Pond Road senior living project team gives Wellesley a million reasons to buy in

The Wellesley Planning Board this week (see Wellesley Media recording) was presented with a choice by the project team of a proposed assisted living and memory complex at the top of scenic Pond Road: Support amended zoning sought by the developer and the town would be in line for a $1M-plus payment, or take your chances with whatever homes might be built on the land by right and get nothing other than some property taxes for the ones in Wellesley. The Board voted 3-2 in favor of sponsoring a specific zoning amendment article at Annual Town Meeting that would allow access within a single residence district to a commercial senior living property in an abutting community.

The decision was more complex than summarized above, with conservation restrictions also on the table, and the big one: Natick too would need to give this project its blessing since all but the driveway and the land surrounding the driveway is in Wellesley’s neighboring town. The developer pulled back on a citizen petition for Natick’s Spring Annual Town Meeting earlier this year in the face of public opposition and a lukewarm Planning Board reaction, but is readying a fresh attempt for next year.

In this latest public discussion on the 200 Pond Rd., proposal, attorney David Himmelberger did most of the talking for the proponent. Planning Board members as well as Natick and Wellesley residents also made their voices heard, with Board members asking questions and sharing opinions before their vote.

There’s been a bit of “you go first” and “no, you go first” between Wellesley and Natick elected representatives on this proposal, but Wellesley wound up taking the lead largely because its Annual Town Meeting is before Natick’s Spring Annual Town Meeting in 2024. Natick’s Planning Board has previously passed on this project, but the developer has reworked some aspects of it in an effort to persevere. If the project team gets Wellesley Annual Town Meeting approval for its proposed zoning amendment, the team would be confident of getting Natick Town Meeting’s okay as well based on what the project team says are potential benefits to that town, Himmelberger said.

The proponent has made its case that the planned 130-unit (up to 150 bed) facility, which would be located on the current site of a mansion and its grounds, meets a need for senior living accommodations in the area despite the opening of another such complex a mile down the road on Rte. 135 in Natick. That other facility, Anthology, opened over the summer; 200 Pond Rd. wouldn’t be expected to open until 2027 if zoning amendments are approved. The 200 Pond Rd. development website emphasizes that the senior population in the towns is growing and that there is already a shortage of assisted living and memory care units here. The project team has received a warm reception during presentations to each town’s Board of Health.

Arguments against the project have been that it will make 1 of Wellesley’s 7 scenic roads less scenic and have an adverse impact on the environment within what’s currently zoned for residential use. The proponent argues that something is going to be built there anyway, so why not address a need for seniors and protect the surrounding environment, plus avoid 2 more big houses alongside the road, plus a cluster of 9 or so more higher up on the hill in Natick. The proponent contends that the large facility will barely be visible from the road, though a concern was raised during the meeting by residents about whether that would be true at night.

Himmelberger dismissed objections to the project as coming from a small group of neighbors.

200 pond road

Neighbors from Wellesley and Natick who spoke disputed that assertion of limited opposition to what some refer to as a Walmart-plus-sized facility (130,000 sq. ft. vs the current 10,000 sq. ft. mansion). One Natick resident whose property backs up to the site raised concerns about lighting on the property based on the brightness at the Anthology facility, the possible unfairness to Natick of the developer dangling $1M-plus to Wellesley under an agreement, and the impact such a development could have on displacement of coyotes on the property and surrounding woods into neighboring yards.

The direct abutters to the proposed senior living facility, who know a thing or 2 about neighborhood opposition to Pond Road projects based on their development of their house and the 1 next to it, argued that having 2 more houses next door would be much preferred to a large commercial property in an otherwise residential neighborhood.

Separately, Pond Road resident David Howe said: “This is going to be a major departure from anything that’s been built or considered on Pond Road.”

Frank Hunnewell, a Wellesley resident, questioned what value the project will bring to Wellesley, suggesting the $1M-plus payment offer is an indication that the project will do more harm than good.

A community outreach meeting was held last month in Natick; the project team has said it hasn’t been able to make a recording available due to technical issues.

A study commissioned by the proponent assures the public that traffic impact will be minimal. “Some have attempted to raise traffic as an issue but opinions aren’t facts and the fact is that the traffic review prepared by VHB and shared with the town demonstrates that these concerns simply aren’t realistic,” Himmelberger said, adding that a peer review would be welcomed.

The report shows weekday volume on Pond Road currently at 920 vehicles, with a projection of 195 additional vehicles making daily weekday trips to/from the facility if it is built (that would be 21% more vehicles, though according to the report, most drivers would be traversing the short segment between 200 Pond Rd. and Rte. 135, which itself has become a major construction zone in Natick for multifamily housing projects). The traffic impact analysis does not address what’s sure to be a significant project construction period, which as those who traveled Pond Road during the building of the houses at the top know can be disruptive—as someone who uses Pond Road almost daily by foot or car, I learned to avoid that narrow route during construction after 1 too many close calls with large vehicles rushing to or from the site.

The project team has touted planned policies and traffic engineering that would discourage users of its facility to frequent Pond Road south of the site. But with the project on the town line, and through the magical powers of GPS, facility visitors, package delivery companies, and others unfamiliar with the terrain will do what they will do. Creative u-turns at each end of Pond Road are already regular occurrences.

The Board voted 3-2 in favor of sponsoring the zoning amendment article, with Tom Taylor, Marc Charney, and Jim Roberti in favor, and Kathleen Woodward and Patty Mallett against. Roberti was initially “trepidatious” about the proposal, but said that the traffic study convinced him that traffic between Pond Road and Rte. 16 would be minimal—plus the town would stand to lose a big payout if it doesn’t support the plan. While uncomfortable supporting a zoning change for an unbaked project, Taylor said he didn’t see how a couple of mansions, more houses on the hill, and a loss of conservation restrictions would be a better outcome. Woodward said she didn’t necessarily object to the project concept, but listed several reasons for not supporting it right now, including a loss of leverage for Wellesley in influencing the project’s future if it makes its call before Natick does. Mallett wasn’t convinced a facility of its size wouldn’t “drastically impact the conditions on Pond Road.”

How much sway Planning Board support for the project will have in the end remains to be seen. The Board earlier this year voted to support a zoning amendment related to the  Sisters of Charity property at 125 Oakland St., but the article never made it to Special Town Meeting after the Advisory Committee voted unfavorable action on it. Much of the public opposition to that proposal, also involving an environmentally sensitive area, came from those living nearby, but also included those from across town who frequent the Centennial Reservation property adjacent to the Sisters’ property. Pond Road is at the other end of town, and is not accessed by nearly as many in town, especially since Wellesley College and the route around Lake Waban have become less accessible to the public.

(Update: 12/21/23): We asked Planning Director Arbeene after the meeting what a payout from a development agreement like this might be used for, such as say, road fixes. He said such an agreement would be negotiated by the Select Board. “Restrictions on the money negotiated via a Development Agreement vary by project. Some have restrictions, some do not. It really depends on the project,” he said.

(Correction: 12/20/23): Our post initially compared trip #s to vehicle#s, but we’ve updated it to compare vehicle #s to vehicle #s in the traffic impact report.

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