Residents seek answers to big housing development at old Belchertown State Hospital

The proposed site of a 108-unit residential development at the old Belchertown State School, with Carriage Road to the west looking north toward the Town Common.

The proposed site of a 108-unit residential development at the old Belchertown State School, with Carriage Road to the west looking north toward the Town Common. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

The proposed site of a 108-unit residential development at the old Belchertown State School, at the intersection of Carriage Road to the left and Front Street looking north toward the Town Common.

The proposed site of a 108-unit residential development at the old Belchertown State School, at the intersection of Carriage Road to the left and Front Street looking north toward the Town Common. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By Emilee Klein

Staff Writer

Published: 02-03-2024 10:48 AM

BELCHERTOWN — Donna Buxton hears every day that many Belchertown residents have no idea that a 108-unit residential development may be built on the old state school property off State Street.

Before the creation of the Economic Development Industrial Corp. (EDIC), the nonprofit, quasi-governmental organization charged with overseeing redevelopment of the former Belchertown State School, Buxton was involved in the redevelopment of the closed psychiatric facility as a member of the Belchertown State School Reuse Committee. She supported plans to transition the campus into homes for the elderly to aid the aging baby boomer population.

After the EDIC’s proposed master plan for the property passed at annual Town Meeting in 2001, Buxton’s role dwindled.

Last she heard, redevelopment plans included an industrial park for light industry, retail and restaurant businesses and assisted and independent living communities for the elderly. Four months ago, however, she caught wind that a Brooklyn-based development company called Brisa Ventures LLC was pitching a plan for a large housing complex.

The Carriage Grove development would include three multifamily housing buildings and three sets of roadhouses with solar installations to keep the buildings close to net-zero emissions.

Buxton expressed her frustrations to the EDIC in December about a lack of transparency regarding the project. “It’s just that there so little information out there, nobody knows anything ... I didn’t know that this project went from what I thought it was to what it is now,” she said.

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At least 20 residents share her concerns and are raising questions about the project. Since early October, six representatives from the group have been attending Planning Board and EDIC meetings to receive updates on the project and ask the same 10 questions.

They want to know who will manage the development, how many units will be affordable, the financial impact of the project on the town’s budget, how potential traffic issues will be addressed, and what the estimated tax revenue will be for the town.

“Overall, it’s the vague response to the pertinent questions having to do with what it’s going to cost us as a community,” resident Stacia Roy said. “We need contribution to the tax base to alleviate the constant increase in our property taxes.”

Brisa’s plan

Brisa Venture’s plans are twofold: In addition to the 108 new mixed-income units, the project also redesigns the Belchertown State School’s administration building into a town archive and museum.

The project is part of a larger plan that began in 2012 to reuse the 400,000-square-foot state school property, which is being overseen by MassDevelopment and the Belchertown EDIC. Officials said in the summer of 2021 that the current housing project would be the first phase of a larger partnership with Brisa Ventures that was to include more commercial and residential development.

Christopher Heights, an 83-unit assisted living facility, opened at Carriage Grove in 2018. Belchertown Day School, an early childhood education center, opened in September 2020.

Brisa’s residential community would consist of mixed-income townhouses and apartments, at least 10% of which would be reserved for affordable housing that count toward Belchertown’s subsidized housing index. Brisa has yet to finalize the number of affordable housing units because the exact numbers depend on funding acquired after site plan approval, according to Brisa Principal Hammad Graham.

“That’s still a work in progress. Affordable housing is broad. There’s multiple income tiers that would fall under affordable housing, and that’s tied to unit sizes as well as putting together an income mix that represents western Massachusetts but also helps the financial feasibility of the development,” Graham said.

Rob and Stacia Roy say they have major concerns about the unknown number of affordable housing units: They fear Brisa will turn the whole development into affordable housing. Rob Roy asked about the amount of subsidized housing units several times at various meetings, but the Planning Board and EDIC give the same response: The development will include at least 10% affordable housing as outlined by the zoning bylaws.

“Something of that magnitude can change the character of the town,” he said. “If the developer decided to put 108 units of low-income housing, that’s going to be a major strain onto the town.”

The Roys view the property as the perfect place for an industrial park because the railroad tracks that run through the area could be an attractive attribute for light industry and manufacturing. Businesses, Rob Roy said, provide tax revenue for the town and alleviates the growing financial burden on residents.

“You only have one chance to get this right. This is the only piece of property in town that’s left for light industry,” he said. “Every time I bring this up in the EDIC meeting, (BEDIC Member Beth Maroney) goes ‘we’ve been waiting 30 years for businesses to come in.’ Yeah, it might take 30 years, it might take 60 years, it might take our lifetime, but once one or two companies come in, it opens up the flood gates and more people start coming it and seeing the property as viable.”

Both the EDIC and Town Planner Doug Albertson say that Belchertown requires a higher population density to draw in and support an industrial park. EDIC member Bob Rivard said the board reviewed eight market studies and assessed current market trends to decipher the most high-demand projects for the state school property.

The studies showed Belchertown as an attractive area for residential property, with some opportunity for niche light industry. With these trends in mind, a zoning change went before Town Meeting in 2014 to add a new “Business Neighborhood Center District” zone category that allows mixed-use residential housing.

“For realistic economic development activity to increase in Belchertown, there needs to be enough people to support the businesses that would locate here. Now, the density in town doesn’t promote the economic activity that could be here,” Albertson said in an email. “We hope very much that we will have locally-based businesses and that local residents will patronize them rather than buy online or out of town.”

In response to Buxton’s comments on the lack of communication and public information on the development, the EDIC published a press release explaining the history of the project, past projects in the area, and Brisa’s role in the development of the state school.

“Belchertown has an incredible opportunity before it to activate long-underutilized land and build critical new housing and recreation space for our community with Brisa Ventures, LLC’s proposed first phases of the Carriage Grove mixed-use development,” the press release said.

Many of Buxton’s questions, such as who will manage the property and upkeep the solar panels atop the development, were not answered by the statement. Buxton said she’s especially concerned about the development using the town’s water supply, leaving less for the future industrial park.

“I think we represent a good chunk of people in town. We hear on a daily basis, people that didn’t know anything about this or they’re glad they’re hearing something about it now, and they have the same concerns that we’ve been expressing at all the different meetings that we’ve been going to,” Buxton said at the EDIC meeting on Jan. 17.

The Planning Board has held three public hearings on the Brisa development, and has yet to make a decision on the site plan. The next public hearing will take place on Feb. 13 at 7 p.m.

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.