Burlington is hoping to preserve historic Grandview Farm in the center of town while building affordable housing through a unique land-swapping deal.

A multifaceted land development proposal unveiled late last month in Burlington has caught the attention of state officials who may look to the suburban town as a model when it comes to finding solutions that incorporate the wishes of growth-minded developers and town officials interested in preservation.

After more than two years of informal and formal talks that eventually included the suburban town, two private developers and a nonprofit housing corporation, Burlington officials presented a plan at a selectmen’s meeting that involves a complicated four-parcel land exchange between the town and two local developers.

The land swap is being hailed as a compromise that allows the developers to build residential units – including affordable housing – as well as commercial space. It also allows the town to preserve open space and a historic site in the center of town. While the parties involved have agreed to the approval, it is still subject to a Town Meeting vote in early May.

“We have a unique opportunity as a result of the land exchange to define the future of Burlington, while preserving its storied past,” said Town Administrator Robert Mercier. “Within this project lies a tremendous opportunity to reap unprecedented benefits for the residents of Burlington that will positively affect the town for generations to come.”

The land-swap idea started about two years ago as a “straight two-way swap,” Mercier said, involving the town and Burlington-based The Gutierrez Co. “We have a piece of property on Wheeler Road that’s difficult for us to use [for residential purposes],” Mercier said of a 14-acre parcel there. “But it’s got some real value, so we wanted to swap it with the Gutierrez land on Mountain Road, where we could put up some senior housing.”

He added that in the interim, Gary Ruping, principal of Billerica-based Ruping Builders, presented a plan to develop a parcel it owns – known as Grandview Farm and located near the Town Commons – into 105 residential units using a comprehensive permit obtained through the state’s Chapter 40B anti-snob zoning laws.

“They were going to put in three apartment buildings, and it met a lot of resistance for a lot of reasons,” Mercier said. “The neighbors were resistant, as they always are, and we already have a Chapter 40B development behind the post office and wanted to retain the character of the center of town. So we thought, ‘Why not have a three-way agreement?’

“If we owned the parcel on Mountain Road, we could swap it with Ruping and get [his development] out of the center of town, but get 48 units of senior housing built [at the Grandview Farms site] and [Ruping] will build another 36 senior units at his development at no cost to us,” he said.

Not all of the Mountain Road parcel would be transferred to Ruping. About seven of the 19 acres would be kept by the town as an Easter box turtle habitat.

Gutierrez also would pay the town $75,000 per year for 20 years under the plan.

Forward Thinking
There are two or three buildable house lots at the rear of the Grandview Farm site that would be sold to the highest bidder, Mercier said. The money the town gains from the sale of those parcels would be used to renovate the Grandview farmhouse, which will remain a town-owned facility. The dilapidated barn structure on the Grandview property, which is believed to be oldest structure in Burlington, would be dismantled and reconstructed at the Francis Wyman House property on Francis Wyman Road.

The property on Wheeler Road, which sits along Route 128, would remain in its current state, and its new owner, Gutierrez, would have to follow normal planning procedures to build on that land.

Framingham-based nonprofit Southern Middlesex Opportunity Council has negotiated with the town to develop and manage the senior affordable housing units at the Grandview site.

On Mountain Road, Ruping said he plans to construct 144 market-rate units and 36 additional affordable units that would be set aside for Burlington residents in perpetuity.

Assuming the land swap is approved by the town, construction on the units, which would be luxury apartments, would begin in the fall of 2001, with an estimated construction timetable of 18 months. That project is expected to cost about $35 million.

“Our target market will be young professionals that work within the high-tech corridor of 128 at places like Sun and Oracle,” Ruping said of the development, which would consist of one- and two-bedroom units.

“This plan is a very creative way to solve a number of problems,” Ruping observed. “Clearly, this will allow many seniors to remain in the town they’ve been living in. This is a great, forward-thinking step taken by the town of Burlington.”

“The whole thrust of this thing is not to spend any taxpayer money,” Mercier said. “We’re trying to get creative to accomplish that, and we think we have all of the components in place.”

To educate the residents of Burlington about the proposal, several information sessions and public hearings are being planned. Additionally, a public relations spokesperson for the town said he is developing a Web site that will post information and record feedback from those visiting the site, which is expected to launch soon.

Ruping said the reaction he has received thus far from the land swap plan has been positive. Mercier, however, cautioned that anything could happen on the Town Meeting floor in May.

“There will always be naysayers out there, and people will question your motive,” he said. “We think we found a way to accomplish a lot of good, without spending any taxpayer dollars.

“Chapter 40B is something that is here to stay, and Mr. Ruping will build something in the center of town if this doesn’t go through … We’re trying to avoid that development [in the center of town], while getting 80 units of senior housing at no cost and rent restrictions in perpetuity. We think it’s a good deal.

“We feel the center of town needs to be preserved as much as possible, and opportunities like this don’t come along often.”

Mercier, who has about two decades of municipal management experience, said the Burlington deal represented the right mix of players combined with perfect timing, and has never seen a similar situation in the state. “Timing in life is everything, and we happen to have the right timing,” he said. “But if this doesn’t happen in May, I’m almost certain Gutierrez will sell its land, Ruping will build on his land, we’ll be stuck with our land on Wheeler Road.”

“This could be a blueprint for other communities looking to preserve buildings or open space,” Ruping said. “I believe this situation is unique in the state.”

“[Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development Director] Jane Wallis Gumble expressed an interest in what we are doing, and a lot of people are watching how we’re doing this,” Mercier said. “I think it will be a model and provide for future planning.

“There’s no template to follow for what we’re doing. We’re breaking new ground.”

Developers, Preservationists Have Model in Burlington Plan

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 5 min