POLITICS

Zoning Board Of Appeals Approves Habitat For Humanity Development With Conditions And Waivers

By Kristen Arute, Published: August 15, 2020
Town of Hingham GIS Map

After years of discussion and recent, heated debate, a controversial Habitat for Humanity development on Whiting Street was approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) with a list of conditions and several waivers. "It's a feel good decision over actual science," said Board of Health member Kirk Shilts upon learning of the ZBA vote. The nature of the project was never cause for concern. Opponents regularly expressed their support of creating more affordable housing in Hingham. At issue was the magnitude of the development and its potential impact on the environment.

 

The property in question is located at 302-304 Whiting Street and sits between a single family residence and an affordable housing development known as Derby Brook. The area is laden with various wetlands and is home to an active perennial stream. Also nearby are private potable wells (indicated by blue dots). South Hingham does not have access to town sewer, so businesses and residences rely upon septic systems which require adequate space for leeching fields. Septic systems cause a certain amount of nitrogen loading to take place which can be problematic for the surrounding area. ZBA relied upon information from another project in making its decision. "The hydrology study (that was conducted) for Derby Brook 20 years ago did not examine the issue of building homes on the 302/304 Whiting Street parcel," Shilts noted, "and how that could effect the abutting private well at 300 Whiting."

 

This project dates back to Town Meeting in 2014 when the town voted to acquire the property. The Affordable Housing Trust (HAHT) subsequently took ownership of it and immediately identified it as a location for affordable units under the 40B law and discussed Habitat for Humanity as a potential developer. Originally the plan was to renovate the existing single-family home; however, the Trustees along with the Building Commissioner determined that the structure required too much work. The Housing Trust then considered the possibility of constructing three houses on the lot but eventually settled on two. A complete list of notes from the Affordable Housing Trust meetings between 2014-2019 can be found here.

 

40B Law

In 2017, Selectman Mary Power applauded the ZBA's approval of the 220-unit Broadstone development on Beal Street which is situated across from Lincoln Plaza because of its impact on the Town's housing inventory. “This is very good news for the town and our ‘safe harbor’ status," she said. However, one year later, Power expressed some new concerns. “We want to continue to create more affordable housing," she explained. "A lot of units already designated as such aren’t affordable to many.” 

 

Because of Broadstone and the Avalon development at the Shipyard, Hingham has officially surpassed the requirement of the 40B law and will be in "safe harbor" status until 2030. Towns with this designation have more negotiating power with developers. Without it, developers are allowed to circumvent local zoning controls. Currently the Ward Street project known as River Stone is the only outstanding affordable housing project that was submitted prior to Hingham obtaining Safe Harbor status from the State.

 

Affordable Housing Trust (HAHT)

The Hingham Affordable Housing Trust (HAHT) was established by Town Meeting in 2007 for the purpose of creating and preserving affordable housing for low and moderate-income households. HAHT Chair Tim White pointed out that there is not enough affordable housing in Hingham. "The average cost of a single family home in Hingham is approximately $813,000," he said. "It goes without saying that this prices out many of our children and our seniors from home ownership."

 

The challenge for HAHT is to execute its charge affordably. "We cannot afford to purchase a market rate house for affordable housing purposes," said White, "so we look at creative ways to add affordable units." That includes working with Habitat for Humanity. "The Board of Selectmen unanimously supported Habitat’s application for two affordable housing units for the site," added White.

Anita Comerford spoke in favor of the project at a ZBA meeting as a member of the HAHT. "Our goal is to minimize the cost to the Town," she said. "If you’ve ever been to one of our HAHT meetings, you will have knowledge of all the frogs we’ve had to kiss in order to get this prince of a project to work on." She pointed out that the Habitat project allows the town to construct affordable housing in an affordable way.

Board of Health (BOH)

Since the application was a 40B, the Board of Health (BOH) was not consulted. However, when they learned of the proposal to construct two homes, the BOH submitted a letter to the ZBA expressing their concerns. Although HAHT Chair Tim White had said that "the thorough review by the experts has confirmed that this small, two-house project can be safely developed on the site," the BOH disagreed.

 

In their letter dated July 16th, the BOH outlined for the ZBA the reasons they believe that strict adherence to the town zoning bylaws is critical. "While the majority of citizens of the Town, including all members of the BOH feel strongly that there needs to be adequate affordable housing in Hingham," said the Board, "the BOH also has the duty to protect the current and future citizens of the Town from any ill effects of new construction on the environment and the health of townspeople." The letter went on to identify multiple issues with the project, including "the health and safety of the neighbors and local community, excessive nitrogen loads, close proximity to neighboring wells, and no evidence of an adequate water supply."

Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA)

The project was brought before the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for review and final approval where the BOH pushed back on the plan. "You’re putting a lot of nitrogen into the ground, and we’re concerned about that," said BOH member Lizzie Eldredge. "Are you putting that neighbor at risk? With a nitrogen load of one and a half times the upper limit, can you guarantee with no hydrology study that there is no flow of nitrogen to that local drinking well?" 

 

Maguire asked the Town's peer reviewer, Pat Brennan of Amory Engineers, to respond. "It’s my belief that the ground water flows away from that adjacent well at 300 Whiting Street toward the perennial stream downgradient to the west,” he said. Maguire said that based upon Brennan's comments there was no local concern in the context of the 40B application and moved on. A vote was taken at the next ZBA meeting, and the project was conditionally approved.

 

Neighbors

Throughout the process, neighbors voiced their concerns to the HAHT and the ZBA. They even signed and submitted a petition. During a ZBA meeting in June, Derby Brook resident Janet Bardong mentioned that they had repeatedly heard that Hingham is a very wealthy town and questioned why the Town was not more supportive of the HAHT's efforts. "The town I moved from had a land tax. Everybody in town (would fund) this need within the community," she explained. "By continuing to put in waivers to achieve affordable housing because it’s not funded properly just makes no sense to us. That’s probably the thing that bothers me the most about putting two homes in an area that really should only sustain one just because we’re not funding this effort properly."

 

South Shore Habitat for Humanity

Now that the comprehensive permit has been approved, Habitat for Humanity plans to raze the existing home and construct two 3-bedroom homes. The units will be offered to first-time home-buyers, and preference will be given to Hingham residents, teachers, town employees and others with low-to-moderate incomes and must remain affordable for all future owners. In response to concerns from neighbors, they modified the landscaping plan by changing the fencing at the entrance of the property on the Derby Brook side to a natural screening comprised of evergreens. Neither Executive Director Martine Taylor nor Director of Operations Dick McGowan has responded to multiple requests for comment.

Kristen Arute can be reached at kristen@hinghamcurrent.com.