The Wellesley Planning Board, after listening to another line-up of neighbors opposed to a rezoning plan for the Sisters of Charity property at 125 Oakland St., voted unanimously on Tuesday to take “no action” on Article 42 at Annual Town Meeting (see discussion shortly after the 1-hour mark of the Wellesley Media recording).
The article, sponsored by the board after it was approached by the proponent late last year, is aimed at amending the zoning map to include the Sisters of Charity property—which is situated next to Centennial Reservation—within a residential incentive overlay (RIO) district. Rezoning would allow for additional uses, such as multifamily housing (340 unit maximum), retail space, assisted/independent senior living, and nursing home/skilled nursing (not all of these uses together). The property is zoned as an educational district, which allows for educational uses and housing, and that zoning would remain.
While some residents applauded rezoning as a way to help address the town’s desire to diversity and expand its housing stock, most of those who wrote or called in asked the board to table the article. They cited concerns about traffic, the environment, and safety.
The Sisters of Charity seek to rezone the property to help them sell it. This will enable them to stabilize their financials and allow their members to live out their retirements there. Residents said they want to support a way for the Sisters of Charity to stay, but had issues with this rezoning approach.
Attorney David Himmelberger, representing the Sisters of Charity, said near the outset of the Planning Board hearing on Feb. 28 that his client wants to have the existing retirement and skilled nursing/rehab facilities to continue to operate under a new for-profit or non-profit owner. Acknowledging the biggest area concern during the last hearing on this subject was the development of traditional multi-family housing units, the Sisters would be “willing to entertain putting a deed restriction on the property” to preclude such a use, the attorney said.
After some 20 residents spoke over the span of about an hour, the board had a lively discussion of its own about the article.
“I as a Planning Board member don’t have all the answers I need in order to recommend this move forward,” said Patty Mallett. “I would want to know everything that the people were asking tonight. We do have the competing interest of wanting to increase affordable housing in town but I don’t really seeing how the project as it stands today really identifies how we would meet that goal…”
Tom Taylor agreed, describing the plan as not vetted enough, and suggesting other options might prove worthier. “At the end of the day, the chance that the buildings get knocked down by a developer and build 340 units is really small…but it’s not zero,” he said.
Board Chair Jim Roberti acknowledged that in initially sponsoring the article, neither the board nor Sisters of Charity knew where the public stood on the proposal, as they now do. Neither did the board or Planning Department have the resources to socialize the proposal and see it through, he said.
Board member Marc Charney did raise the idea that even if the board isn’t strongly in favor of the article at this point, it could pass the article through and let Town Meeting decide on it. “There are elements of this, a lot actually, that do fit into aspirational goals that we as a Planning Department and Planning Board support…,” he said. Charney referred to the site as being “a fully developed site, there is asphalt throughout this entire site, there are many buildings there, it is not like the North 40.”
The site was identified in the town’s 2018 Housing Production Plan as 1 of 4 “opportunity areas where Chapter 40B comprehensive permits would be an appropriate vehicle for providing higher-density multifamily development.”
Board member Kathleen Woodward said, “What I want is the opportunity for everyone to take a breath, look at the options, get people comfortable with what might possibly go there… it happened too fast.”
In the end, the board voted unanimously to take no action on the article.
Planning Director Eric Arbeene concluded that “the problem’s not going to go away” for the Sisters of Charity, who need to sell the property to strengthen their financial situation and ensure continuation of their facilities. “We have to come up with some kind of solution,” he said.
The Sisters will look to find a non-profit buyer to take over operation of the facilities, or work with the town to try to come up with narrower zoning that could work for a for-profit buyer. The Sisters do not plan to move the article forward at this point.
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