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Boards vote to add senior housing bylaw to Special Town Meeting warrant

The Planning and Select boards both voted this week to include a bylaw on the Oct. 3 Special Town Meeting warrant that would encourage the development of senior housing in Harvard. But the move comes amid conflicting visions for the bylaw’s scope and presentation.

The Planning Board unanimously voted in favor of the bylaw during the public hearing at its Sept. 14 meeting, and the Select Board approved the warrant with the bylaw at its meeting the following night. The Planning Board intends to continue gathering public feedback and working on the bylaw between now and Town Meeting, and the Select Board plans to assist in this process.

In preparing the bylaw, the Planning Board abandoned a much-debated affordable housing component. The board had already split that component from the rest of its draft bylaw prior to a Sept. 8 Council on Aging senior housing forum, believing it would be too controversial. Planning Board member Fran Nickerson had opposed the inclusion of affordable units on the grounds that they would drive up the prices of the market rate units and that current Harvard residents would be too wealthy to qualify for them. Other members were also concerned that there would not be enough time before Town Meeting to properly work on both bylaws. The Planning Board unanimously agreed to table the affordability bylaw, though the remaining bylaw does still include a small-density incentive for adding affordable units.

Members of both the Planning and Select boards have expressed worry that the bylaw will not pass at Special Town Meeting, not because citizens do not support additional senior housing, but because they may be confused and intimidated by the 21-page bylaw. At their Monday meeting, Planning Board members debated the level of detail the bylaw should include; Nickerson argued that it should be as detailed as possible because Harvard residents want to see exactly what they are voting for, and she supported the inclusion of sample floor plans. 

Planning Board member Stacia Donahue argued against including detailed samples, because voters might feel they had been tricked if the housing eventually constructed under the bylaw looked different from the sample versions. Harvard resident Ron Ostberg agreed with Donahue, stating that the illustrations “have no place in the bylaw.” The board instructed Director of Community and Economic Development Chris Ryan to remove the illustrations and his explanatory comments from the document, but left the majority of the text unchanged.

Planning Board member Gwen Leonard also worried that the bylaw might damage Harvard’s scenic roadways. The bylaw allows for some housing types, such as cottages, to be built as infill, meaning they could be built on small areas of land unsuitable for larger homes. This would increase housing density in those areas. Planning Board Chair Justin Brown countered, arguing that the bylaw already contained provisions to prevent new senior housing from greatly affecting Harvard’s overall housing density. It does not allow total senior housing units enabled by the bylaw to exceed 15% of Harvard’s total housing units (currently 1,909 total, which would allow 286 new units), and does not allow the Planning Board to approve more than 100 new units in any given year. Brown said, in the event that senior housing was being constructed too rapidly, these measures would give the town time to amend the bylaw with tighter restrictions.

Friendly Crossways owner Mary Helan Vesenka Turner voiced her support for the bylaw, saying that as she ages, she might eventually use it on her own property. When asked by Brown whether she would speak in favor of it at Town Meeting, she was noncommittal.

Board OKs article—with reservations

At the Tuesday Select Board meeting, all board members agreed that the bylaw’s current 21-page length is excessive, with Select Board member Kara Minar referring to the document as “War and Peace.” Select Board member Rich Maiore suggested that much of the bylaw’s current text could be moved into the Planning Board’s regulations instead. Select Board members agreed they would each compile a list of proposed changes, to be submitted to the Planning Board.

Minar also took issue with how loosely the proposed bylaw restricts the age eligibility of residents. The bylaw states that the housing “anticipates and is marketed to people aged 55 or over” but does not specify that all units must be deed-restricted to this age group. She expressed concern that a developer might “drive a truck through a loophole” and end up placing non-senior individuals into the housing.

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