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Harvard’s choice: Ayer Road 40B as mixed-use or residential

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HARVARD — It appears big changes are in store for 264 Ayer Road, which currently houses Toreku Tractor and Equipment, though details are still being determined.

The site has been targeted for development by Massachusetts Housing Opportunities Corp. (MHOC), which has been working with local officials to determine a usage both sides can agree on, said town administrator Paul Cohen in a telephone interview.

Cohen said two scenarios are currently on the table for the 13 acre lot: One for a 40B development that would establish 44 condominium units and the other for a mixed-use development that would put 24 condo units behind retail/commercial development off Ayer Road.

With the site in the midst of Harvard’s small commercial district, Cohen said town officials are likely to push for the latter scenario. But he added it would require key variances from the Board of Health.

“If the Board of Health refuses that [variance], that avenue would be closed and they would go to the housing only,” he said.

Explaining why, Cohen said Harvard’s local Title Five standards are more stringent than the state. He added that the bylaws applicable under standard review would be circumvented by the 40B route, which allows developers to bypass local regulations.

Although the ultimate decision rests with the health board, Cohen speculated other town officials are likely to turn out in support of the mixed-use development.

In a telephone interview, MHOC executive vice president Mike Ivas confirmed Cohen’s account.

“We’ve done extensive soil testing,” he said. “We have perc rates that meet state standards but not Harvard’s.

“Under 40B our soils are fine,” he added. “We cannot build a mixed-used and smaller residential development under town guidelines and that’s what we need to work together on.”

Past that, Ivas said MHOC has preferred to include a retail element.

“We’ve been up front all along — we’d prefer the mixed use,” he said. “It makes sense from our standpoint and the town’s standpoint to make it mixed use … but we need to have the cooperation of all the boards.”

Ivas added that MHOC has been in communication with possible tenants for mixed use, including parties that could set up a drug store or delicatessen.

Asked about the circumstance, health board Chairman William Spacciapoli said he has yet to have any discussions on the topic or see any documentation. But he said the board’s concerns would be centered on public health and safety.

“That’s our only concern,” he said. “We don’t do zoning.”

The discussion over 264 Ayer Road has been ongoing since February, when MHOC presented designs for a large mixed-use development at the site to the Planning Board. However, the board had several questions with the design and MHOC returned with a 40B plan in April in response to what it termed a lack of local support.

While the 40B has remained on the table, MHOC has repeatedly professed a desire to work with the community to determine a use for the site, and selectmen appointed an ad hoc group in July to work with them.

Cohen said the state has confirmed the project is 40B eligible, and that the town received a letter to that effect from the state on Sept. 27.

Any 40B would go through the Zoning Board of Appeals for comprehensive permitting, and board Chairman Christopher Tracey said Monday night they have yet to see any applications or documents.

However, he did offer his personal opinion on the choice of development.

“The assumption is: Because it’s a commercial district, it would be a shame to have something done there that’s purely residential,” he said. “The key there is providing relief that’s not detrimental to public health.

“I would respect and believe whatever determination the Board of Health comes to about whether granting waivers is appropriate,” he said.

The owner of Toreku Tractor, Tony Toreku, was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

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