Oct 15

From the Town Administrator's Desk - October 15, 2021

Posted on October 15, 2021 at 8:55 AM by Tiffany Marletta

Affordable Housing and “Safe Harbor”
By Gregory T. Federspiel

With a 40B comprehensive permit application now before the Zoning Board of Appeals, the question has arisen whether the Town can claim a “safe harbor” from such an application and not allow the application to proceed.  To answer this, one must dive into the details of state law regarding 40B projects and the rules governing the administration of a town’s Subsidized Housing Inventory or SHI.  

Before getting too far into the details, it is worth reviewing what qualifies as affordable housing and what is the current inventory in Manchester.  Under 40B, the State has set a target of at least 10% of a community’s housing be “affordable.”  The State’s SHI is the official listing of dwelling units that qualify.  To be counted as affordable, a unit must be permanently deed restricted to remain affordable and the occupants chosen through a fair housing marketing process.   To be affordable, a family earning up to 80% of the area’s median annual income, adjusted for family size, should not be spending more than 30% of their income on housing costs. Put another way a family of three earning $88,000 with monthly utility costs of $200/month should pay no more than $2000 a month on rent or a mortgage.  Someone at 50% of area median income should pay no more than $1240 a month.  

Currently we have 115 units on the State’s SHI or 5% of our year-round housing stock.  Most of these units are owned and operated by the Manchester Housing Authority (84 units).  Another 26 units are located at 10-12 Summer Street and the last five units were added as part of the Town’s inclusionary zoning provisions (new developments that were required to provide them.)  

The recent purchase of the Powder House Lane complex with its 29 units by the North Shore CDC with substantial citizen support is not part of our official SHI.  State regulations require that a tenant or owner of a unit must have gone through a fair housing marketing process (essentially a lottery system) to qualify to be on the SHI.  The Town has asked the State to consider units and the occupants who otherwise qualify except for not having gone through a lottery system, but with such a system in place for any future vacancy, also be allowed to be listed on our SHI.   This would allow qualified tenants to remain in place while still incentivizing towns to convert existing housing to be permanently affordable.  

The SHI is a key factor in determining whether a Town can claim a “safe harbor” and deny, without the option of an appeal, a poorly located 40B project.  There are three options for achieving safe harbor.

One is having 10% or more of a community’s housing stock listed on the SHI.  We are at 5%.

Another way is to have 1.5% of our buildable land mass dedicated to affordable housing.  For Manchester this would mean some 68 acres of land – we are currently at about 10 acres.

The third way is to show annual progress on the community’s housing production goals.  This is most directly measured by how many units are added to the SHI annually toward the goal of achieving the 10% threshold.   Manchester needs another 113 units.   Adequate annual progress is normally set at 10% of this needed new amount.  Thus, we need to be adding 11 units a year.  Sometimes it is possible to show adequate progress even though a community has not met the calculated figure.  However, such an approach is harder to get approved.  This may be another avenue the Town pursues.      

Without safe harbor, the ZBA will proceed to hold hearings on the project proposed for Shingle Hill.  The first hearing is scheduled for October 26.  At the conclusion of the hearing process, the ZBA will either issue a permit with various conditions or it will vote to deny the project.  The applicant will have the option of appealing the decision to the Housing Appeals Committee.  

Oct 08

From the Town Administrator's Desk - October 7, 2021

Posted on October 8, 2021 at 9:40 AM by Tiffany Marletta

40B Project Enters Permitting Phase
By Gregory T. Federspiel

On September 27, 2021 Strategic Land Ventures (SLV) filed their application with the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for a comprehensive permit for a proposed 136 unit apartment complex on Upper School Street on property across from Atwater Avenue known as Shingle Hill. The ZBA has scheduled their first public hearing on the project for October 26, within the required 30 days of receiving the application.   The hearing will be held virtually over Zoom.  The link can be found on the agenda posting for the meeting in the calendar section of the Town’s web site.  

As a 40B project, the applicant is proposing to deed restrict 34 units (25%) as permanently affordable per state guidelines and seeks waivers from our local zoning and wetland regulations to construct the project. The Board of Selectmen, after months of negotiations with the applicant in an unsuccessful attempt to agree on a so called “friendly” 40B project, submitted a list of significant concerns they have along with concerns expressed by other groups about the proposed project to MassHousing.  Despite our request to the contrary, MassHousing issued a project eligibility letter to the applicant, allowing the project to move forward with an application to the ZBA.  MassHousing, in their project eligibility letter, requested that the applicant address the concerns raised as they present the project to the ZBA.  In essence, MassHousing punted the project to the ZBA leaving it up to the comprehensive permitting process to work through the concerns.

The ZBA has six months to complete its review of the project unless the applicant agrees to an extension.   During the six-month period, numerous public hearings will be held by the ZBA.  The Town has applied for technical assistance from MassHousing Partnership to provide guidance to the ZBA as they go through the permitting process.   A specialist well versed in the 40B comprehensive permitting details will be assigned to the ZBA. Town Counsel will also help the ZBA navigate this new to them permitting process.

