The Sisters of Charity on Tuesday sought Wellesley Planning Board support for a zoning amendment that could help them sell their property to an entity that would operate their elderly living home and skilled nursing facility, but they’ll need to wait until the next meeting on Thursday (Aug. 24) to find out if the Board will sponsor or even just place an article about it on the warrant for this fall’s Special Town Meeting. Separately, the Natural Resources Commission on Thursday, Aug. 24 has an agenda item to discuss the Sisters of Charity property and adjacent Centennial Reservation.
The Planning Board agenda item (see Wellesley Media recording about 11 minutes in) on the Sisters of Charity property at 125 Oakland St., lasted about an hour-and-a-half, and featured some heated moments, as Board members supportive of the current proposal chided those who would require conservation restrictions on the property in order to grant zoning relief. Board member Jim Roberti said such efforts amounted to a “total land grab” of the sort that has not and would not be applied to other projects in town.
The meeting kicked off with the Sisters of Charity’s local attorney explaining why his client was proposing the same amendment revealed after an original proposal was withdrawn before Town Meeting. This proposal would allow for the current uses for the property within this Educational District and would not include language regarding the scope of the current building and facilities. Attorney David Himmelberger pointed out there are no lot coverage restrictions under the basic Educational District zoning. The current complex covers between 10% and 35% of the lot depending upon how you measure it (the higher number referring to the buildings plus developed grounds).
The Planning Board’s Roberti argued that there’s not much to protect via a conservation restriction when you consider the significant wetlands buffer zone within the property. This later led to some discussion over just how protected buffer zones and wetlands actually are. Roberti described the current proposal as very different from the one in March that could have led to the demolition of the complex to develop general housing, and that seeking to apply restrictions would take the town down a road it shouldn’t be following. Board member Marc Charney sided with Roberti.
Roberti also questioned the idea of putting a conservation restriction on property without someone paying the owner for that property. “I have heard nothing about paying these people for this,” he said.
Others on the Board indicated they would support a zoning change, but not necessarily immediately, so that details can be hashed out. In other words, the proposal might make its way to Town Meeting in the spring rather than this fall’s Special Town Meeting. “I think we can bring many many more people in support if we don’t try to go faster than I think we should,” said Board member Kathleen Woodward. The warrant for Special Town Meeting will open next week, said Planning Director Eric Arbeene, and closed shortly thereafter—so the window’s tight for making a decision.
Members of the public had their say as well. This included Michael Tobin, who leads the Wellesley Conservation Land Trust and advocated for a conservation restriction. He commented that wetlands regulations try to minimize development, but don’t absolutely restrict it. “Wetlands are in fact a perfect place to put conservation restrictions,” he said.
Members of the public cited traffic and stormwater concerns, among others, that could result from possible development on the property without greater restrictions. Some cited the town’s Climate Action Plan and climate change concerns as well, as reasons to consider conservation restrictions.
After hearing from the public, Woodward said that “I do feel that there’s a lot of common ground here. What I heard here is that people are in favor of the concept and they want to support the sisters and what they want to do. But they just need greater assurance that the highly valued resource areas that are on this property and surrounding the property will be protected.”
The Board agreed to discuss the matter at its next meeting at which time it could finish deliberations and vote (one Board member was absent from Tuesday’s meeting, further justifying the decision to delay). The Board could vote to sponsor an article for the warrant or simply place an article on the warrant. Otherwise, the proponent could also collect signatures and put an article on the warrant as a citizen petition.