Letter to MassHousing on the Swains Pond 40B Development Proposal

April 30, 2019

Mr. Gregory Watson
Manager, Comprehensive Permit Programs
Attention: MH ID No. 1015
One Beacon Street
Boston, MA 02108

Mr. Watson,

We, Scott Forbes and Michael Zwirko, are elected Aldermen in the City of Melrose, MA. One of us serves as a City-wide Alderman and the other for Ward 7, which is the section of the City where the MassHousing ID No. 1015 is being proposed. We are submitting this letter as a formal comment response to the Site Approval Application Notification the City of Melrose received on March 18, 2019. The applicants have named this proposed project the “Swains Pond Development” and I will refer to it as such in this comment response letter. As outlined in this letter, the Swains Pond Development (“SPD”) is unsuitable as proposed for its density, public health, environmental and safety concerns and should be rejected for eligibility by MassHousing.

As detailed in the materials attached with SPD’s application, and stated in the “Evidence of Prior Contact with the City of Melrose” section of the Development Summary, one of the developers, Mr. Sean Szekely, outlined the historical timeline of discussions with the City of Melrose regarding the SPD. However, discussions with the City of Melrose had occurred much earlier than detailed by Mr. Szekely. In fact, when he purchased the land from the New Hampshire entity that acquired the land in auction a number of years ago, City officials were upfront and clear about the issues with development on that parcel of land. Although the Planning Board approved a 9-unit subdivision plan in the late 1990s, the subdivision was never constructed due to the difficulties related to the land, primarily wetlands and the topography, and the resulting financial implications. 

Mr. Szekley has experience with the requirements of the City of Melrose when he took over the development of the 8 unit subdivision off of Dexter Road. He was aware of these requirements when he purchased the property off of Swains Pond Avenue and the conversations had with City of Melrose officials regarding the expectations for development of the subdivision. The property is simply too difficult and thus too costly to develop, and Mr. Szekely knows these facts. 

When Mr. Szekely purchased the Dexter Road property in 2016, he was fully aware of slope protections and environmental concerns the City had raised. These same concerns are paramount with the proposed SPD. The City of Melrose Office of Planning and Community Development stated at the time that the “Planning Staff supports this 8-lot subdivision...At eight lots, the length of the road is reduced substantially and many of the more significant areas of sloped terrain are left untouched.” The new plan reduced blasting by approximately 90 percent and the amount of the proposed disturbance to sloped areas was decreased from 21,740 square feet to approximately 1,630 square feet. 

As you can read from the above, the slope disturbances and blasting reductions are precisely why the City went to Land Court in the first place. The proposed SPD is on property directly abutting the Dexter Road development and Mr. Szekely knows the environmental, slope protection and topographical issues in developing this tract of land. The slope and blasting concerns will be compounded with the proposed SPD. Since 2016, Mr. Szekely has been acutely aware of the City’s concerns and he has continually not acted in good faith with City officials or the residents of this neighborhood. It is clear that his intention has always been to maximize development in this section of Melrose with wanton disregard for the residents and the environment. His proposal for a 40B development is simply to procure a profit in expediency rather than look for alternatives that could be mutually beneficial.

In addition to the many development impact issues of this parcel of land, to say that this plan is akin to “smart growth” policies and practices is laughable. Over the past decade, the City of Melrose has created new enhanced zoning areas ripe for Smart Growth developments and has seen many successful projects. The SPD is much further from any true public transportation locations in Melrose. Citing one bus line stop and further stating the the MBTA Orange Line is nearly two miles away cannot declare this project to be “Smart.” In no way is it explained or detailed how the SPD will reduce dependence on private automobiles. The truth is, given the location of this site in a remote and rural area of Melrose, it will create a large automobile demand.

The environmental impacts alone are so large that it should be grounds for its rejection. The SPD application states that there is a wetland on the site. In addition to that wetland, there are numerous wildlife that will be severely impacted and their habitats forever destroyed. Within 800 feet of this development are three areas that are either designated as conservation land or parkland. The applicant counters these environmental impacts by stating the site will be professionally landscaped. Landscaping is not natural nor does it allow for animal habitats. Further, the applicant addresses the wetland issues by stating they will “protect wetlands by adhering to DEP stormwater management standards.” In Mr. Szekely’s development and construction of the Dexter Road property, he has already had to appear in front of the Melrose Conservation Commission to address issues with discharges into wetlands. For him to claim he will be able to adhere to DEP stormwater management standards requires more significant inquiry from MassHousing. 

In conclusion, we urge MassHousing to reject this application so it will allow for the City of Melrose and Mr. Szekely to continue discussions on this parcel of land, as there are many items to address. MassHousing’s goals - as outlined on your “missions & values” section of your website - state to “confront the housing challenges facing the Commonwealth to improve the lives of its people” and, offer “innovation and agility in the delivery of responsible lending products, housing opportunities and services.” Your values are stated as “Integrity, Excellence, Collaboration, Respect, Accountability, Service.” In being true to your missions & values, we ask that the SPD be rejected to allow Melrose the autonomy to improve the lives of our people, be responsible with housing opportunities and further collaborate. The impacts to the environment, the collateral damage from blasting, the strain on existing infrastructure in this location all should give MassHousing pause. Melrose has been a leader in creating ways to develop in thoughtful ways. We are not opposed to growth. We are so in this location as it strains credulity as to why this is seen as “Smart” and even appropriate. As Mr. Szekely’s timeline in his application details, it is clear that this project development has been in haste. A project of this magnitude, with all of its impacts, requires more conversation. Allow the City to have these conversations so that costly litigation, time, resources and energy can be spared.

With sincere regards, 

Michael Zwirko
Alderman-at-Large, City of Melrose
100 Derby Road
Melrose, MA 02176
(781) 662-1966

Scott Forbes
Ward 7 Alderman, City of Melrose
41 Mystic Avenue
Melrose, MA 02176
(978) 873-0916 

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Mike Zwirko