NORTH ANDOVER — After more than a year of hearings and meetings, the Zoning Board of Appeals approved the plan to build 196 apartments on Berry Street by a 4-1 vote Tuesday night.
Because 25 percent of the homes will be set aside for tenants earning low and moderate incomes, the project is exempt from most local zoning regulations.
"I felt the board rushed the decision," said Jeffrey Moon, president of the Berry Street Neighborhood Association, which has opposed the project since it was announced in late 2012. He noted that Edith Netter, an adviser hired by the board, said the decision did not have to be made Tuesday night.
Asked if his group will challenge the decision in Superior Court, Moon said they will "continue to seek legal guidance." The Berry Street Neighborhood Association hired attorney Jon Witten, who has offices in Newton and Duxbury, several months ago.
Moon said they will review the final draft of the decision before launching a legal battle.
Attorney Ted Regnante, who represents the developer, North Andover Holdings LLC, noted the decision will not actually become official until it is submitted in writing to Town Clerk Joyce Bradshaw. The decision must also be reviewed by the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, he said.
Asked if he was ready to claim victory, Regnante said that before commenting, "We want to see the final decision." His client, he said, is eager to start construction "as soon as possible."
When the hearing process began at the end of January of last year, neighbors packed the meeting room on the second floor of Town Hall to express their opposition to the project. They maintained the apartments were not appropriate for their neighborhood of single-family homes.
They also pointed out that Berry Street is a narrow, winding road that will become more dangerous if hundreds of new residents move into the area. The developer has pledged to realign the intersection of Berry Street and Route 114 to make it safer.
The neighbors turned out in force at the subsequent hearings. None of the neighbors was present Tuesday night, however. Moon said he watched the session on television.
For a while, some residents thought the old farmhouse on the property at 16 Berry St. might stop or at least delay the project. The developer considered preserving the structure, but then decided to tear it down to make way for four apartment buildings.
The Historical Commission, which has the power to invoke the one-year demolition delay bylaw, asked to visit the farmhouse before it is demolished. The commission wanted to determine if the house has historical significance.
Commission members said the house was built in 1825 and serves as a landmark at the "gateway" to the town on Route 114, according to Ellen McIntyre, who has presided over the hearings on the project. The Zoning Board, however, granted the developer a waiver from the demolition delay bylaw.
Zoning Board member Paul Koch said the commission did not prove that the farmhouse has historical importance.
"All they have said is it's old," he said. His colleague Allan Cuscia noted that the Historical Commission several months ago expressed its concern about the old cemetery on the property which the developer has promised will remain untouched.
"Why didn't they bring it up then?" he asked. "It's just a house. They had their shot."
McIntyre, Koch, Richard Byers and Michael LiPorto voted in favor of the project, which is on the site of the former Berry Street Riding Academy. Cuscia was the sole dissenter.
Albert Manzi III, the chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, has recused himself from all of the hearings.
Chapter 40B, the state's anti-snob zoning law, exempts projects from zoning regulations if at least 25 percent of the homes are rented to tenants earning below-average incomes. When the Berry Street project was first proposed in 2012, many local observers predicted that the Zoning Board of Appeals would have no choice but to approve it.
Initially, North Andover Holdings LLC proposed building 240 apartments. The developer reduced the number to 196 a few months ago.