Manchester Developer walks away from 'friendly 40B' arrangement

Michael Cronin, Gloucester Daily Times, Mass.
·5 min read

Apr. 8—MANCHESTER — The "friendly 40B" affordable housing project helmed by Strategic Land Ventures is no longer "friendly."

At a meeting Tuesday evening with selectmen, Strategic Land Venture co-founder Geoffrey Engler walked away from negotiating a local initiative program (LIP) agreement with the town for the project planned off School Street. An LIP includes guidelines for the project put forth and negotiated by the town and developer.

On Wednesday morning, Town Administrator Greg Federspiel posted a letter regarding the evening's fall-out.

"If the developer wishes to pursue the project, he will need to seek a project eligibility letter through the state rather than as a LIP," the letter reads. "This conventional approach requires a separate set of procedures, including a new filing with the state and a public comment period before issuing a project eligibility letter. Once this letter is issued the applicant applies for a Comprehensive Permit before the Zoning Board of Appeals."

For most Chapter 40B projects, developers have the option to overstep the town's bylaws altogether and defer all permitting to the state in exchange for creating affordable housing.

However, Strategic Land Ventures' 157-unit proposal would be considered a "large project" and inconsistent with town needs under the state 40B bylaw, meaning the number of units is more than 6% of the town's full housing stock. According to the 2010 census, the town has 2,280 housing units; 136.8 units would constitute 6% of Manchester's total housing stock.

Under Strategic Land Ventures's development plan, which it has stuck to since it was first proposed to selectmen in October, 39 units, or around a fourth of the total, would be deed-restricted affordable housing, adding to the town's affordable housing stock. Manchester only has 115 affordable housing units, around 5% of its total housing stock, and needs 130 more affordable housing units to reach the state's 10% watermark for blocking so-called 40B development.

"The developer was asked in the first negotiation session if he applied for a high unit count with the expectation of reducing the number," wrote Federspiel. "He stated no, he was committed to the 157 units knowing that this constituted a large project. The selectmen started down the path of negotiations with this same understanding."

Because Strategic Land Ventures' plan is considered a "large project," the town's Zoning Board of Appeals can claim "safe harbor" under the state's 40B law, which would allow it to have final approvals. The state's Housing Appeals Committee would have no power overturn it.

At Tuesday's meeting, Engler said he not want to put his project's future in the hands of the Manchester Zoning Board of Appeals.

For months, members of the public, including the community-led Citizens Initiative for Manchester Affordable Housing, have pressured town officials to not support the project. Many are concerned about the project's possible negative impacts on the the local environment. The site borders Cathedral Pines, an environmental preserve, and Sawmill Brook, from which the town sources 40%of its drinking water. Others worry about the safety of the development, as designs included only one entrance and exit to the buildings' access road off School Street. Also, the section of School Street outside the site is too steep to install sidewalks that meet with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

Engler asked selectmen to include a measure in the LIP that states the Zoning Board of Appeals will not be allowed to claim safe harbor over the project. He said he could no longer move forward with a "friendly 40B" arrangement without the measure.

Selectmen declined to include the measure. Town Counsel Jon Witten of KP Law said it would constitute the selectmen stripping "a local board of appeals of its authority."

"The Board of Selectmen can do no better than to enter into a memorandum of agreement with you and show up at the ZBA meetings and say we support the project as conditioned," Witten said, "but thats as far as it can go legally."

After 40 minutes of discussion, Engler logged out of the Zoom meeting.

"You're making me powerless," he said before signing off. "I need some sort of recourse if the Zoning Board asserts ... safe harbor under the large project cap. ... But the Board of Selectmen should realize you're going to be in the same place whether you reach this LIP agreement with me or not because I'll just file a 136 project with Mass Housing. So I don't understand with what the difference is."

Engler tells the Times that his firm is working on submitting a 136-unit proposal to the state. It would not include any of the town's requests negotiated with Strategic Land Ventures for the LIP agreement — new sidewalks on Summer Street, a snow plow management plan that avoids the nearby wetlands, and a guaranteed $250,000 donation to the town's Affordable Housing Fund.

"It's a few weeks off" from being ready to submit, Engler said. As to why he walked away from the LIP negotiations, he said "there was too much risk. The ZBA under this scenario would have far too much discretion and essentially be able to ignore all the recommendations of the Board of Selectmen without any recourse. But we still fully intend to do a beautiful, much-needed rental development in town. We look forward to continuing our communication with the town."

Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or mcronin@gloucestertimes.com.