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BELCHERTOWN — A 108-unit rental housing development at the site of the former Belchertown State School was approved with no conditions by the Belchertown Planning Board at a public hearing on Feb. 13.

The Belchertown State School was closed in 1992, 70 years after its establishment. Beginning in 2012, the Belchertown Economic Development Industrial Corporation — a nonprofit, quasi-governmental organization made up of town residents — has been working with the state’s development and financing entity, MassDevelopment, to redevelop the site.

The housing plan from Brisa Ventures LLC was one of five proposals for the property submitted to the EDIC and MassDevelopment. The housing would be comprised of three sets of townhomes and three apartment buildings and will sit on 12 acres of the nearly 30-acre site off State Street. Steven D’Ambrosio, a project manager and civil engineer with GZA, representing the developer, confirmed that 10% of the units will be classified as affordable housing, while the rest will be market rate. The town is required by state law to have 10% of its housing classified as affordable. In late 2023, the town’s housing stock was just 6% affordable.

The residential development is Phase 1a of the redevelopment of the site. Phase 1b would renovate the former administration building for use as a public area with a museum, meeting space and restaurant or brewery. The remaining property will be developed for other uses. Jonathan Spiegel of the EDIC said a hotel is being considered for a portion of the site, however, the development of each section of the site will require its own site plan approval by the Planning Board and public hearing.

A few people expressed displeasure about the rental nature of the housing. Resident Kenneth Pincince was worried the development would devalue other properties in town. Another person went on at length about their experience with real estate before asking if there will be “Section 8” units. Section 8 is a federal law providing rental assistance in the form of a housing voucher limiting rental costs to 30% of the tenants’ adjusted income for people with very-low income. The program covers the remaining rental cost, making the landlord whole.

Planning Board Chair Daniel Beaudette and D’Ambrosio both corrected him, stating that some units would be affordable housing, rather than falling under Section 8, but the resident began yelling that affordable is “a euphemism” for Section 8. He claimed that the entire development could be turned into Section 8 Housing because it would be easier to reach full occupancy.

Generally, affordable rental housing is open to those whose annual household income is less than 80% of the area median income. According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, that would qualify households making $79,492 per year or less.

The resident continued, saying the approval of the rental property should be left to a vote at Town Meeting. This received applause from some of the people in the room.

Beaudette told the resident and others throughout the night that their questions and comments were outside the scope of the Planning Board’s site plan review, which checks that the plans are in keeping with town bylaws and state requirements. He suggested directing their questions to Town Planner Doug Albertson.

Resident Ezekiel Baskins said he supported the project because the town needs more housing.

Parking

Both the board and residents had questions and concerns about the proposed parking for Carriage Grove, which is 30 spaces shy of the 216 that the town’s bylaws require for the number of units. Brisa applied for a waiver as part of the site plan. In exchange for the waiver, the developers agreed to review parking needs when the units were 25%, 50% and 75% full. Three areas for additional parking were included in the plans, should they be needed.

Paul Castrucci, the architect on the project, told the board Brisa did not want to pave out more spaces than necessary while also avoiding a parking shortage. A resident said the town-specified two parking spaces per unit should be maintained and said he did not believe more spaces would be paved after the initial construction was complete.

“How many times have we built parking lots in this town and then had seas of asphalt without cars?” Beaudette asked the fellow board members, rhetorically. He said the developer has methods to expand the parking, if needed.

Planning Board member Bjorn Markeson said he liked the build-as-needed approach to parking. While Planning Board member Mike Hoffer said he wanted to hear facts and figures to support the limited parking, the plan to add parking before reaching critical mass was enough for him to vote for the waiver.

Other concerns expressed by people at the meeting included water, sewer, and transportation.

Resident Robert Lewis asked if there was enough water capacity for the 108 units. Beaudette explained the water district had certified that there was adequate water supply and the sewage treatment capacity had been similarly verified. D’Ambrosio also said Tighe & Bond reviewed the plans for the site to tie into the town’s stormwater system and cited no concerns.

