NORTHBOROUGH – The Select Board declined to move forward on a developer’s proposal for the White Cliffs mansion property.
As Chair Mitch Cohen described it, the decision before the board during its May 22 meeting was essentially to open negotiations on an option to purchase.
The board voted 4-0 with member Lisa Maselli recusing herself following advice from town counsel.
What was proposed
The town purchased the property in 2016.
After issuing a request for proposals (RFP) in late 2022, the town received three responses. Ultimately, the White Cliffs Committee recommended that the Select Board award a contract to Metro West Collaborative Development, which proposed the construction of 52 units of affordable housing in the mansion and an adjacent building.
According to Cohen, a vote had to take place that evening in order for Metro West to meet their grant timeline.
Select Board weighs in
Throughout the meeting, Select Board members commented on the volume of correspondence from town residents.
“There’s a lot of fear around this building. There’s a lot of fear on both sides, which is really a shame,” said Kristen Wixted.
Select Board members and residents expressed concerns about the proposal.
Member Laura Ziton voiced concerns about the expense with other projects on the horizon.
Member Julianne Hirsh said Metro West’s proposal had little opportunity for community use at the property. She said the project was being discussed in isolation from other efforts, such as downtown revitalization and the master plan.
Among his concerns, Cohen said that as the adjacent building would be larger than the mansion, the mansion would no longer anchor the site. The location is a challenge, he said.
“We absolutely need a traffic study to do this,” Cohen said.
While a traffic study would be required by the Zoning Board of Appeals, he said such a study needed to be done prior to Town Meeting.
At the board’s meeting May 8, Cohen asked Metro West if they would work with the town on a traffic study prior to Town Meeting. In an email after the meeting, Metro West’s executive director, Caitlin Madden, wrote that it would be the town’s decision to commission studies for the site, but “Metro West CD cannot commit staff and consultant time to managing those processes before being selected as the developer at town meeting.”
Madden said waiting for the results of the survey would delay the schedule by at least two months.
“We need their full cooperation to do a traffic study at any stage,” Cohen said.
Speaking prior to the board’s vote, he said, if the board voted “yes,” he suspected it would be highly unlikely Town Meeting would approve the project based on the feedback from residents.
Resident Anna Servideo started a petition signed by about 250 people, saying they did not want the project.
During the meeting, one resident questioned how the project honored the Town Meeting vote to preserve White Cliffs and voiced concerns on the impact on schools, particularly space at Peaslee Elementary School.
Some residents said they were left out of the process.
“There’s been no consideration of the neighbors up to this point,” said resident Brian Zeiger, who lives on Stratton Way. “The reuse committee did not solicit any input or have any type of discussion with the abutters or to the neighborhood prior to compiling an RFP and then recommending this option.”
“That’s a failure, in my opinion,” said Zeiger.
Resident Anthony Servideo called for opening the property for another round of RFP, but to “do it right” and ask the community what they would like to see happen with the property.
Former White Cliffs Committee Chair Todd Helwig, who said the committee has been accused of both taking too long and rushing the job, said the committee worked for about four years, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In regards to input, Helwig said the committee had representatives from the Conservation Committee, Community Preservation Committee (CPC), Select Board, Historic Commission, Design Review and town staff. He said the Historic District Commission, Affordable Housing Commission and CPC recommended the project.
In terms of access to the property, Helwig argued that the Select Board was in charge of the process to negotiate the purchase and sale agreement. He called for negotiating access to the property.
“This is the only proposal over all these years that actually does [historic preservation of White Cliffs],” said Helwig. “This accomplishes the historic protection goal, and it has the benefit of using somebody else’s money to do it.”
There’s an affordable housing crisis in Northborough and in Massachusetts, he said.
“This is a perfect site for it,” said Helwig.
Cohen said the town would have to engage the public “immediately.”
He called for the Select Board to double down at their next meeting and figure out a path forward. Additional funds may need to be allocated, he said.
“Saying ‘no’ tonight presents a big unknown … but it’s where we are,” Cohen said.
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