MassDevelopment was asked to coordinate the redevelopment of the 4,400-acre former Fort Devens military base, which is situated within three different towns.

From Arlington to Stoneham to Malden, communities are increasingly demanding a say in what goes on in their neighbors’ backyards.

Developers have long recognized the importance of winning the support of the town in which they want to undertake a project. But development has exploded in the Bay State, land is scarcer and new projects and their impacts are crossing town lines. Communities are starting to take notice – and action.

The consequences of not consulting neighboring town authorities – or failing to woo residents in nearby communities – can be great. Three separate lawsuits have been filed against the town of Stoneham regarding the Gutierrez Co.’s plans to build a new office park on the former Boston Regional Medical Center site.

The proposal was approved by Stoneham’s Planning Board earlier this year. But a group of residents from Stoneham and Melrose, as well as the cities of Medford and Melrose, have filed appeals, claiming that the Planning Board did not sufficiently notify neighbors.

No action has been taken on the legal matters as yet, according to Melrose Mayor Patrick Guerriero. But the tide is starting to turn as developers and residents begin a dialogue.

“Beyond the letter of the law and the legal piece we’re working on, the parties really have started coming to the table,” Guerriero said. “The Gutierrez Co. has shown a willingness to go further with their traffic and environmental study. We’re seeing the type of dialogue that maybe should have happened months ago.”

Guerriero said he thinks the project will ultimately go through, especially since the plan represents an important economic development project at a critical site in the area.

“One thing everyone agrees on is enhancing economic development,” Guerriero said. “That’s our hope, to make this place work and work for the surrounding communities.”

Guerriero sees a need for better methods of mediation between communities in such situations.

“Those in the public and private sectors having to turn to lawyers to resolve differences shouldn’t be an issue. They should be at the negotiating table in the spirit of creating a strong economic climate. We need to find better ways of talking through these types of issues,” Guerriero said.

No Place for Egos
In some cases, communities have been drawn together by mutual concern driven by simple geography. The Alewife area, where the towns of Belmont, Cambridge and Arlington converge, has experienced an eruption of new development proposals, perhaps most notably Boston-based Mugar Enterprises’ bid to develop an 18-acre parcel in Arlington into a $30 million office park. For the past 20 years, state officials and local residents have thwarted various attempts to develop that site.

The parcel, zoned for office use, is located across from the Alewife MBTA station and the Arthur D. Little headquarters, just off Route 2. Mugar has petitioned the state for direct access from Route 2 to the property, but the petition has yet to be settled, according to Kevin O’Brien, Arlington’s assistant director of planning.

The tremendous development interest in Alewife has led to “quite a bit of cooperation” among the three towns involved, O’Brien said. With so many agencies and parties involved, from the state on the Route 2 issue to the local planning boards to nearby residents who are more organized than ever, developers like Mugar are finding it increasingly hard to move forward on projects.

The cities of Medford, Malden and Everett have proven that there is strength in numbers when it comes to their joint development of TeleCom City, a project to turn 200 acres of blighted industrial land into a state-of-the-art telecommunications research park.

The Mystic Valley Development Commission, a quasi-public agency led by the mayors of each city, was established in 1996 to oversee development of the site.

“We used to compete against each other for development,” Burke said. Now, the collaboration has spurred other positive efforts, including all three towns building a total of 15 to 17 new schools, complete with technology training to give local students a fair chance at jobs.

When complete, the project will include 1.8 million square feet of office space. Construction on the first 110,000-square-foot office building is expected to start this summer.

Everett comprises about 100 acres of the site, with the other cities accounting for 50 acres each. To smooth out the issue of tax revenue generated by particular buildings on particular areas of the site, the cities agreed on one comprehensive tax rate for property in TeleCom City.

Such collaboration “speaks to densely populated communities, urban communities, looking to grow their tax and employment base,” said Burke.

“With this site, I don’t think any one community by themselves would have pulled it off,” she said, mentioning the increased number of state senators and representatives working for the project.

“We decided to leave our egos at the door … We found out we were no longer Medford, Malden and Everett. We were a political entity the size of a Worcester,” said Medford Mayor Michael McGlynn.

To date, the state has allocated about $50 million to the project for infrastructure, with the federal government giving more than $11 million.

Contrasting with the way the Stoneham development has been handled, McGlynn explained that the original goal of creating 10,000 new jobs with TeleCom City was cut back to 7,500 in order to provide public open space in the campus, a trade-off for increased traffic.

“When you develop, you have to be conscious of the surrounding towns. The bottom line is, there are no secrets in government,” McGlynn said.

Building consensus has been a time-consuming process, each step requiring approval from each community. The project has also survived the changing of two mayors. But citizens advisory boards meet regularly. Local press has been inundated with updates on the project, and a monthly television show on the local public access station is dedicated to the project.

“It’s been good public policy,” Burke said.

And makes for good business policy.

“You almost can’t avoid having an impact on adjacent communities,” said Harold DuLong, managing senior partner of the Burlington office of Riemer & Braunstein LLP. The Burlington location deals exclusively with land-use permitting.

“Towns have become much more sophisticated about development. The wise developer hires people who are astute about establishing discussion with adjoining towns. The permitting process is complex enough without having adversaries who feel they will be impacted and that they weren’t consulted,” DuLong said.

MassDevelopment, the state’s economic development authority, is often invited to serve as a master developer or called in to work across town lines, according to Chris Kealey, spokesman for MassDevelopment. The largest such project is the redevelopment of the 4,400-acre former Fort Devens in Central Massachusetts.

Fort Devens spans Ayer, Harvard and Shirley. About five years ago, when the U.S. Army pulled out, all three towns were wrestling with the overwhelming question of what to do with the old fort. No single town had the capacity to redevelop the site.

Through special legislation, MassDevelopment stepped in. Overall, MassDevelopment has recruited more than 70 businesses and institutions to locate at the site, employing more than 3,100. Currently, 282 units of housing are in the works.

A unique structure called the joint boards of selectmen was formed of members of the three towns to govern what goes on at the site.

“It’s worked out well on both sides,” said Kealey. “Certainly there are disagreements and discussions, but it’s a good vehicle for communication and input. For us, it’s a good sounding board.”

In terms of mediation methods, communities need to be able to work out differences on their own, said Kealey.

“There’s a long tradition in Massachusetts of home rule. We have 351 separate cities and towns, some with very diverse interests and needs. But I can point to several examples, and Devens is one of them, where communities have been able to put aside their differences and achieve a tremendous amount of success,” Kealey said.

Multitown Projects Produce Cooperation and Opposition

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 5 min