Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Riverbend Residents Riled By Habitat For Humanity

The public hearing over a proposal to build two homes in Westfield will continue tomorrow evening at the monthly Inland Wetlands Agency meeting. The proposal is by Habitat for Humanity, which owns the land. Habitat for Humanity is a Christian ministry whose volunteers build houses that are offered to qualified low-income families for purchase. The neighboring homeowners have expressed outrage over the proposed two houses.

The two house subdivision would be on Morning Glory Lane, near Tuttle Road, in the middle of the 361 home Riverbend subdivision.

Riverbend was developed by one of the city's most prolific developers, Bob Fusari. After Riverbend was finished, he retained ownership of this parcel, which is located between two of the phases of development. Fusari serves as chair of the Middlesex Habitat For Humanity land acquisition committee, and this spring he donated the parcel to Habitat.

Residents of Riverbend have organized to vigorously oppose the development. About 75 residents of Riverbend attended last month's Inland Wetlands Agency meeting, 31 of them took to the microphone to enumerate the reasons for their opposition. Their primary complaint is that they have always viewed this parcel of land as part of the Riverbend Homeowners Association dedicated open space. Several residents testified during the public hearing that they paid extra money for their homes because they were assured by the seller that this parcel was Riverbend open space.

The City's Planning Department refutes this in a detailed memorandum regarding the legal status of the lot. Citing maps and deeds in the Town Clerk's office, and several previous applications for development, according to the memorandum, "... the property has not been recorded as open space and multiple documents show the parcel as being designated for future development."

The homeowners' confusion may stem from the misrepresentations of realtors. City Planner Bill Warner told The Eye, "This parcel was shown on all marketing pieces as a big piece of green land and I am sure realtors represented it as open space." Two of those representations are currently posted on Riverbend Homeowners Association: one map shows the lot as part of the 37 acres of designated opens space, another shows that the lot is maintained by Riverbend (the lot under consideration is at the southwest corner of Riverbend).

The City tax assessor's map also shows the parcel as part of Riverbend (the yellow land in the figure shows land owned by the Riverbend Homeowners Association), but Warner said that this was in the process of being corrected.

Fusari attempted to develop 3 houses on this parcel in 2001, but his application before Planning and Zoning was denied. He unsuccessfully sued to overturn the Commission's decision. As chair of the Chamber of Commerce Environment and Land Use Committee in 2005, he told Inland Wetlands commissioners, "As a developer, [tighter regulation] scares us away. It affects landowners."

Habitat For Humanity has the right to build one house on the lot, without any further approvals from city land use agencies. Joyce Hatton Yarrow, president of Middlesex Habitat said that they had been developing a plan for two houses for two years. She told the Commission last month, "Our goal is to build two houses that fit into the neighborhood."

The Inland Wetlands Commissioners must address the impact that the 2-lot subdivision would have on adjacent wetlands. The construction would not be in designated wetlands, but Commissioners Joan Inglis and Fred Terrasi expressed concern about the buffer zone that extends to 100 feet from wetlands. Commissioner Daniel Pelletier suggested that the city hire a soil scientist to evaluate the proposed subdivision. A motion to that effect was passed unanimously.

Inland Wetlands meets at 7:00PM on Wednesday, in Council Chambers. The public hearing, continued from last month, is the first item on the agenda.

If the subdivision gains approval at Inland Wetlands, it would then be considered by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

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