Onset Fire District officials challenge affordable housing project

Apr 7, 2018

Onset Fire District officials are challenging a request from the developers of a massive affordable housing complex to waive an estimated $150,000 to $200,000 in permit fees.

“This board is determined to fight for ratepayers and their groundwater,” said Onset Board of Water Commissioners Chair Ben Hughes. “Dakota Partners is a multi-million dollar enterprise…We’re not going to be able to stop them, but they’re going to have to deal with us.”

Proposed by the Waltham-based Dakota Partners, the project, dubbed Woodland Cove, calls for building a 174-unit housing complex at 3102 Cranberry Highway. Under the state's affordable housing law (Chapter 40B), local zoning regulations are relaxed for affordable housing projects in towns where less than 10 percent of homes or apartments are considered affordable. In Wareham, 7.7 percent of residences are affordable. Officials estimate that if the project were built it would add roughly 2 percent to the amount of affordable housing in town.

The Board of Selectmen and many residents are opposed to the project, saying it will tax the town’s infrastructure, schools and finances.

Currently, Dakota Partners is seeking a “comprehensive permit” from the Zoning Board of Appeals. If approved, the permit will allow developers to hook into the Onset Fire District’s water supply without paying fees. Also, the project wouldn't have to comply with several water regulations that apply to construction not protected by 40B, said Hughes.

“Chapter 40B has unbelievable powers,” said Hughes.

He noted that if the Zoning Board of Appeals grants the comprehensive permit, district officials are prepared to fight.

“If the Zoning Board of Appeals issues [Dakota Partners] a comprehensive permit, we’re not going to abide by that,” said Hughes, adding that a legal battle may be on the horizon.

While other cities and towns have tried and failed in court to hold 40B projects to local standards, Hughes said the district’s unique legal status may give it an edge.

The Onset Fire District is not governed by the Town of Wareham. It elects its own officers, develops its own budget and passes bylaws similar to how Town Meeting operates to provide water and fire protection in Onset. The district is funded by ratepayers who use water.

Hughes said the district’s attorney found that fire and water districts that fought 40B projects likely failed because they were controlled by cities or towns, not separate legal entities similar to Onset. Hughes said if the district takes Dakota Partners to court, the case could set a precedent.

Dakota Partners Attorney Peter Freeman was unfazed by that argument. At a hearing held earlier this year, Freeman said case law showed that the district was compelled to follow the Zoning Board of Appeals decision.

“There is no gray area,” said Freeman.

However, Hughes said district officials are undaunted. In addition to potentially losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in permit fees from the decision, Hughes said the district is committed to hold the project to the same regulations that protect Onset’s water supply.

He noted that the project’s proximity to its water source could spell trouble for water quality. Storm water runoff is also a concern, he said.

Through the district’s environmental consulting firm, officials made several requests of Dakota Partners. Those include submitting reports on how much water the project will use daily, the location of underground storage tanks in the area, the location of hazardous materials, the effect the project will have on the water system’s ability to fight fires, the potential for water contamination, stormwater runoff treatment plans and others.

Hughes said all of those requests will help officials determine the project’s impact.

"The Onset Water Department, its superintendent and the Board of Water Commissioners want to assure the people of Onset that every avenue within our power will be taken to guarantee the continued safety of the district's water supply," said Hughes.

Wareham Week has reached out to Dakota Partners for additional comment.

To review the information requested from Dakota Partners, click on the link below.