Selectmen are seething about what they say is an ill-conceived, poorly-planned affordable housing development proposed for property next to the Midway Garage off E. Main Street – a plan that contains few details, yet shows hundreds of units built in low-lying land so wet as to be almost unbuildable.
The project, dubbed “Island Brook,” and submitted by applicant and developer Robert Junior, is doubly offensive to the board because the state office of Housing and Economic Development issued preliminary approval of the plan, even though the sparse sketches showed no elevations, units with no driveways, and several wetland crossings near the Rumford River.
“Here you have houses in swamps, in wetlands, houses you can’t get to, and common driveways,” said board member Robert Kimball two weeks ago. “The state isn’t doing its job – it hasn’t even been engineered yet.”
Board members authorized Town Counsel to send a letter back to the state and demand some adequate explanation of how such an approval could have happened.
This week, the conversation continued, with member Mary Steele saying such projects, designed to allow a community’s own wetlands and setback requirements to be passed over as long as a percentage of the units are designated as “affordable,” actually victimize first-time homeowners who are unaware of the pitfalls awaiting them.
“The intent of a 40B is to allow affordable housing in a neighborhood for people who can’t normally afford to buy a home,” she said. “You get first-time homeowners in there, and they get stuck.” Steele said the creation of 40Bs under the current regulations serve to drag down a neighborhood that otherwise could be a productive situation for homeowners.
Robert Kimball observed it is ironic that many of the 40Bs in town sell or rent housing to people who cannot afford the costly flood insurance they should have to live in property subject to flooding.
“We need to make an example of why the system isn’t working,” Kimball said.
“We have a right to appeal,” Kimball said, noting the town owns land abutting the property.
“This is a great opportunity to throw this back at them,” he said of the state housing division. “How can that be an appropriate site for affordable housing?”
Norton has been the target of a number of 40B developers over the years, because the state has few protections for communities where numbers of affordable units fall behind the recommended 10 percent. Kimball said Norton is still at about 7 percent, so developers continue to try to craft projects that conform to 40B specifications, knowing they have leeway to take advantage of loopholes.
Island Brook has proposed 216 units on 43 acres of land selectmen have described as “swamp.” It is the latest of a number of proposals by Junior for the property over a period of at least 10 years.
“He keeps trying them till he finds one that sticks,” said Kimball.
In order for the project to go forward, it will be subject to a protracted set of hearings for a “comprehensive permit,” issued by the Zoning Board. Nothing has yet been scheduled.