Published in the January 5, 2017 edition
By: BILL LaFORME
NORTH READING – Selectmen have voted to join the town’s community planning commission and economic development in recommending a proposal that could bring 450 new 55 and up housing units to the former Berry property on Lowell Road.
At their last meeting, selectman Michael Prisco reported to fellow board members that four companies had responded with five proposals to the town’s request for proposals on the Berry property, the 34+ acre site of a former state facility. Pulte Homes responded with the previously mentioned proposal for 450 age restricted homes (Scenario One), as well as a separate proposal for 450 Smart Growth homes under the state’s 40R program, with about 20% affordable housing. The age restricted housing proposal came with an offer of $30 million, and the Smart Growth proposal came with an $18.2 million offer. Depending on when the transaction is completed, the town would share a considerable portion of the revenue with the state.
The town also received a proposal from Symes Associates for 140 market rate housing units with a $5 million offer, a $14.4 million offer from Garden Homes for a 480 home project at market rates, and a $2.5 million offer from Fore Kicks to construct an indoor/outdoor sports complex at the site.
A memorandum to selectmen from the economic development committee projected that Pulte’s Scenario One proposal, along with the $30 million offer, would bring in about $3.3 million in annual property tax revenues. The other Poulte proposal for 450 40R residential units, would potentially bring in $2.8 million in annual revenues. This compares to $2.5 million in tax revenues from the Garden Homes proposal, $1.25 million annual from the Symes proposal, and $300,000 annually from the Fore Kicks proposal.
The economic development committee examined each proposal on team qualifications and experience, financial capability, development program concept and feasibility, and price, using the criteria to deem each project “advantageous” or “unacceptable.” Only Pulte’s Scenario One proposal received a unanimous “advantageous” vote from EDC members. The Fore Kicks proposal received a single endorsement from William Bellavance, the community planning commission’s representative on the economic development committee. Bellevance further elaborated on his support for the Fore Kicks proposal, citing its proposal to bring 60 to 90 new jobs to North Reading, as well as potentially thousands of people coming to the facility each month, also visiting the town’s businesses in the process. He acknowledged that Pulte had offered a lot of money, but predicted it could disappear “very quickly” when factoring in the cost of services and other things. Unlike the proposal from Pulte Homes, Bellevance added that the Fore Kicks proposal would not require a Town Meeting-approve zoning change, and that if approved, it could potentially be up and running by the end of this year. The Pulte Homes project would become a reality in closer to six years, although the size of its initial offer would presumably make that of little concern to the town. Sean Delaney of the Economic Development Committee added that the influx of new residents into the Pulte Homes project would also likely benefit the businesses in town. “I don’t see how you would ever make up the difference in tax revenue,” said Delaney of the two projects. Prisco added that the revenue generated by the Pulte Homes project could give the town more flexibility with potentially investing in the Concord Street area, with an eye on bringing more people to the Route 28 businesses in the process.
Resident Jane Hayden questioned whether many residents want more housing in town, and said she was “a little disappointed” that the Pulte proposal seemed to be a “fait accompli.” She expressed support for the Fore Kicks proposal, citing the need for an out of the box idea that could existing town businesses while also potentially spurring demand for a hotel. “This just seems so advantageous,” she said.
One potential issue raised by Chairman Robert Mauceri was the potential increase in public service costs that 1,000 potential new residents aged 55 and up could bring, with an eye on ambulance and fire department service, among other needs. Mauceri also questioned whether the town’s current elder services could sustain such an influx at their current levels. Selectman Michael Prisco cited the town’s investment in Advanced Life Support services, and suggested that an influx of older residents could actually increase revenues. He added that some portion of the expected annual tax revenues would have to be used for public safety needs.
Resident Marci Bailey raised the issue of affordable housing early in the meeting, suggesting that 10 or 20 units could be set aside. Stephen O’Leary was open to the idea of seeking to revise the Pulte proposal with an age-restricted affordable housing component. Since the proposals were coming in via the RFP process however, selectmen did not choose to seek any revisions from Pulte. “You’re asking for a completely different proposal,” remarked Prisco, while Delaney warned that revising the proposal bring issues with state approval of the deal. There was also a sense among selectmen that the revenue generated would allow the town to create its own affordable housing elsewhere.
Despite the potentially lucrative proposal from Pulte, selectmen were generally underwhelmed by the responses they had received. O’Leary suggested the Four Kicks should have been “a little more generous” with its proposal, adding that he had expected a figure three times higher than what came in, as opposed to “$2.5 million for 37 flat acres a mile off (Route) 93.” He added that it makes sense to bring more visitors into town but also warned it could take as long as a generation for demand for commercial land – the sort the town had previously hoped for – to pick up again.
Selectmen also considered whether or not to wait until their next meeting to issue a recommendation, with Prisco warning that a delay carried the risk that Pulte could withdraw its offer.
Following a 3-2 vote by planning commission members to recommend the Pulte Homes project, selectmen voted 5-0 to do the same. O’Leary said he would vote in favor, but made clear that he still supports exploring an affordable age-restricted component to the project.
Voters will likely take up the zoning matter for the proposal at a special town meeting that would likely be held in early to mid-March.