When members of a Norwell town meeting voted almost 20 years ago to make a 6.3-acre piece of land available for affordable housing, they might have considered being a bit more specific. Because of some uncertainty surrounding the designation, the affluent suburban town is now in the middle of a classic land use showdown while the state buckles under a significant housing shortage.
The parcels in question – together known as the Wildcat Land – are city-owned property near the Wildcat Lane residential subdivision, surrounded by conservation land and walking trails. In 2004, a Town Meeting vote “authorized the Board of Selectmen to make available” the land “for affordable housing.”
Nearby homeowners who objected to a proposed affordable housing project at the site in 2021, and instead want to see the property set aside for conservation, are now asking the state’s highest court to decide if the original town meeting vote was an affordable housing restriction or just a suggestion.
According to the town, the Wildcat Land was under the board’s control “to use for affordable housing purposes” from the 2004 vote on. Admittedly, not much happened on the site after that.
“There is no indication anyone there thought they were imposing a restriction on the land,” said Brian Carroll, a corporate attorney and resident of the Wildcat Lane subdivision who has led the charge against the project, in a presentation to the Supreme Judicial Court on Monday. He described the authorization as “permissive, with no language of restriction,” meaning the town could use it for affordable housing but is not required to use it for that.
Though the town established a community housing trust a few years later, the Wildcat Land was never placed into it. An offer to construct affordable homes at the site a bit after that was rejected. But the town did, according to court filings, conduct a study of the land that found it would be acceptable for multi-unit affordable housing. It later identified the parcel as a “housing development” in its 2019 housing trust plan.
But when a plan to construct a 24-unit complex including some affordable units came onto the scene, nearby homeowners objected forcefully. They introduced a citizen’s petition which passed that May to allow the board of selectmen to move the land into conservation status instead, but a split board did not act on the petition, with board members and the town’s attorney saying they would first have to vote that it was no longer suitable for affordable housing.
Carroll ultimately sued on behalf of several homeowners to enforce the transfer. According to the town’s legal filings, Carroll also tried to complete the transfer of the land “without lawful authority or the Board’s permission.”
After the lower court ruled in favor of the town, Carroll argued before the Supreme Judicial Court that there is still an issue to be decided by the court – whether the town meeting vote in 2004 was just an advisory statement that the land could be used for affordable housing.
Justices appeared skeptical of his argument that there must be some form of legal easement or restriction beyond the authorization, pressing repeatedly for specifics on what that would look like.
“The town has always said this is for affordable housing,” said Justice Serge Georges at oral argument. “So although there wasn’t anything explicit in terms of deed restrictions or easements or anything you can point to and say ‘look,’ well, I can understand they might have been accused of sitting on their hands and not actually executing on it, but they haven’t done anything inconsistent with it.”
Conservation designations can often be a tool to prevent land from being used as affordable housing, even when pools of money are made available to do so.
While the court ponders the issue, the Wildcat Land sits quietly in a town that has lagged in creating affordable housing. Norwell has less than half of the state-set target of 10 percent affordable housing stock.
Shelter increase sought: Gov. Maura Healey asked the Legislature to approve $250 million more for the state’s emergency shelter program, a 77 percent increase in the budget for this year to deal with explosive growth.
– The original budget for the program, which guarantees shelter to families with children and pregnant women, estimated 4,700 families would need help this fiscal year. The new funding is to accommodate the more than 6,300 families already participating just three months into the fiscal year. More money will probably be needed in coming months due to an influx of migrants from other countries that shows no sign of abating and fewer people transitioning out of the program because of a shortage of housing. Read more.
Zoning overhaul: Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is following through on her pledge to overhaul the city’s 4,000-page zoning code, which she described as “long, dense, and internally inconsistent in ways that make planning confusing and unpredictable.” She also hinted at tax breaks to incentivize housing development. Read more.
Progressivism still strong: Boston Mayor Michelle Wu says the defeat of City Councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Kendra Lara in Tuesday’s preliminary election wasn’t a setback for progressive politics in the city. Read more.
Put the brakes on: Vick Mohanka of the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club says utility efforts to continue building natural gas infrastructure must be blocked. Read more.
FROM AROUND THE WEB
Lawmakers are weighing bills that could restore the right to vote for incarcerated people in Massachusetts. (MassLive)
Former Worcester city manager Edward Augustus, now the state’s housing secretary, disregarded an investigation that found Worcester police chief Steven Sargent was untruthful about an incident involving drinking and then verbally berating a citizen. (Worcester Telegram)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the main force behind creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has her sights set on birthing another federal watchdog agency, this one to rein in and regulate Big Tech. (Vox)
Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, who has been sharply critical of both President Biden and former president Donald Trump, said he won’t seek a second term next year, a move that will mark the end of a political career that included a term as Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007. (Washington Post)
New Hampshire’s top election official said he will not attempt to bar Donald Trump from the presidential primary using an amendment to the Constitution barring insurrectionists from running for office. (Associated Press)
The third place finisher in the preliminary election for mayor in Haverhill says he will seek a recount after missing the cut to make it into the final election by 10 votes. (Eagle-Tribune)
Boston school superintendent Mary Skipper got a rating of “effective,” the secondest highest level, from the city’s school committee after her first year on the job – along with a 2.5 percent raise on her $300,000 a year salary. (Boston Globe)
Parents should not be seeing charges associated with a first meal under the free school lunch program, state education officials clarified after some parents noticed unusual fees. (MassLive)
A new PBS documentary explores the trauma and the legacy of the busing era in Boston. (Dorchester Reporter)
The MBTA experienced three serious safety incidents over the last five weeks in which trains came dangerously close to workers on tracks, the latest episodes in the agency’s ongoing safety problems. (Boston Globe)
Brockton has re-tooled its stormwater bill system, which will exempt owner-occupants of single- and three-family homes, churches, and cemeteries. (The Enterprise)