METHUEN — A high-density affordable housing project in a rural edge of the city runs counter to the community development plan and would overburden local services, officials said in the city's response to the plan filed with the state April 1.

Two local developers, Frederick P. Fahey, a Dracut resident and owner of Premier Property Group, and Methuen builder Michael Wakeen of TopNotch Homes, proposed a 123-house development on 44 acres on Howe Street just south of the Haverhill line under the state's affordable housing law, which allows developers to use a streamlined process for seeking exemptions from many local zoning and development ordinances.

Mayor Stephen Zanni and his community development director, William Buckley, said their top concerns, impact on the local school and on traffic, actually is not considered in the affordable housing law process.

But they also said that the city already is affordable for families, even if not according to the state formula, and that the project is contrary to the city's overall development plan and does not fit in that rural part of the city.

"I definitely feel it's a project that really is not warranted for Methuen," Zanni said. "Over the long term, it's not going to be viable for our community."

Bob Engler, owner and president of the Brighton firm SEB LLC and a consultant for Fahey and Wakeen, said he did not want to comment on anything until MassHousing, the agency reviewing the application, makes its decision.

"It's a letter to the state, and we’ll wait to see what the state’s decision is," Engler said Friday.

MassHousing, a quasi-public agency that provides lending for low- and middle-income housing, received the application in February and will determine whether the proposal qualifies under the state affordable housing statute, called 40B.

Buckley, who signed the letter, said in the letter that the project "is not consistent with the land use and development goals established by the city."

"It'd be my recommendation as director of this department that the city cannot support this project as proposed. The impacts are too great," he said in an interview Thursday.

'Out of sync' with demand

He pointed to a housing study released recently by The Warren Group, a Boston firm that gathers and publishes real estate data, and Northeastern University's Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy that called the Boston area's real estate market as "out of sync" with demand.

Young people, the report said, are looking for multifamily housing in urban centers while retiring Baby Boomers sell their suburban homes and move into smaller multifamily suburban units. Buckley said Methuen's development has been directed with that in mind.

For instance, he said, two age 55-plus developments approved in the city, one off Wheeler Street on the Dracut line called The Regency and one off Howe Street next to the affordable housing proposal called Emerald Pines, together will add more than 250 units to the city's housing stock for retirees. Both of those developments received exemptions from the city's rural zoning.

"The Emerald Pines project fits within what the city is trying to do from a housing develop standpoint," Buckley said, arguing that the affordable development runs counter.

Additionally, Emerald Pines is being built on three plots totaling more than 155 acres, much of which Zanni said either is wetlands or will be preserved as open space.

The affordable development, currently named Highland Farms, is aimed at providing housing for working families, Engler told The Eagle-Tribune last month.

Buckley said Thursday that families can buy homes in existing neighborhoods as Boomers retire and move when they downsize their living quarters.

"The proposed Highland Farms project perpetuates this longstanding focus on single-family housing and grossly interferes with the initiatives the city has undertaken to properly plan for its future growth consistent with the report," Buckley wrote in the letter.

And Methuen's housing stock, he said, is already affordable. "I think it would be very hard to make a case that you can't find affordable housing in the city of Methuen," he said Thursday.

But the state's criteria for determining what is affordable includes some kind of subsidy, which excludes much of Methuen's housing. The state pegs Methuen's affordable housing stock at just more than 9 percent of the total.

Developers using 40B can appeal local decisions to the state in communities with less than 10 percent of its housing stock considered affordable.

Buckley said that Methuen actually is more affordable than that statistic shows. "We have triple deckers getting less rent than some affordable units, but because they're privately owned or not subsidized it doesn't count," he said.

Impact on school costs, traffic

Beyond planning, Buckley and Zanni said the development could add about 250 students to the school system and that Comprehensive Grammar School, where children in kindergarten through grade eight in the development would go to school, is already at capacity.

"It would have a tremendous impact on the school," Zanni said.

They also are concerned about the traffic impact on Howe Street at Pleasant Valley Street with the addition of a development full of working people, whom they said would add to the worst of the traffic. The residents at Emerald Pines, Buckley contends, mostly would be retired and would be driving at different times.

The city's letter to MassHousing also includes a number of technical questions and points, most of which Buckley said are common to large developments.

The application proposes 123 single-family homes of between 1,700 and 1,900 square feet each sitting mostly on lots of about 6,000 square feet. A handful of lots are larger than 10,000 square feet, but none are larger than 20,000 square feet.

An acre is 43,560 square feet.

Rural zoning, bigger lot size

That part of the city currently is zoned rural residential, which requires a minimum lot size of 80,000 square feet for new houses.

All the houses would have three to four bedrooms, 2 1/2 bathrooms and garages, according to the proposal. Of the 123 homes proposed, 31 would be considered affordable, which means they are priced for prospective homebuyers earning less than 80 percent of the area's median income, said MassHousing spokesman Thomas Farmer.

For Methuen in 2013, that was about $54,000.

MassHousing's review process is about 60 days, so a decision could be expected this month.

If the proposal complies with the affordable housing law, MassHousing would issue a letter to the developer, allowing it to apply for a single comprehensive permit for the entire project with Methuen's Community Development Board. The board would have 30 days to hold a hearing. The developers can seek exemptions to many local ordinances, but still must obtain all normally required state permits.

That often streamlines a permitting process for projects that can require review before multiple municipal boards.

Once the developer applies for its permit, the city has three options, according to the state: It can accept the proposal as is, it can add conditions to approving it, or it can reject it.

In communities with less than 10 percent of its housing stock considered affordable, the developer can appeal to the state Housing Appeals Committee if the city either rejects the proposal or puts what the developer considers onerous conditions upon approval. 

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