When nearly 70 people show up to attend a Selectmen's meeting in mid-summer, something has caught the attention of Belmont residents.
And the overwhelming negative reaction by homeowners of a Belmont Hill neighborhood to word that a out-of-state medical facilities developer was interested in purchasing a town-owned parcel adjacent to with access off Greensbrook Way sent a clear message to the Belmont Board of Selectmen at its Wednesday night meeting, Aug. 15.
Speakers – including a slew of attorneys and the star power coming from a member of the Romney family – convinced the board to rework a proposed development blueprint favoring single-family homes and expanding the time frame for developers to bid for the 300,000 square-foot parcel.
"If there is that much interest in a residential prospective, maybe we should first see what that interest is and restrict the RFP to a residential preference," said Selectmen Chairman Mark Paolillo to the cheers of those in attendance.
In addition, prospective developers will be provided more time to assemble a bid then previously proposed.
The board has left a small window open for possible commercial uses, indicating they would need to compare the bids from residential developers with the appraisal of the parcel, which will be completed in the next few days.
"To be honest, if there isn't any interest or doesn't meet the appraised value, as a board we may reconsider because we have future obligations," said Paolillo.
The changes were a relief to many who live on Greensbrook Way and Woodfall and Longmeadow roads in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Belmont Hill.
"We got residents informed and brought them out tonight and it was a big success," said Eleanor Counselman, who heads a new neighborhood association, Preserve Belmont Hillcrest, that "developed organically in response to the hospice."
"This has turned into a great community-building opportunity," she said.
For many of the speakers, a commercial development even one that would only require half the lots on the parcel, would result in increased traffic from employees, ambulances and hearses coming into a close knit residential neighborhood, in addition to construction and other considerations.
"What you are suggesting by allowing a commercial development is that on the backs of the neighbors ... you are going to increase the revenue to the town," said attorney Edward Rabinovitz of Greybirch Park.
How much is it worth
"What this boils down to is how much money (the town will receive for the parcel). That's the issue here," said Rabinovitz, quizzing the board on what's important to residents.
"Money has never been Belmont's sole consideration in anything it does. People move to Belmont for the quality of life, because of the educational system, because of the higher values. Not because of money governs all decisions that they make," he noted.
In addition, the quick turnover originally proposed by the town on the proposed project – developers would be given until Oct. 10 to submit a bid with the parcel being awarded on Oct. 31 – was believed by residents to play into the hands of a development firm which has the personnel and financing at their fingertips as opposed to the contractor who would need to assemble the necessary components over what was perceived to be a shortened-time frame.
The turning point of the meeting occurred with Greensbrook Way resident Tagg Romney expressing the collective zeitgeist saying a hospice will eventually bring down property values "dramatically" in the area and effecting negatively town tax coffers, noting also that nearly two dozen children under the age of 16 live on his street.
Romney – who said he left his father's campaign for President to attend the meeting – said the neighborhood has received word that a growing number of residential developers are keen to build on the lots.
"We have been wishing that the town would put the land back out to bid so I or someone else could put homes there," he said, to applause from those attending.
Single-family homes in the neighborhood run from $700,000 Capes to well over $3.5 million for newly-constructed McMansions.
The spark that brought the crowd out to Town Hall on a dank Wednesday night – filling the Selectmen's Room to standing room capacity – was information released by the town's Planning Department in June that an Atlanta-based national development firm, Integra Medicial Properties , expressed interest in the parcel to construct a single story, 18 room, end-of-life hospice.
Owned in its present configuration by the town since 2005, this year's Town Meeting approved the sale of the 2.5 acres site.
Five years ago, the town placed the parcel out to auction but the winning party could not secure the financing for the more than $2.5 million he bid. The property laid dormant during the economic downturn until it was resuscitated by the Office of Community Development as interest in Belmont real estate has perked up.
Written by Jay Szklut, the town's planning and economic development manager, the initial draft Request for Proposal – which outlines the requirements of developers and what can be built on the property – that was released last month allows an owner to build four single-family homes "as of right" without any town action.
Anything other than homes – including elderly housing, a medical facility or cluster housing – would require a "special permit" which would be issued by the Zoning Board of Appeal.
But those plans appear no longer needed with the changes proposed by the board.
Romney said he would not seek to bid on the parcel this time around, rather being happy that any future project will likely be residential.