Neighbors Object To Zoning Bylaw Variances For Habitat For Humanity Development
By Kristen Arute, Published: June 24, 2020, Updated: July 3, 2020
Hingham Current News File Photo / Kristen Arute
The Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) meeting became heated on Tuesday night when Derby Brook Way resident Michael Fisher stated that the Board was not listening to neighbors’ concerns. “Our impression is that we are fighting a brick wall,” he said. “It seems to us as though the Zoning Board does not care an awful lot for what our opinions are as abutters, and the end result is going to be that the abutters on both sides are going to have to live with the result.” Mr. Fisher captured the sentiment of residents of the condominium who have been involved with the process for over two years. He closed by saying, “It looks like the cake is pretty much baked on this. It’s very frustrating.”
ZBA Chair Robyn Maguire disagreed. “This is, I believe, the third hearing we’ve had on this matter,” she said. “I believe we’ve conducted a fair hearing so far.” She then pointed out that the Board has listened to “expansive comments from the public including from yourself, Mr. Fisher,” and that they were continuing to work with the developer to refine the list of waivers that are being requested. “We will balance the interest of affordable housing in making our decision,” she added.
Later in the meeting, ZBA Vice Chair Paul Healey said, “I was going to comment to Mr. Fisher, but perhaps I’ll save it to the next meeting.” He then added, “I have a very different perspective of what’s transpired here, but I’ll hold it.”
THE SOURCE OF CONFLICT
At issue is a Habitat for Humanity affordable housing development that has been proposed for 302-304 Whiting Street. The lot, which is just under an acre in size, is situated between the Derby Brook condominiums and The Range Bar & Grille. All 20 residents of Derby Brook along with the only other residential abutter signed and submitted a petition to the ZBA asking them to consider a number of factors “based upon the risk of damaging the streams, wetlands and wildlife habitat.” Mr. Fisher also reiterated the health concerns that had previously been shared with the Board by the other abutter. “His water is at risk,” he said. “It does not get any more fundamental than that.” Mr. Fisher then went on to repeat something that Kirk Shilts of the Board of Health had said: “Protecting our environment and drinking water are the most important things we do as a town.”
The Whiting Street development has been the subject of much community discussion since 2017 when Hingham’s Affordable Housing Trust issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the property which would allow it to be developed with up to three homes. South Shore Habitat for Humanity was selected as the Designated Developer, and their initial plan called for the construction of three homes. However, it was subsequently reduced to two, and neighbors contend that there is not enough room on this property to safely put two houses. In order to do so, the project needs to obtain multiple waivers from the ZBA. Back in April 2018 when the project came before the Board of Selectmen, then-Selectman Healey noted that Hingham had reached its 10% affordable housing “Safe Harbor” inventory and that the Town now had more flexibility in determining whether or not to approve a "40B" (affordable housing development) like the one proposed for Whiting Street. 40B's are notorious for having tremendous leeway in overriding local zoning codes.
TOWN MEETING 2014 DECISION
The parcel was originally authorized for acquisition at Town Meeting in 2014. Article 32 of the Warrant allowed the Selectmen to acquire the parcel to be used “for public safety purposes,” but wetland and riverfront setbacks made that unfeasible. However, there was an existing two-bedroom home on the parcel. The developer that owned it had made recent improvements to it, "including a newer roof and heating system,” and representatives from the Hingham Affordable Housing Trust and the Building Department had toured the house and determined it to be structurally sound. As a result, the Board of Selectmen considered preserving the existing structure so that it might be sold as an affordable housing unit and count toward the Town’s subsidized housing inventory.
Improvements needed to be made to the home prior to its sale. Since the Hingham Affordable Housing Trust had funds available for that purpose, it was advised that the Trust take title to the property, which it did later in the year. The “transfer of care, custody, management and control of said parcel to the Hingham Affordable Housing Trust for the purpose of leasing or selling the parcel and the home thereon as an affordable housing unit which shall be deed-restricted for such use in perpetuity” was approved by Town Meeting.
So what changed between the approval of an acquisition at April 2014 Town Meeting and the issuance of the RFP for three homes in 2017?
A BRIEF HISTORY
The first mention of the Whiting Street parcel appears in the minutes of the March 2014 Affordable Housing Trust meeting. Board member Kevin Connelly brought up that “there is a parcel next to Derby Brook with a 2 bedroom house on it that he believes the developer will give to the town. It needs work, but has new heating and a new roof. Overall the house is good.” All members of the Trust agreed that it was a viable opportunity. It was during this first meeting that Board member Gary Ludwig offered to reach out to Habitat for Humanity.
A few weeks later in April 2014, the Board decided to place the property on the Warrant for Town Meeting as a “Public Safety Lot,” which would allow the Town to “put affordable housing there.” Gary Ludwig had already spoken to Habitat for Humanity but suggested that it might be more desirable for the Town to rehab the property and sell it rather than going through Habitat. He then asked about the feasibility of putting another house on the land, and discussion followed. Immediately afterward, Town Meeting voted to allow the Selectmen to acquire the parcel.
