Norwell homeowners pit affordable housing against conservation
SJC considers whether town was clearly reserving land for affordable housing
WHEN MEMBERS of a Norwell town meeting voted almost 20 years ago to make a 6.3-acre piece of land available for affordable housing, they might have considered being a bit more specific. Because of some uncertainty surrounding the designation, the affluent suburban town is now in the middle of a classic land use showdown while the state buckles under a significant housing shortage.
The parcels in question – together known as the Wildcat Land – are city-owned property near the Wildcat Lane residential subdivision, surrounded by conservation land and walking trails. In 2004, a Town Meeting vote “authorized the Board of Selectmen to make available” the land “for affordable housing.”
Nearby homeowners who objected to a proposed affordable housing project at the site in 2021, and instead want to see the property set aside for conservation, are now asking the state’s highest court to decide if the original town meeting vote was an affordable housing restriction or just a suggestion.
According to the town, the Wildcat Land was under the board’s control “to use for affordable housing purposes” from the 2004 vote on. Admittedly, not much happened on the site after that.
Though the town established a community housing trust a few years later, the Wildcat Land was never placed into it. An offer to construct affordable homes at the site a bit after that was rejected. But the town did, according to court filings, conduct a study of the land that found it would be acceptable for multi-unit affordable housing. It later identified the parcel as a “housing development” in its 2019 housing trust plan.
But when a plan to construct a 24-unit complex including some affordable units came onto the scene, nearby homeowners objected forcefully. They introduced a citizen’s petition which passed that May to allow the board of selectmen to move the land into conservation status instead, but a split board did not act on the petition, with board members and the town’s attorney saying they would first have to vote that it was no longer suitable for affordable housing.
Carroll ultimately sued on behalf of several homeowners to enforce the transfer. According to the town’s legal filings, Carroll also tried to complete the transfer of the land “without lawful authority or the Board’s permission.”
After the lower court ruled in favor of the town, Carroll argued before the Supreme Judicial Court that there is still an issue to be decided by the court – whether the town meeting vote in 2004 was just an advisory statement that the land could be used for affordable housing.
Justices appeared skeptical of his argument that there must be some form of legal easement or restriction beyond the authorization, pressing repeatedly for specifics on what that would look like.“The town has always said this is for affordable housing,” said Justice Serge Georges at oral argument. “So although there wasn’t anything explicit in terms of deed restrictions or easements or anything you can point to and say ‘look,’ well, I can understand they might have been accused of sitting on their hands and not actually executing on it, but they haven’t done anything inconsistent with it.”
Conservation designations can often be a tool to prevent land from being used as affordable housing, even when pools of money are made available to do so.