405WVN #337: How close to breaking ground for Town Center?
- Feb 4 10:25 AMDear Wayland Voter,
How close is Twenty Wayland to breaking ground on the Town Center project?
Envisioned nearly five years ago as a 530,000-square foot development resembling a quaint New England Village and ballyhooed as a financial bonanza for the town, it was declared "on life support" last fall and rescued by a November Town Meeting vote. With both original principals gone, the developer talks of breaking ground in April for the first part of a reduced project.
After years of wrangling with permitting boards, walkouts and self-caused delays, the developers are closer to acquiring permits, but how close are they to really building something? This newsletter outlines recent developments in the developer's lawsuit against the Historic District Commission and diminished expectations for a municipal building at the Town Center.
SOMETHING UNUSUAL FOR SELECTMEN
The selectmen did an unusual thing on Feb. 1. They rejected a request from Twenty Wayland.
Since the developer began the slow process toward building the Town Center commercial/residential project at the former Raytheon site in 2005, the selectmen have backed every request and opposed other town boards that put up any objection.
But on Feb. 1 the Board of Selectmen was unanimous in rejecting Twenty Wayland's request to remove from the development agreement a requirement for road widening and a traffic light at the Route 27/Concord Road intersection before Town Center construction begins.
Twenty Wayland made its request in the context of what it called an effort to compromise with the Wayland Historic District Commission and avoid further litigation. The developer sued the Commission last year after the HDC conditioned its approval on delaying the signal and nearby road changes until construction was under way.
The selectmen discussed the matter for nearly a half hour, presenting consultants' reports and asserting that there is a safety issue, changes must be made, and the best time to make them is before Town Center construction begins.
They never mentioned the issue that makes the development agreement requirement almost irrelevant. After voters approved zoning changes for the Town Center in 2006, residents of the Glezen Lane neighborhood, fearing that the projected 372,000-square-foot development would inundate them with traffic, sued the town. The selectmen settled the suit, prescribing the future of the Historic District but without consulting the Commission, which is empowered by state and local law to protect the area at the center of Wayland along Routes 20, 27 and 126.
The settlement included a requirement to alter the roads before the Town Center is built. There is no indication that the selectmen have explored renegotiating with the Glezen Lane group to postpone the changes.
Twenty Wayland's settlement proposal would delay the road work and traffic light until the developer has applied for a building permit for at least 95,000 square feet of commercial space and begun demolishing the existing 410,000-square-foot office building at the Route 20 site.
"Clearly, we would not demolish the building and spend more than $2 million on roadways improvements if we were not going to build the entire project," Frank Dougherty of Twenty Wayland said in an "open letter" to the HDC published in the Town Crier.
The HDC has met in executive session but so far issued no statement about the proposal.
Last summer, the selectmen joined Twenty Wayland in legal action seeking to stop the HDC from defending itself against the suit. The HDC won on that point in Superior Court and again on appeal. Twenty Wayland says it is considering an appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court. The courts haven't ruled on the substance of the suit itself, which involves the extent of the HDC's authority over road changes.
At the Feb. 1 meeting Selectman Michael Tichnor urged the HDC to negotiate and warned that if it fails to do so "there will be the impression that the HDC is being obstructionist."
Town Center supporters have called other boards and officials obstructionist. The selectmen haven't discouraged such labeling.
The selectmen's decision to let the development agreement stand leaves the HDC's options unchanged. Whether or not Twenty Wayland is serious about starting work soon, the HDC will be a handy target if there is further delay.
What would Twenty Wayland's $2 million in roadway changes mean? One thing that concerns the HDC is that the proposed traffic signal would hang between the historic Grout-Heard House Museum and the Wayland Depot. Twenty Wayland says it is willing to let the HDC "improve the aesthetics in the area" as historic artifacts are moved. But the Historic District will be markedly changed. There will be wider roads and much more asphalt than you see now.
Then selectmen maintain that the intersection, just before the Library, is dangerous and that they have the right to dictate road changes as matters of safety. There is no question that traffic is impeded at certain times, but far greater traffic delays are on Route 20 and on 27/126 south of Route 20, where traffic can back up nearly to Five Paths. The town's traffic consultant says the roadway changes will improve an already difficult situation only slightly, and that any increase in traffic will have an adverse effect.
The roadway plan is at:
CHALLENGES FOR PROPOSED MUNICIPAL BUILDING
When the Town Center was proposed, the selectmen boasted of new tax revenue (more than $1 million annually), 100 condos, a $3 million "gift" from the developers, amenities including a two-acre developer-owned green, possibly an ice rink, and free land to build a 40,000-square-foot municipal building. Library trustees and the Council on Aging began dreaming about sharing that building. Now, with some residents skeptical that anything on that scale will ever come to pass, it appears that the free land is not quite what was promised.
The selectmen discussed that on Feb. 1. The library director had reported on Jan. 20, after meeting with town officials, "It seems that, due to wetland issues, the available parking is constrained to such a degree that the site will only support a 30,000-square-foot building."
Library officials believe that state grants won't be available unless a new building meets certain size standards and a 30,000-square-foot building shared with a senior center won't meet the standards.
Tichnor is for giving priority to the CoA, which uses space in the Town Building that doesn't come close to meeting size standards for such a facility. However, a new senior center isn't part of the Finance Committee's capital plan.
The selectmen tossed around ideas about making the best of the situation if only a smaller building is environmentally feasible: perhaps build without state aid but save money by building less, and find creative ways to share space (CoA activities mainly during the day, library activities largely in the evening).
The cost , entirely the town's responsibility, wasn't discussed. In November voters approved borrowing $45 million to build a new high school, nearly tripling town debt. Also on the wish list: a new Department of Public Works building.
STILL SELLING THE PROJECT
The selectmen and other officials continue to push the Town Center aggressively even though to many residents it seems a diminished prospect.
For example, on Monday night Selectman Tom Fay reprised the argument that the Town Center will provide significant revenues, a new library and senior center, and is something that "82 percent of the town" wants. (The inaccurate figure refers to the May 2006 Town Meeting vote, not a consensus of all residents, many of whom by this time may be neutral, skeptical or uninterested.) He and others have made the same pitch many times, which in boom times may have been more persuasive.
If it were fully built as originally planned, the additional tax revenue would amount to about $500,000 annually, according to the latest Finance Committee estimate. That's less than one percent of the town budget, or about $100 per year for the average house. If the project ends up being smaller, revenue will be less.
Twenty Wayland's suit against the Historic District Commission may be settled soon, or not. Remaining environmental issues may proceed more smoothly than in the past. Or not. Twenty Wayland fought through most of its dealings with the Conservation Commission, then recently accepted blame for some errors and delays and presented a friendlier face to the ConCom. Two more environmental permits must be discussed.
Officials continue to place everything in the best possible light.
Town Administrator Fred Turkington told the Boston Globe that a recent state environmental approval occurred when the Department of Environmental Protection "stepped in to tweak the Commission's guidelines." A more accurate description is that Twenty Wayland, unhappy with the conditions in the ConCom approval, appealed to the state. The appeal cost Twenty Wayland eight months of delay and resulted in stricter guidelines from the DEP.
When the selectmen were discussing possible changes in the development agreement on Feb 1, Turkington asserted that the Board of Road Commissioners (later dissolved with the advent of the Department of Public Works) had issued its permit calling for road work to be done before Town Center construction. This isn't true.
-- Michael Short
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Michael Short, Editor