Watertown officials believe they have found a seldom used way to meet the state’s affordable housing requirements, which would mean developers could not build high-density residential projects without having to go through the town’s normal zoning rules.
The state law made to encourage the creation of affordable housing, often called Chapter 40B or just 40B, requires towns with less than 10 percent of its housing units that are officially designated as affordable units to allow projects with 20 percent or more affordable units to be approved in a streamlined process. Meeting the requirement is known as reaching “safe harbor.”
Watertown has not reached the 10 percent threshold. There is, however, a second method to reach safe harbor, which is having 1.5 percent or more of a community’s land devoted to affordable housing. Assistant Town Manager Steve Magoon said that he believes Watertown meets that requirement, and by a fair margin.
The calculation came after the submission of a project in Watertown to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHDC) by a developer looking at a project at 19 Coolidge Hill Road.
“We had a deadline to assert that we had met that criteria or not,” Magoon said. “We did the calculation and we came up with 2.29 percent.”
Watertown’s safe harbor assertion was brought to the Zoning Board of Appeals on Oct. 23, which voted to officially assert the safe harbor, and to continue the hearing on the project until the ZBA’s January meeting (which had already been agreed upon by the Town and the developer, Magoon said).
The developer of the property at the corner of Coolidge Hill Road and Arlington Street submitted the project to the DHDC in July. The application calls for creating a building with 113 rental units on the 0.9 acre lot, and would have 28 affordable units. Also, the developer has had a community meeting about, but has not officially submitted, an alternate project on the site to create a self-storage facility on the same property.
Magoon said he informed the developer about the Town asserting safe harbor on 40B, but did not immediately get a response. The developer can appeal the assertion, which would mean Watertown officials would have to prove to the state their claim for having more than 1.5 percent of the land for affordable housing.
Proving the safe harbor will be a challenge, but Magoon said he believes the Town will be approved.
“Not a lot have asserted (they met the land area standard) and even fewer have had it approved,” Magoon said. “It is certainly not a slam dunk, but I feel pretty comfortable we are there.”
What goes into the calculation is complex, Magoon said. While Watertown is slightly more than 4 square miles in area, only the developable land is used as the basis for the calculation. Parks, waterways, roads, and town-owned property do not count.
For most buildings with affordable units, only the area of the affordable portion is counted, unless it has more than 25 percent for affordable housing. Then they can count the entire building, Magoon said.
Watertown would not be the first community to use the land area method to gain safe harbor, but only a handful have done it. Only three communities had received that designation as of 2007, according to a document from the Town of Acton, while 51 communities qualified by meeting the standard of 10 percent of all units being affordable.