Habitat's Long-awaited Condo Project Hits Permitting Snag
Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity is now thinking it will be unlikely to break ground on the $1.1 million project this fall as it works through the permitting process. The project was heralded by city and state officials when Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito awarded a $425,000 grant toward it last November but lining up permitting has proven to be a challenge.
Habitat sought to get the local permits needed for the six-unit condominium project -- an order of conditions from the Conservation Commission and a special permit from the Community Development Board -- this month. But on Tuesday, the Community Development Board felt it hadn't enough information or adequate time to review, and the members were hesitant to act without knowing if the Conservation Commission's approval was granted.
The board continued the hearing until September. A permit being issued in mid-September could be too late to get construction started in 2018 because of a public bidding process that cannot happen until after the permit is issued.
"We had hoped to get in the ground before the fall," said Executive Director Carolyn Valli, but now "it'll probably be March."
Of particular difficulty is that the land along Deming Street is protected by the Wetlands Protection Act because of its proximity to the east branch of the Housatonic River. The project is a redevelopment so the organization is allowed to build only on as much of the wetlands as the former Berkshire Gas building, which was donated to Habitat nearly a decade ago and later demolished, did.
Engineer Brent White said Habitat looked at restoring enough wetlands on site but to comply with that regulation would leave limited space for yards. Instead, Habitat had to switch tactics and is buying property on West Housatonic Street -- between McDonald's and Roasted Garlic -- and restoring that land into wetlands. Doing that work will act as a trade-off for wetlands being developed on Deming.
Typically such wetlands issues are settled with the Conservation Commission first and then the applicant moves for its special permit.
Valli said the organization spent much of this summer working on securing that West Housatonic Street property and it wasn't until a purchase-and-sales agreement was in hand that the organization could ask for the proposal from the Con Com. Habitat now expects to close on the West Housatonic Street property on Aug. 27 and is expected to be on the Conservation Commission agenda this month. White said he had been in frequent conversation with the city's conservation agent in developing the plans.
"If we hadn't been actively working with the conservation agent to date, I wouldn't feel comfortable submitting this application," White told the Community Development Board.
The first step of the project is to use that $425,000 from the state to build the roadway and water infrastructure. The development needs a road with two egress points to comply with the Fire Department's standards and new water lines to service the development. Valli said the state is still on board with providing the grant despite the delays.
The plans for the project raised some concerns with the Community Development Board when it comes to maintenance of both the road and the landscaping.
Habitat is looking to create a homeowners association and a trust fund to pay to maintain the property. Habitat saw that as the best way to maintain the land without putting too much burden on the first-time homebuyers. Maintaining a lengthy, shared driveway could prove to be an extra burden for the residents. The fees paid into the association would then pay for the maintenance and Valli said Habitat will be providing coaching in homeowner association management for five years.
But the accompanying documentation and legal agreements creating the association had only recently been crafted and turned into the city's Office of Community Development. City Planner CJ Hoss said neither the department nor the city solicitor has had a chance to review it to make sure all of the maintenance was properly covered.
"We have to be careful that what we approve is good for you and good for the city," Community Development Board Chairwoman Sheila Irvin said.
Irvin said the application for a special permit "has holes" and she wants all of the pieces tied up before issuing the permit. Community Development Board member Elizabeth Herland had questions about a four-foot gravel area on the side of the roads, parking, traffic, the type of plants being used, and said a brief look at the homeowners association agreement may have lacked information.
"I'm not sure the concerns about maintenance of all of the landscaping is as clear as it could be," Herland said of her review of the documentation.
White attempted to answer some of those questions, outlining where snow removal would go, saying no parking signs would be placed and adding that there will be a property manager. But the project has many moving pieces and the board wanted more time to digest all of the information. Hoss said the staff analysis of the project is one of the largest he's seen.
Unlike most applications, the Community Development Board is the special permit granting authority whereas with other projects the serves an advisory role ahead of time for either the Zoning Board of Appeals or the City Council. In this case, the board is responsible for issuing the permit and doesn't have a second board reviewing the application.
Meanwhile, Habitat has stacks and stacks of panels already constructed for the three buildings. Previously the project was eyed to be completed within 18 months but the delays in permitting have pushed that back. Some of that time will be made up because Habitat was able to construct panels throughout the winter in the former Pep Boys location in the Merrill Road shopping plaza owned by Mike Panek.
Tags: affordable housing, community development, condominiums, habitat for humanity,
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