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Staff Writer

DEVENS — Tired of hearing stories of alleged abuse of the Chapter 40B affordable housing laws by developers, and lack of state oversight, Rep. Robert Hargraves (R-Groton) last week filed a bill to repeal sections of the law that allow the override of local statutes.

If passed, sections 20 through 23 of Chapter 40B, which allow MassHousing-approved proposals to bypass local zoning bylaws in communities that have less than 10 percent “affordable” housing, would be stricken from the books.

“All I hear over and over is complaints about the abuse of the law by developers,” Hargraves said, “I’ve heard complaints from Groton, Dunstable, Townsend and Pepperell in particular.”

Affordable housing discussions in Pepperell, for example, have included stories of developers who overstate the purchase price of their land in order to offset their loss of profit from building reduced-price affordable housing units.

Chapter 40B legislation is viewed by many as the primary tool to create mixed housing and help retain population in Massachusetts. What bothers opponents most is that a developer can come into a town with a plan carrying the state’s blessing that doesn’t proceed through the normal review process, hence there is little control by the town.

Hargraves said complaints include alleged actions of personnel in the Department of Housing and Community Development who turn a blind eye to complaints in order to get 40B projects moving.

He called attention to an investigation of 10 developers last October by Inspector General Gregory Sullivan, in which municipal records revealed inflated expense claims totaling more than $5 million that should have gone back to the towns.

During interviews for a Pepperell Zoning Board of Appeals consultant job a year ago, some candidates said that MassHousing often approves unfriendly 40B proposals (those submitted without prior cooperation with the town) in order to put them before local zoning authorities who are then expected to hash out the details.

“The town of Pepperell had to hire a consultant and spend money to counter this law. That’s an unfortunate encumbrance in itself,” Hargraves said.

Pepperell acquired a $15,000 state grant to pay its consultant. However, other departmental time and money, as well as that of town counsel, was also spent.

“My bill might appear a bit extreme, but the problem with (unfriendly) 40B proposals is that local bylaws can be thrown out for the sake of a very small amount of affordable housing,” Hargraves said. “And the other 75 percent of the housing in those developments also circumvents the bylaws. That’s a flip side no one looks at. I use the term ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water.'”

Hargraves said that other legislators have agreed with him. One was House Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Frank Hynes (D-Plymouth), who signed on in support just minutes after Hargraves electronically filed his bill prior to the Jan. 10 deadline.

Hargraves said he is supporting a slate of modifications to Chapter 40B proposed by Rep. James Eldridge (D-Acton), which in part call for giving double credit for existing affordable housing units and counting manufactured housing (mobile homes) as half-units.

He is calling for local support and thus far has reportedly received the backing of Dunstable and Groton selectmen.

“Chapter 40B, in and of itself, is a very noble and well-meaning law but it has been abused, abused and abused because of a lack of state oversight,” Hargraves said. “The abuse is very complicated.”

He said he believes his bill will face strong opposition but “I think there will be a groundswell. I don’t go anywhere in my district but what the subject of 40B comes up; across from Dew-More Farm in Townsend, Bayberry Road in Pepperell, Residential Gardens in Groton, and Dunstable has been going through problems.”

“It’s a problem statewide. People are lying. People are making money, and this bill is a wake-up call. With the thousands of bills being filed I’m going to have to stay on top of this for a long and bumpy ride, but this bill will put things back into the control of communities,” Hargraves said.

“I’ve made it clear we can’t do this without a lot of help,” Hargraves said. “That has to come from the people. I can’t predict how successful this will be but I will do anything that makes it better.”

“Some people walk gingerly around things. I’m saying let’s do something,” Hargraves said. “I’m probably going to anger some sections of the world but I hope the people can make a difference here.”

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