August 21, 2017

Boxborough residents fighting a rising tide

Grant Welker
The Boxborough Meadows 48-unit affordable housing development was the first to bypass town approval because of 40B regulation.

Boxborough claims a peace and quiet few communities inside the I-495 belt can, with no large retail or industrial areas and not even a single traffic light in the center of town.

Heather Fleming, organizer, Boxborough Town Center

Boxborough is along a stretch near Route 2, I-495, I-290 and the Massachusetts Turnpike making it commutable to Worcester, Fitchburg, Boston, Lowell or many of the technology clusters in the region, and has become a natural next-step for development as surrounding areas lose large buildable sites.

Despite that – or because of it – the community works strongly to keep its small-town character. No homes are allowed without a special permit in the town center, and homes must be built on lots of at least 1.5 acres.

After two affordable housing developments were loopholed into with little say-so from the residents and the town, Boxborough residents are fighting a proposed 100-unit senior housing development on a wooded 60-acre site off the main drag, Route 111, which likely will be loopholed like the others.

"Basically everyone we've talked to said they can't believe this is happening," said Heather Fleming, an organizer with the community group Boxborough Town Center.

Housing demand

The town of 5,000 has been under significant development pressure, Town Planner Adam Duchesneau said. Even if the new senior housing development isn't approved – which it likely will be – two other developments have increased the number of residential units in Boxborough by 15 percent.

The newest one completed, Paddock Estates, opened in July with amenities including a clubhouse, pool, basketball and bocce courts and a fire pit with 244 units in a cluster of large buildings, 61 of which are affordable housing.

JPI, a Texas developer building Paddock Estates, was attracted to building in Boxborough because of a strong employer base along I-495, a high-ranking school district and numerous dining and retail options within a 10- to 20-minute drive, said Tom Moran, JPI development manager for the Northeast.

The citizens group Boxborough Town Center has installed these signs throughout the community to oppose the new senior housing development.

"Most people who visit Boxborough will see how scenic and charming the town is would describe it as a place they'd love to live, but given the limited housing supply, it isn't not a reality for most," Moran said. "We felt we could offer a premier living experience at a price favorable to home ownership, which also coincides with the national shift to renting by choice."

The other development, Boxborough Meadows, has 48 units just off Route 111 built starting in 2002 by developers James Fenton and Michael Jeanson. Another 20 units were built in another 40B project called Summerfields near the Acton line starting in 2004.

Both projects circumvented local zoning because of the state's Chapter 40B regulation allowing developers to build more densely if units have affordability restrictions. Boxborough was subject to Chapter 40B because less than 10 percent of its housing stock was deemed affordable by the state.

The heart of town

After those projects went through, community opposition has organized against the Enclave at Boxborough senior housing development.

The Boxborough Town Center resident group set up red-and-white "Save Our Town Center" yard signs scattered along the town's main roads and has nearly 200 members on Facebook.

"People have gotten their backs up because of how this is being done," Fleming said.

Enclave would put 100 residents in 50 duplexes set back from Route 111. Only a clubhouse is visible by passers-by, but the project would include two other entrances meant for emergency access but open to public at all times.

Residents along nearby Burroughs Road, a narrow and winding street south of Enclave, are worried about the traffic. Priest Lane, a short cul-de-sac to be extended to provide an entrance to Enclave, would lose its serenity to vehicles driving through.

"From the start, it has been obvious that they are trying to force a square peg into a round hole," resident Robb Karess said of Enclave. "The scale and density of their proposed development is just inconsistent with the character of the surrounding neighborhoods."

Bob Childs, who's lived off Burroughs Road for 45 years, said the acres of bucolic woods behind his house is home to varied wildlife.

"It's literally in the heart of town," he said. "I was the lone voice in the woods for many, many months, and then people started recognizing and seeing what was happening. Now we have quite a following."

Toll Brothers in Pennsylvania, the developer with a purchase-and-sale agreement to build Enclave, does not comment on proposed developments.

Grandfathered in

If the Enclave project were to be submitted for permitting approval today, it wouldn't be, but because it was submitted five years ago, the town will have little say in the matter.

Preliminary plans for Enclave were filed just before a change to a 2012 state zoning bylaw, which at the time prevented towns from requiring a special permit for town center development. Toll Brothers has up to eight years to build the project because it was grandfathered under the old zoning.

The town may have little choice but to approve the project despite worries about what it'll do to the town's character. Duchesneau said he's likely to recommend the planning board approve the project, though with conditions to address the town's concerns about traffic, wetlands and water supply. The planning hearing is scheduled for Sept. 11.

Fleming's resident group plans to place ads in publications in town and will mobilize people to attend the meeting and make their concerns heard. Previous hearings have been packed with residents.

Moving forward, Boxborough residents can be assured future developments will have to face more than a rubberstamp from the town. Enough affordable housing has been built – now more than 10 percent of the housing stock – the town no longer has to allow 40B developments. Developers know the town offers few new opportunities.

"There are high barriers to entry in terms of development in the area," said Moran, the Paddock Estates builder, "so we didn't foresee many challenges in terms of competition from new properties."

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