With hearing postponed, Benjamin Road project on hold for now

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SHIRLEY – Amid mandatory school closures and other state-wide shutdowns, some local business matters must take a back seat until the number one item on the whole world’s agenda is resolved: Covid-19.

For example, a special state election set for March 31 in the 37th Middlesex District – which Shirley belongs to – has been postponed to June 2. The election is being held to fill a state representative’s seat, vacant since the end of January.

And on the local docket, a proposed “40B” condo development on Benjamin Road that could add nearly 100 new residents to the town census is on hold, with public hearings set to start in March moved out to the end of May.

Under provisions of Chapter 40 B in Massachusetts laws, certain local zoning laws may be bypassed by the developer, including density, if 25 percent of the proposed units are set aside as affordable.

The Benjamin Road project raised concerns among neighborhood residents when it was proposed last summer and the Planning Board, absent the site plan review process that other, non-40B projects are subject to, submitted a list of changes for the developer to consider, such as downsizing the number of units, a concession that the developer, Middlesex Land Holdings, LLC, apparently agreed to, revising its proposal from 52 to 48 units.

But the Zoning Board of Appeals has the final say.

At a meeting in September, with abutters present, the board was briefed by Town Counsel Carolyn Murray of KP Law on legal guidelines and key issues to address during the hearing process.

On Monday, March 19, with the Town Offices and other town buildings shuttered and a comprehensive permit application on the table, the ZBA opened its scheduled public hearing to an empty room.

The meeting was filmed for broadcast on public Cable TV, Channel 99.

After Chairman Chip Guercio sketched out main points and with prior approval from the applicant, the board set a new date for the first hearing: May 29.

The applicant’s attorney, Melissa Robbins, said in a letter to the board that her client had granted the board an extension on the hearing date in light of the current “national emergency.”

Recapping the project, now dubbed “The Village at Shirley Station,” Guercio said the plan calls for constructing 48 townhouse-style, duplex homes on the 9-acre site atop Benjamin Road.

Twelve of the “home owner units” would be deemed “affordable,” he said, based on family income levels set by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development.

The developer’s plan had to pass muster with DHCD before moving to the permitting phase.

The affordable units – 10 two bedroom and two three-bedroom — will be priced at 80 percent of applicable family income, as set by DHCD, Guercio said. The other 36 units will be market rate.

Guercio said he anticipates a series of hearings, with multiple matters to discuss.

“We’ll get started…as of May 29,” he said, with topics to include traffic impact, sewer and water, density of the development and public safety.

Another public hearing on a separate project, set for April 6, still stands, for now, Guercio said. But if the current crisis continues and public meetings are still curtailed by then, it may be rescheduled. If so, it will be opened, as this one was, only to set a new date, Guercio said.

The new date will be posted and advertised as required and abutters will be notified, he said.