authority Chair Alan Lehotsky added, “The Housing Authority is the entity with the most interest in maximizing our 40B housing requirements. I would request that the language be as flexible as possible. Thirty years from now, we may be in a totally different world . . . The Housing Authority is comfortable with general language as long as 25% is affordable.”

Giffee further commented, “I think we want as much affordability as possible, but we need flexibility because of financing. We don’t want it to be on the record that we only want seven units to be affordable because that is just not the case. [Our attorneys] will come back with language that is clearer.”

Landscaping conditions

Much discussion surrounded the conditions concerning landscaping and screening (i.e., using plants and trees to). Kramer objected to the language of the condition questioning the level of detail describing particular plants and trees and their sizes and position, and whether the information belonged in the conditions or the landscaping plan. He added, “I’m sure we’ll have the neighbors telling us where to place plants.”

ZBA member Kevin Smith emphasized the importance of landscaping to this project, particularly as was raised by the abutters, and said, “People aren’t going to be happy with the size and location and type of tree because everyone has an idea of what looks best and how they view the landscaping. I think the [ZBA] needs to make a decision up to a point to determine what should be and where . . . because it will be difficult to have [consensus from all parties]. I think we should be making the decision [about landscaping plans].

Planning Board member David Freedman added, “Key language has been deleted [that concerns] the quantity and density [of the landscaping].” NOAH engineering consultant Mark Beaudry of Meridian Associates disagreed, pointing out that many landscaping elements, including red oak trees, for example, were included in the plan and would be planted. Freedman agreed, but said that the language “didn’t say anything about the additional bushes that would be planted . . . There’s nothing in [the landscaping plan] that shows us that there will be any plantings [in gaps where other trees would be removed].”

After several minutes of debate between audience members, Giffee offered, “I think we basically understand and agree that we are going to preserve the vistas . . . I think that we were trying to shrink the number of pages [in the conditions document] . . . We are trying to comply. We are trying to do what people want.”

“Uneconomic” stumbling blocks

Two conditions discussed were flagged by NOAH as possibly causing the project to be unaffordable – therefore rendering the project “uneconomic,” and thus allowing the applicant to appeal to the state Housing Appeals Committee (HAC) – were the condition that NOAH provide a bond so that the town of Carlisle could complete the development in the event that NOAH cannot; and also, the installation of a two-mile hardwire line from the development to the Carlisle Fire Department so the Fire Department can respond as quickly as possible in an emergency situation.

Regarding the bond, Kramer said “this bond [condition] is very unusual for us. It would make things problematic and unaffordable.” Rolfe ultimately deferred the matter to the attorneys for resolution.

Kramer also added “We would like to go on record and say that the direct line to the fire station, which would be two-miles . . . [after looking into it], it’s very expensive. We looked into the idea of a wireless system or some other way of doing it, possibly using a company, but it has been an ongoing problem.”

Rolfe asked, “If this condition is included, you’re saying that this would make the project uneconomic?” Kramer responded, saying “We have spoken to the fire chief . . . It’s more than $38,000 to install.” ZBA member Kent Gonzales added, “The [Fire Department] isn’t set up to accept a wireless system . . . [NOAH] would have to put something there [at the department] . . . I think the Fire Department wants this because this is a unique building in town.”

Giffee asked the ZBA to consider having the town help NOAH offset some of the costs associated with installing the direct line to the fire station since many residents along South Street could potentially tap into it and optimize their communication with the Fire Department in the event of an emergency. Rolfe noted that although he understands this has been an issue discussed by the applicant and the Fire Chief, that this is the first time he has heard about it, particularly within the context of it potentially rendering the project uneconomic. Rolfe noted that the ZBA would try to get more information for the next meeting.

Title V and the Board of Health

Wrapping up the evening was a discussion about the Board of Health’s condition to require monitoring wells to be installed in the development. Under Title V laws, monitoring wells are not required, but the BOH’s memo in May 2010 stated that they “requested the right to monitor the development’s wells.” After much debate, Marty Galligan said he would get in touch with the BOH to confirm whether or not they want NOAH to install monitoring wells.

At 11 o’clock….

Attorneys for both the ZBA and NOAH agreed to tackle the language on the open and deferred issues and to present a new draft for the Thursday, June 24, meeting at 6:30 p.m. ∆

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