The process will include hiring, at the applicant’s expense, various professionals who will review the applicant’s submittals regarding concerns such as traffic and public safety access, environmental impacts, including stormwater runoff management and the adequacy of on-site wastewater disposal, and financial feasibility. The peer reviewers will assist the ZBA in the more technical aspects of the proposal.  

During the ZBA hearings, testimony will be provided by the applicant, by the peer reviewers, by Town Department heads and Town Boards and Committees as well as abutters and possibly other concerned residents and groups. The hearings are formal, quasi-judicial proceedings and will unfold in a methodical manner.  

At the conclusion of the hearings, the ZBA must issue a decision within 40 days.  Three basic options exist: approving the project as presented, approving the project with various conditions/modifications, or denying the project.  The ZBA’s decision is appealable by the applicant to the State’s Housing Appeals Committee.  Other aggrieved parties may appeal to the Land Court or Superior Court.  (A guide to the 40B process is on the Town’s 40B page.)

The proposed 40B represents an unusually large project for Manchester.  Additionally, the proposed site contains numerous public safety and environmental challenges.  As we saw during the process of trying to negotiate a project that the Selectmen could support, the issues involved are complex and invoke strong reactions from residents.  As we enter this next phase, no doubt these same issues and the strong opinions surrounding them will come back to the fore.    

Sep 24

From the Town Administrator's Desk - September 24, 2021

Posted on September 24, 2021 at 8:22 AM by Tiffany Marletta

Two Big Issues Remain Front and Center
By Gregory T. Federspiel

As a community we have been dealing with large issues that have generated a lot of interest and concern.   Lots of opinions abound and the debates have turned contentious at times.  Sharing different viewpoints and perspectives is healthy and ultimately can lead to better decisions if we all remember to keep the debate civil and avoid personal attacks.  I am a firm believer in local decision making, despite how challenging it can become.   I also hold firm to the notion that people can have honest disagreements on the best course of action without being disagreeable/accusatory toward each other.  

Our continuing debate regarding the best way to provide public service dispatch is a good example of how differing perspectives leads to different conclusions.  This a not a battle between what is THE right approach.   Rather, the choices one favors depends on which outcomes you value the most.

A fundamental question at the heart of the dispatch debate is whether two dispatchers should be always available to have the capability of dedicating one dispatcher to a large incident from the very beginning of that incident.  It is not surprising that our Fire Fighters/EMT’s place a high priority on this capability.  While thankfully it does not happen very often, if a firefighter is rushing into a burning building, they want to know that the dispatcher is not having to juggle other calls, that their full attention is being given to the incident at hand.  Police Officers typically do not face this same level of need and thus are generally more comfortable with having one dispatcher on with an ability to bring in a second dispatcher a little later into a large incident.  

The dispatch discussion will continue at the Selectmen’s meeting on October 4th where additional details regarding the financial and operational impacts of the two basic choices – staying in-house or moving to the regional center -- will be reviewed.  If the conclusion is that we should have two dispatchers on for large incidents we still need to decide if we want to provide this level of service by: 1) bringing in a second dispatcher after the incident is underway, 2) place two dispatchers on duty all the time in-house, or 3) go with the dispatch service the regional center can provide.  If Selectmen decide to pursue the regional option, the next step is to formally request a feasibility study by the State.  The results of the study would form the basis of a contract proposal from the State which becomes another decision point.  

A second big issue that has taken up considerable time and attention and will continue to do so is the proposed 40B project at Shingle Hill by Strategic Land Ventures, SLV.   After spending months seeing if the developer and the Town could come to terms on an acceptable project, the negotiations ended without agreement.  SLV submitted their application to the State to proceed as a conventional 40B project.   Just the other day MassHousing issued a letter of eligibility for the project, allowing the applicant to proceed with applying for a comprehensive permit before our Zoning Board of Adjustment, the ZBA.

The letter from MassHousing acknowledged the many concerns that the Town and others have about the project and encouraged the developer to address these concerns during the comprehensive permit process.  In essence, MassHousing declined to get into the substance of the concerns punting to the ZBA for its review and, assuming an appeal of the ZBA decision is made by one party or another, to the State’s Housing Appeals Commission, HAC.   

Assuming that the application is made to the ZBA, the Board will begin a series of public hearings on the details of the project, what waivers are being sought from our regulations in affect at the time of application and assessing the appropriateness of the proposal.  This likely will be a lengthy process involving many hours of hearings with presentations by various experts hired by the proponent as well as opponents of the project.

At the end of its process, the ZBA will issue a decision either denying the project or approving it with various conditions.  In either case there is the strong likelihood the decision will be appealed to the State’s HAC and beyond.  It could take years for this process to unfold.

There is no lack of issues that the Town must tackle.  There will always be differing opinions on how best to address these issues but regardless of these differences we can treat each other respectfully and trust that in the end we all have the best interest of the Town in mind.