Shirley ZBA continues discussion on Benjamin Road affordable housing proposal

Shirley ZBA continues discussion on Benjamin Road affordable housing proposal
Shirley ZBA continues discussion on Benjamin Road affordable housing proposal

SHIRLEY – A proposed 40B development in the works for some time continues to wend its way through the local permitting process as the Zoning Board of Appeals is reviewing an application for a comprehensive permit from the developer, Middlesex Holdings, LLC.

The project – a 52-unit townhouse/condo development slated for a 10-acre site on Benjamin Road — was introduced more than two years ago. It was halted on the drawing board by the statewide pandemic shut-down in March 2020, having already secured a green light from the Department of Housing and Community Development, the state agency whose approval is needed for projects proposed under the 40B umbrella.

The designation in state law – Chapter 40B – is aimed at addressing the state’s shortage of affordable housing. It allows developers to bypass some local zoning, such as density restrictions, in return for pricing 25 percent of available housing units in the “affordable” range, as determined by the median income benchmark for the region, in this case the greater Boston area. It does not exempt such projects from local oversight, however. The developer must still seek permits and zoning variances as needed.

Records show the hearing commenced on Dec. 17, 2020. To date, there have been five subsequent meetings, including the recent session.

The hearing continued Monday night, with board members meeting in person in the Town Offices and a virtual room full of other interested parties attending via Zoom, including abutters, attorneys and civil engineers representing the developer and the town, respectively, and other residents.

Among the issues discussed were traffic, public safety, trash disposal and whether or not trees should be noted on the project map if they are destined to be axed anyway, to clear the site for construction.

ZBA Chairman Chip Guercio began by listing three topics under the traffic category: paint-striping the roadway to create lanes, posting mobile signs for speed control, and determining driveway sight-line clearance at the development entrance.

Elizabeth Oltman, of TEC, a civil engineering firm that conducted a traffic study for the town and paid for by the developer, explained the striping layout she recommends, based on areas of concern and other elements noted at the last meeting, all basically pointing to the same issue: pedestrian safety.

The striping plan, in part, calls for double yellow center lines and white “fog lines” on each side of the road that would serve as walkways. The question then becomes, how far from the development should the lines extend, north and south, or should they encompass the entire road?

It was noted that Benjamin Road is a busy, residential roadway, with a recreation area – Benjamin Hill Park — at one end and Main Street and the train station at the other, and that with a new housing development added, traffic would increase, including bicycles and pedestrians as well as motor vehicles. Deteriorating pavement at the roadsides and drainage issues have also come up, with clogs and puddles at the Main Street end.

One board member, Jim Yocum, has said that in his view, sidewalks are the only safe way to go. To date, that alternative has not been extensively explored, however. The work currently being discussed would be at the developer’s expense, presumably with maintenance such as repainting the lines for a certain period, after which it becomes the town’s responsibility.

The signs Oltman recommends – flashing the speed limit versus actual speed of approaching vehicles — which Police Chief Samuel Santiago and others have said often exceed the 25 MPH posted limit – should be mobile rather than stationary, Oltman said, so the Police Dept. can re-deploy them as needed.

Finally, sight clearance for the driveway. Specifically, a marked triangle extending from the edge of the roadway into the development, where no structures can go and which must be kept clear of vegetation more than a certain height, with the town’s easement options maintained.

The Fire Dept. had asked that the center strip at the driveway entrance be smaller to allow a wider turning radius for fire trucks and that change has been incorporated, according to Melissa Robbins, the developer’s attorney. In fact, she said, the developer had no problem with any of the suggested changes and that the easement would be in there. “We’ll lay it out on the plans for next time,” she said.

Abutters Susan Gillham and George Minott raised concerns about the developer’s plans to substitute a single dumpster for individual trash receptacles at each unit, one of a number of concerns addressed in a three-page letter the couple previously submitted to the board and presented at the last meeting.

Monday night, Minott stressed the point. “I don’t want a dumpster in my backyard,” he said, citing issues it could cause, such as rodents, as well as the obvious unsightliness and noise when it’s emptied. He favors going back to the “original plan,” he said: trash bins and curbside pickup at each unit.

But Robbins, the attorney, said the developer plans to stick with the dumpster model.

“I’m a bit disappointed that this is such a hurdle,” Guercio said.

“We’ll address it next time,” she said.

The next ZBA meeting is scheduled for June 14, with the 40B hearing set to continue. At that time, people other than board members should be able to attend in person, Guercio noted, since town hall is open and restrictions that limit the number of people in a room will likely have been lifted by then.