The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, July 2, 2010

Benfield housing gets tentative nod from ZBA

The Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) unanimously voted on June 24 to approve, as a “non-binding application with conditions to be determined,” the Benfield Farms 40B special permit to build 26 units of affordable senior housing on South Street.

The request for the 40B comprehensive permit was filed by the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) in October of 2009. NOAH is the non-profit company selected by the Carlisle Housing Authority to build and manage senior rental housing on the town’s Benfield Land. As required by Massachusetts law, the ZBA had 180 days to hear testimony about the development from the applicant, peer engineering teams, abutters and other concerned parties. Recent delays over receiving a compiled version of the “draft conditions” from Town Counsel caused the ZBA’s hearing schedule to slip past their anticipated hearing closing date of early June.

Earlier in May, the ZBA and NOAH had agreed to a 21-day extension, and NOAH had asked the ZBA if it would be possible to close the hearing and render a decision on or before their fiscal year ends on June 30, so they could have status on record for their investors and auditors about the future of their involvement with the Benfield Farms property development. The ZBA agreed to work to that deadline, understanding that NOAH had many other deadlines related to the project that needed to be started expeditiously once a decision was made about their application.

The ZBA’s decision to grant the special permit in a “non-binding” way was intended to let NOAH know that they were heading in the direction of approving their special permit with the caveat that they may indeed ultimately craft conditions that could be problematic or at worst, deny the special permit altogether. The non-binding approval, however, allows NOAH to continue their process of preparing their documentation for the development as required by multiple interested parties, including the State of Massachusetts and their prospective investors. Town Counsel Rich Hucksam, Jr. said, “If I understand this is to be a non-binding and informal vote, then I ask the board to make that perfectly clear.”

ZBA Chair Ed Rolfe, who made the motion to close the hearing and approve the application in a non-binding way, said “We were supposed to have ended the hearing on May 15. If everything had gone according to plan, we could have made up the week.... We ended up with a three-week slip.” NOAH Executive Director Phil Giffee commented, “We need as much as we can by June 30. We are starting to approach a financing deadline [and are ] under a lot of pressure to assemble the documents. A lot of stuff is getting crammed into a shorter period of time... and we’re getting a lot of pressure to present additional information to other groups and to investors, some here in [Carlisle].”

How affordable?

At the previous ZBA Benfield Farms hearing, questions were raised about the number of units that would be identified as “affordable” under Massachusetts 40B regulations. According to NOAH’s Director of Real Estate Development Toby Kramer, there would be a mix of low- and moderate-income units, though all units would be considered affordable for the purpose of meeting the state’s affordable housing quota,

Rolfe asked Housing Authority Chair Alan Lehotsky to weigh in on the number of units of affordability. Lehotsky responded “It is quite clear that our RFP [request for proposals] states 25% or more units [to be] affordable. The other night, I was supportive of conditions that would maximize affordability when funding is in effect, but it makes no sense to tie the hands of people 30 years from now...[especially] if NOAH has to declare bankruptcy from not having enough cash flow.... Even 100% AMI (average median income) is affordable.”

ZBA member Kent Gonzales added, “As long as we have a floor of 25% affordability, then we’re okay.” Kramer also added that in order to get funding from state agencies, a higher degree of affordability is required.

Landscaping revisited

Mark Beaudry of Meridian Associates, NOAH’s engineering consultants, presented additional information about the landscaping plan. Beaudry said their intent was to save the existing trees to the extent it was practical and ultimately to save the vast majority of them. He added that they would be adding more plant material along a stone wall and another 14 trees and shrubs in addition to the scenic road trees already planned. Beaudry said that they would not be adding any “bark mulch circles” around the trees so the trees look more natural, “as if they are growing out of the meadow.”

Much discussion ensued over the number and type of foliage that would be added and/or removed from the property. NOAH’s attorney, John Smoler, advised to rework the language of the condition as the intent of NOAH was to preserve the landscaping and scenic views and to meet the needs of the abutters.

Fire Department requirements

Originally, the ZBA and NOAH understood that the Fire Department required a hardwire connection between the development and the fire station so that in the event of an emergency, there would be no delays in dispatching crews. At the previous ZBA meeting, Kramer said that this requirement would potentially make the project uneconomic and they asked the ZBA to help them determine ways they could defray the costs of installing this connection.

Building Inspector John Luther spoke with Carlisle Fire Chief David Flannery and said, “my suggestion would be to say that the fire alarm design should be in accordance with whatever the fire safety rules are... which are at present changing.... For example, there are wireless systems being installed in other towns.... and a wireless signal [could] send a signal directly from Benfield to the Fire Department. The upside is that a radio signal doesn’t get disturbed by a fallen tree, like it would be now. We don’t want to restrict ourselves to a specific technology.... Just [state that the condition] must be in accordance with building codes as approved by the fire chief. “

BOH and monitoring wells

ZBA member Marty Galligan received clarification from the Carlisle Board of Health (BOH) and relayed it to Chairman Ed Rolfe: The BOH is not specifically requiring NOAH to install other wells [or specifically “monitoring wells”], but if they do happen to make a well, outside of what NOAH is required to do by Title V regulations, that NOAH should keep that well available to the BOH in the event they could check it when desired.

Sign size discussed

At their June 28 meeting, the ZBA stated that a single permanent sign at the proposed Benfield Farms property would be not more than three feet by four feet and not more than six feet off the ground at the highest point. It may have one face or two, and may not be placed on the town-owned right-of-way along the roadside.

Waivers and winding up

On June 24, Town Counsel Rich Hucksam said that they should not be discussing waivers because he had not yet had time to review them, so the ZBA tabled waiver discussion for their deliberations. At the meeting four days later, the ZBA did not continue with its proposed agenda to discuss landscaping in the Benfield Farms contract because Hucksum was not ready to discuss the conditions and was not present.

“We are now flying solo for the next 40 days to issue the decision,” Rolfe said at the close of the hearing on June 24. He continued, “Thank you and apologies from the board. We are all trying to do the right thing here and that is hard when you have strong opinions [from others] who believe how they feel is right. Thank you everyone for your passionate replies.” NOAH’s Giffee added, “I have faith that we will work it out. We have faith in the process.”

The ZBA will deliberate on the permit application on July 6 and July 12. ∆

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