In October 2022 Town Meeting voted in favor of spending $2.5 million to purchase 34 acres of a 62 acre property off Charles River Street as permanent open space. The Select Board was slated to purchase those 34 acres from a developer under the terms of an agreement. This would have allowed the developer to pursue zoning relief to build a 70-unit cluster of townhouses on approximately 14 of the remaining 28 acres.
Today, the parcel remains unsold, the project stalled, and Town Meeting is once again being asked to vote on what might happen next.
When Special Town Meeting convenes this evening, it will vote on the following non-binding resolution:
The Select Board is asking for the opinion of Town Meeting to determine whether to work with the Planning Board to propose a zoning amendment at a future Town Meeting that would allow for the implementation of the proposed development at Castle Farm (Foster Property) on Charles River Street.
Because the resolution is non-binding, it authorizes or prevents nothing. However, the Select Board resolution goes on to say:
A no vote means that the Select Board will not continue to pursue a zoning option to allow for the use described above, and development options will remain limited to the underlying single family zoning permitting the construction of approximately 25 single family homes.
In other words, it is cautioning Town Meeting that the alternative to endorsing its concept is leaving the door open to development that could nearly clear-cut the parcel for the construction of approximately two-dozen McMansions.
The Select Board said it is merely extending Town Meeting the courtesy to reaffirm that it remains committed to its favorable 5-to-1 vote of a year ago, recognizing the zoning could take until May of 2024 to complete and require considerable commitment from many town boards and departments.
The Finance Committee (FinCom) is unanimously opposed and has characterized the resolution as an unprecedented break with tradition and a circumvention of standard town protocols. A group of residents opposes the resolution as an attempt to coerce the Planning Board down the road to approve the plan, because denying it would be seen as ignoring the wishes of Town Meeting.
The Select Board has responded that the concept Town Meeting approved one year ago is virtually identical to the concept it hopes will be brought before the Planning Board. It has stressed that the project will follow the same path as any other project that requires Planning Board approval.
FinCom counters that it also contains the same flaws — the property has yet to be sold, the development agreement remains unsigned, and the Select Board’s relationship with the developer is too close.
The Foster property is a 62-acre parcel off of Charles River Street also known as Castle Farm. It is one of the last significant large tracts of land on Needham’s southwestern edge that remains mostly undeveloped.
Owned by the Foster family since 1901, the land has been on the market for almost three years. It was first offered for sale in early 2021, quietly, to the Trustees of Reservations, a land preservation trust that owns the nearby 20-acre Charles River Peninsula property.
The Trustees declined. But, knowing that the Needham Conservation Commission (ConCom) had long regarded the parcel as its top acquisition goal, they alerted ConCom that the land was available and the sellers had an interest in preserving it as open space for the right price. That price was north of $20 million.
SELECT BOARD ATTEMPTS A DEAL
ConCom notified the Select Board of the opportunity, which began the Select Board’s quest to add all or some of the parcel to the town’s open space holdings.
The board thought the asking price for a straight purchase was too burdensome for a town looking at hundreds of millions of dollars in future school construction and other capital needs. So, it sought alternative means of achieving its goal of preserving pristine open space, limiting the extent of development on the site, doing so at the lowest possible price and providing enhanced public access to the Charles River.
The board’s effort was conducted outside of public view, with multiple discussions held in executive session. It invoked exceptions to the state open meeting law that allows discussions related to potential land acquisitions to be held in private so as not to disadvantage the town’s negotiating position.
THE DEAL IS ANNOUNCED
In September 2022 the Select Board went public with its plans to bring the concept to Special Town Meeting. It announced it was negotiating a development agreement with Northland Residential, a Concord developer. If successful, the agreement would leave 75% of the parcel undeveloped, with more than half of it under town ownership and would provide public access to the Charles River.
In return, Northland Residential would be allowed to build the clustered development,with 5% of the units designated as affordable, and would contain a 14-acre wooded buffer to lessen the impact on abutters. Northland would sell the remaining 34 acres to the town for $2.5 million
OPPOSITION FROM FINANCE COMMITTEE, NEIGHBORS
The Finance Committee (FinCom) unanimously opposed the plan, citing numerous objections based both on the substance of the deal and the process that was followed.
They said the project was not sufficiently evolved to justify a $2.5 million debt authorization. The land had yet to be sold. There was no signed development agreement. The affordable housing component was unlikely to receive the required state authorization. The financial implications had not been sufficiently vetted.
Residents near Charles River Street concerned about the impact on their homes joined the opposition. They showed up in force last year to state their objections at Town Meeting, especially about not having been informed about the project until it was effectively fully baked.
TOWN MEETING APPROVES
After two hours of discussion last October, in which all those cautions were debated, Town Meeting voted overwhelmingly to approve a $2.5 debt authorization and gave authority for the Town Manager to execute the development agreement.
The initial concept was to have the project proceed through a state program that was created to promote the construction of affordable housing. It would have streamlined the permit process and overridden local zoning requirements for density and other factors that would otherwise prohibit multi-unit housing.
Typically, the state requires projects to have 25% of the units designated as affordable in order to be eligible for the streamlined process. The Foster project had only a 5% allocation, which the state initially said would not be a dealbreaker provided the project was otherwise acceptable.
In April, however, the state informed the town and the developer that it had changed its position and would not deviate from its 25% requirement. After several weeks of unsuccessful push back, the Select Board is now effectively back to its original plan and placing the fate of the project in the hands of Town Meeting.