Someone in the audience asked if there would be public transportation accessible at the development. Pioneer Valley Transit Authority Director of Operations Paul Burns was at the meeting and said a route along State Street passes the site five times per day, with plans to increase that to 12. He said a stop at the development could be arranged, provided there is a demonstrated ridership need and an area for the bus to turn around is available.

At the end of the discussion, Beaudette said the fact that Carriage Grove is a housing development is the “fly in the ointment” for many in the community, but the area is zoned to allow residential property. The board voted unanimously to approve the project.

Select Board hears concerns

The Planning Board was not the only government body to hear concerns regarding the project and resident Donna Buxton voiced these concerns during the Select Board’s Feb. 5 meeting, urging for a short pause and a public meeting to discuss the project in greater detail.

Despite past public hearings hosted by Brisa, outlining the ambitious Carriage Grove Project, some residents in town felt left in the dark about crucial aspects of the development, particularly the introduction of a 108-unit multi-family complex and the repurposing of two existing buildings, according to Buxton.

Buxton and many residents advocated for a shift towards affordable senior housing, citing a lack of such accommodations locally and nationally. Buxton appeared before the Select Board in December 2023 on the same matter.

Concerns among residents include increased traffic, the potential strain on local resources like schools, Police and Fire departments, and water supply, and the broader impact on the town’s character and quality of life.

The lack of widespread awareness about the project’s details has also been a point of contention, with many needing to be made aware of the developments in their town.

The Belchertown EDIC has clarified that housing has always been a component of the redevelopment plans, contrary to some residents’ beliefs that the site was reserved for business and municipal uses only.

The project is envisioned to unfold in four phases, blending light industrial, business, and residential elements to cater to the town’s future needs while preserving its small-town ambiance.
To address communication gaps, the Select Board has proposed a system to provide residents with quarterly updates on the project. The updates ensure that community members are well-informed and engaged, with options to attend meetings in person or view them remotely.

Buxton’s advocacy for affordable senior housing within the development plans points to a broader issue of housing accessibility for older adults, a demographic facing limited options nationwide.

“There is a crisis in our country for affordable housing for seniors. We’re looking at affordable housing, and we need to get to 10%,” she said. “We’re thinking that maybe if we can do that by having senior housing and elderly housing, it would somewhat limit some of the issues we’re all concerned about.

The request to pause the development of the former Belchertown State School property underscores the community’s desire for more involvement in decisions that significantly impact their town.

During a recent meeting, Edward Boscher, chair of the Select Board, discussed two main issues related to the Carriage Grove project. He acknowledged the project’s alignment with existing zoning laws, though with reservations.

He explained that the project fits within the current zoning regulations. He further noted that even if the town meeting were to amend these laws, such changes would not affect the project due to its pre-established plans under existing regulations.

Boscher also highlighted the significance of tax benefits from the state level, which he identified as a critical factor in the project’s progression. He suggested that the slow pace of the project and its continuances could be attributed to efforts to align with state-level tax incentives.

“Those are the two key issues,” he stated, emphasizing the importance of zoning and state tax benefits in understanding the project’s development and associated challenges. He added that the project has dragged on because Brisa “has not lined up the tax credits yet.”

Board member Ronald Aponte said the town has applied for and received state economic incentives on past projects. He noted that the Select Board lacks legal recourse to stop the project. Though the Planning Board could act, the body must have “concrete reason” to act.

“One of the things personally I’ve been doing since all this has come up over the last couple of months. I’ve been practically begging the EDIC and MassDevelopment to have Brisa come for a public information session. I haven’t got there yet,” Aponte said.

The preparatory work undertaken for the project, including site surveys and environmental assessments, underscores the thoroughness required for such a large-scale redevelopment. With an estimated cost of $30 to $42 million for the first phase alone, the project represents a substantial investment in the town’s future.

The involvement of federal and state funding, alongside private equity, highlights the project’s significance and the opportunities it presents for economic and community development.

Reminder Publishing Correspondent Dennis Hohenberger contributed to this report.

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