Credit: Town of Needham

After months of fruitless discussions with the state to advance its Foster property project on Charles River Street, the Select Board has decided to abandon its initial plan and make it a fully local initiative.

At its Tuesday meeting, the board announced it would seek to rezone the 58-acre parcel to allow a project that still greatly resembles the initial concept of a 70-unit clustered townhome development with at least 5% affordable units and preservation of roughly half the parcel as town-owned open space.

The board plans to put a warrant item before Annual Town Meeting in October with the working title of “Foster Property Open Space Zoning Non-Binding Resolution.” It is intended to obtain Town Meeting’s support for the concept before going forward with the considerable effort of obtaining the required zoning changes.

If Town Meeting gives the project its blessing, the Select Board would work to change the zoning at the property to allow for a multi-unit development, which is not allowed under current zoning. 

The basic components remain the same. The town plans to coordinate with Northland Residential of Concord to develop the Castle Farm property off Charles River Street as a combined open space and clustered townhouse development.

Under the initial strategy, the project would have been exempt from many local protocols and followed a streamlined process enabled by state law. By providing an affordable housing component, the program would have become eligible for the faster timeline.

However, the thorny question of how many affordable units would suffice to satisfy the state slowed the process to a crawl and ultimately led the board to abandon its strategy.

The key sticking point proved to be the project’s 5% affordable unit allotment. As a practice, the state prefers an affordable component of 25%. Early on in the discussions, the state communicated to the town that the 5% allotment would be sufficient. 

Somewhere along the line, that 5% offer was no longer seen as adequate. The developer, Northland Residential, maintained that any affordable requirement above 5% was a deal-breaker.

“I think the state has done their best,” said Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley. “The 25% is not in law, it is the practice. They concluded they wanted to keep it even though that was not the information that was provided on more than one occasion in writing.”

The patience of the sellers, members of the Foster family, remains a key element. The parcel has been appraised in the $25 million range — a potential significant liquidity event that is likely tempting.

“We understand that the family has concluded that this option of clustered zoning provides some economic benefit to them,” said Cooley. “And the conservation of more than 50% of the property, which they view as important to their father’s legacy, is a really good combination from their perspective.”

Family patriarch Henry Foster was a former president of the Nature Conservancy, as well as the first Secretary of the Mass. Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, among many environmental credentials.

There remains the question of how intensely the project would be opposed, especially by abutters. There was significant opposition to the initial effort, with nearby residents hiring a law firm to bolster their opposition.

In addition, there were criticisms based on a negotiation process that has taken place largely out of public view. Much of the Select Board’s discussion on this project has occurred in executive sessions, under a provision that allows discussion on negotiation of land acquisitions to be conducted in private.

Cooley remains committed despite the many dark cloud moments. She and other supporters point to the value proposition of obtaining 34 acres of pristine open space in Needham for $2.5 million.

“The town stands to be the beneficiary of 34 acres of open space,” she said. “That’s the silver lining.”

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