Habitat for Humanity attended the Affordable Housing Trust meeting two months later in June 2014. The Board felt they were a good fit for the Whiting Street rehabilitation project but was concerned about the ability to turn a profit if Habitat were allowed to take control of it. These concerns were echoed at the following Board meeting in July, and, in the same meeting, the possibility of constructing a second home on the property was raised again. Papers were passed in October, and the Town officially became owners of the Whiting Street parcel. Three months later, the Affordable Housing Trust Board took a vote “to move forward to do what needs to be done to create a second unit at Whiting Street.”
In March 2016, Board meeting minutes show that the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) was “excited about the project and that there could be a Habitat House on the property.” The contractor was expected to begin work in early May; however, that was delayed while additional details were ironed out. During the summer of 2016, Board members Mike MacDonald and Tim White met with Emily Wentworth, former Town Engineer Roger Fernandes and Gary James. The minutes state that this meeting “was supposed to focus on subdividing the property (on Whiting Street) but then talk came up regarding taking the house down and putting three structures on the land." The question that was now before the Board was whether to allow Habitat for Humanity to build all three. Tim White reached out to Habitat to gauge their interest, and in September, he reported back that Habitat for Humanity “would be delighted to participate in putting 3 units on the property.”
Almost one year later in August 2017, an RFP was issued for the disposition of the property. Habitat for Humanity was the only applicant. That same month abutters were invited to the Affordable Housing Trust meeting, and many attended. Derby Brook resident John Speredelozzi said that he had heard Habitat for Humanity was going to be developing the property and asked if this were true. Affordable Housing Trust Chair Tim White replied, “Habitat may be one of the bidders.”
NEIGHBORS REMAIN INVOLVED.
Since then the residents of Derby Brook have attended meetings and written letters - even drafting a petition which all the Derby Brook Residents, including five 40B affordable units, signed - all the while consistently expressing their concerns about the impact on the brook, the wildlife and the wetlands. Those communications have been acknowledged by the Board in Affordable Housing Trust meetings, but it was decided that neighbors could have their voices heard during the permitting process.
The project is now before ZBA, and abutters continue to speak up during public comment periods. "The residents support the plans to use the property for affordable housing, and we think it has the potential to be a very nice unit," said Derby Brook resident John Speredelozzi in a statement to the Hingham Current. "We are concerned with plans to put two houses there when all the conservation and health by laws only allow for one house to be constructed." In the meantime, they listen to discussion about the process. From septic and water to riparian buffer zones, it can get very technical. In short, due to the lack of compliance of the project, there are a lot of moving parts that need to be addressed. “I think the list of waivers needs some refinement,” said Emily Wentworth,” but we haven’t had the opportunity to work with the applicant.”
On Tuesday night, Mr. Fisher reminded the Board that Kirk Shilts suggested this permit application be held to the same standard as any other. “Being consistent with local needs means following all the rules and zoning regulations and bylaws that the Town’s established for the Town’s own protection,” said Fisher. “It’s clearly stated in the (Town’s Safe Harbor) letter that the Town has reached the statutory minimum for (affordable) housing. It follows that the Town’s regulations should apply (to this proposal) without waivers.” He also raised neighbors' concerns about sidewalks (“Our understanding was that sidewalks were part of all the plans on route 53”) and a proposed wall that is 145 feet long and 15 feet from his property line (“This wall can’t be seen by any house on top of 302 or 304, but it is in plain sight to everyone entering our condominium’s driveway. Whatever is done here must meet our approval.”)
Another Derby Brook resident, Janet Bardong, shared her thoughts. “Throughout this process in presenting and approving the development of the property, we’ve repeatedly heard Hingham is a wealthy town,” she said. “There is a great need for affordable housing. The affordable housing trust funding doesn’t allow for the purchase of property. It depends on developments like Derby Brook, organizations like Habitat for Humanity to reach the goals that have been set.” She went on to say that one of the Selectmen who had come out to look at the property asserted that the Town has “a moral obligation to continue with this effort of supplying affordable housing.”
“If Hingham is so behind this and so passionate about it,” asked Bardong, “why doesn’t the funding come from the Town?” She pointed out that she has heard Tim White repeatedly say that he doesn’t have the funding to do what he needs to do. “We are taking one crisis and creating another,” she said. “There is a sustainability issue in this country. Our environment is also in crisis. Continually putting in waivers to achieve putting in affordable housing because it’s not funded properly just makes no sense to us.”
“We’re not going to be voting on it this evening,” said Chair Robyn Maguire. “We still need to refine the list of waivers that the applicant is requesting." The Board then continued the discussion to the next ZBA meeting on July 21st.
Robyn Maguire, Chair
Paul Healey, Vice Chair
Elizabeth von Pier
Joe Fisher, Selectman