The owners proposing a small residential development at 251 Old Billerica Rd. are considering a possible exit ramp from a dilemma that has paralyzed the plan.
Atty. Pamela Brown said her clients, Cynthia First, Ali Khaledi, and Medhi Khaledi, are weighing a suggestion by Bedford Select Board member Shawn Hanegan that a payment to the Municipal Affordable Housing Trust could offset a commitment to construct two affordable units.
Hanegan offered the idea on his own behalf near the close of a circuitous discussion of the stalemate at the July 24 meeting of the Select Board.
The developers, under the name Bilca LLC, want to move forward on a 13-unit project at a former horse farm.
The acreage has been taxed at a reduced rate because it is designated for forestry. Under a state law known as Chapter 61, the town has first refusal to purchase the site if the owner decides to sell it for development.
At a meeting in May 2021, the Select Board waived interest in the purchase and a memorandum of understanding ensued. The memorandum limits the development to a maximum of 16 units and maintains most conservation land across the 15-acre property.
The original proposal called for a 16-unit project, including two affordable units, as required under the zoning bylaw. After months of discussions with abutters at an extended public hearing, the project was reduced to 13 units, beneath the zoning threshold for affordable units. The current plan includes an existing building on the site and a contiguous historic house at 229 Old Billerica Rd.
But the Select Board cried foul, pointing out that the terms of the memorandum included affordable housing. That halted the Planning Board’s ongoing public hearing.
After the first refusal was waived, Brown said, Bilca purchased the land. As the hearing proceeded, “the applicant found abutters on both sides looking to make the project smaller in density and provide greater buffers,” Brown said. Now, “The challenge for the applicant to provide affordable units at the current density is cost prohibitive.”
“It’s still our desire to cooperate with the neighborhood and do the plan with fewer units,” she told the board. “Not disrespecting the goal of affordable housing, but it’s a balancing act.”
Brown contended that the affordable units were not central to the intent of the memorandum. But some members of the Select Board disagreed.
“Adding those two units was absolutely part of our agreement to waive. What we were looking for is for you to come back and tell us how you are going to make it work,” said Emily Mitchell.
“I think the Select Board is looking to get the benefit of that agreement,” added Paul Mortenson.
“That was our plan before all of these abutters came about. This was not a bait and switch. It was simply a change in circumstances,” Brown explained. “I was completely blindsided by this.”
“Are you willing to come to the board with some kind of an offer for cash to make affordable units possible elsewhere?” Hanegan asked.
Brown said she would present the concept, although she added, “Just the permitting process has been more expensive than anticipated.” Asked by Chair Bopha Malone to come back with options, Brown said “One option is to go back to the original plan,” with possible legal challenges by abutters.
Board member Margot Fleischman reminded Brown that at an earlier meeting, she was receptive to a compromise of one affordable house. “Maybe they can make it work with one affordable,” Brown said.
No one has explained what happens if the deadlock remains and the memorandum of understanding is invalidated. Would the town then have to exercise its first refusal on the purchase, meeting the price of $2 million? There’s a 120-day deadline to execute a commitment to purchase, which would have to be approved by town meeting.