By Jennifer Bonniwell
UPDATED 6/23/2023 — The Sisters of Charity have a new proposal for their property abutting Centennial Reservation that would allow a third party to buy and continue operating their existing elderly living home and skilled nursing facility, while (mostly) limiting future development to only those uses, according to the proposal presented to the Wellesley Planning Board on June 20.
Currently, 125 Oakland Street is zoned as an Educational District, and the Sisters are able to operate retirement facilities due to an exemption in the zoning bylaw for religious purposes. However, the Sisters intend to sell the property and hope the new owner could continue operating the existing 76-bed Marillac Residence residential care facility and 84-bed Elizabeth Seton skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility.
Accordingly, the Sisters are proposing a zoning change to permitted uses of Educational Districts to allow “[a]ssisted elderly living, independent elderly housing, nursing home and/or skilled nursing facilities and related services, so long as such uses existed in buildings or facilities prior to March 1, 2023,” Sisters attorney David Himmelberger said in an email.
The Sisters plan to present its proposal at the Wellesley Planning Board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, June 20 at 6:30 p.m. The meeting will be held on Zoom. The link to attend is listed on the posted agenda.
Once the Sisters submit a formal request for a zoning change, then the Planning Board will schedule a public hearing. After that, the proposal could be presented to Town Meeting as a citizens’ petition or an article sponsored by the Planning Board. A change to zoning bylaws must be approved by two-thirds of Town Meeting.
How Did We Get Here
This is the second attempt this year by Sisters of Charity to change the zoning for its 14-acre property in advance of a potential sale. In March, the Sisters sought Town Meeting approval to redistrict the property within a residential incentive overlay (RIO) district, which would have allowed additional uses such as multifamily housing or mixed-use development include retail.
That petition was withdrawn by the Planning Board in response to strong opposition to expanding potential future development beyond the existing elderly living and skilled nursing home facilities.
“Although the opposition to the RIO was extensive, we also heard loud and clear that no one had any real issues with what was at the heart of the request, namely the ability of the Sisters to allow for the sale of their property, with the continuation of the existing facilities and status quo,” Himmelberger said.
The idea for a zoning amendment came from a neighbor, Himmelberger said, who suggested revising the permitted uses in an Educational District to allow for assisted elderly living, independent elderly housing, nursing home and/or skilled nursing facilities. That’s what the Sisters decided to do.
The Sisters currently operate the elderly care facilities under Section 2.7 Educational Districts, paragraph A.1. Permitted Uses, section (d): “Religious purposes.” The proposed zoning change would add a new section (g):
g. Assisted elderly living, independent elderly housing, nursing home and/or
skilled nursing facilities and related services, so long as such uses existed in
buildings or facilities prior to March 1, 2023, and limited to the current scope of
these buildings or facilities.
Unlike the RIO, which would redistrict the property, this proposal would keep 125 Oakland in an Educational District and change the permitted uses within that zoning district. That means the change also would apply to any other property within an Educational District that meets the criteria. However, given the date restriction, it seems that only the Sisters of Charity property would qualify for the amended uses.
“In an effort to draft as narrow and focused an amendment as possible, the Sisters would seek a zoning amendment that would allow for such uses, but only so long as they currently existed as of March 2023,” Himmelberger said.
Reaction So Far
About 50 Wellesley residents and neighbors attended the June 14 Zoom call hosted by Sisters of Charity, and 6-7 people asked questions about the proposal. A few asked for clarification about whether a new owner could expand the footprint of the buildings or increase the number of beds.
A group of neighbors called the Friends of Brookside also has circulated a new petition seeking additional protections for the open space adjacent to the Sisters of Charity property. Several members of Friends of Brookside spoke in favor of the petition.
The petition seeks:
- Language which clearly indicates that any future redevelopment occurs within the existing developed footprint of the property.
- Application of Conservation Restrictions or other vehicles which will protect existing open space in perpetuity.
More About Sisters of Charity
The Sisters of Charity originated with a group of religious women who started a “free school” in Maryland in 1809, according to the Sisters of Charity website. The Sisters opened an all-girls school in Roxbury, Mass., in the late 1890s, which Sisters of Charity says is now the site of Mass
Bay Community College. Across the street, the Sisters formed Mount Saint Vincent training center for women who wanted to become Sisters of Charity. In the 1970s, it was renovated as Elizabeth Seton Residence to provide nursing care for retired Sisters. In 1980, the Sisters were granted a license to open the skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility to the public.
Sixty-four members of Sisters of Charity live in the elderly care facilities at 125 Oakland Street, Director of Finance Krista Thibault said. The last new member joined Sisters of Charity in the 1980s. Currently, the Sisters have 190 members worldwide with an average age of 83.
The Sisters intend to stay in the facilities at 125 Oakland for their lifetimes, which will be a stipulation of sale according to Thibault. Proceeds from the property sale will help fund the Sisters’ retirement needs, as well as allow the Sisters to donate to nonprofit organization that further the Sisters’ mission, she said.
The Sisters are working with a real estate consultant about how best to market the property, Himmelberger said.
“Amending the zoning to accommodate the currently operations/activities with any new owner, be it a for-profit or not-for-profit, gives more options than just those available under the Education District,” Himmelberger said in an email after the meeting.
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