Royal Apartments Remain a Heated Issue With Neighbors

By: William F. Galvin

The former Royal Assisted Living Facility. A proposal to convert it to 26 apartments was back before the planning board last week. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH – The 26-unit Royal Apartments project is back before the planning board under the new multifamily use zoning amendment approved by town meeting in September. The new amendment has done little, however, to abate the concerns of neighbors over density, traffic and public safety.

Royal Apartments LLC has been seeking permits for a year to convert the former Royal of Harwich Center assisted living facility on the corner of Bank and Parallel streets into 26 apartments. The project was met with neighborhood resistance nearly a year ago and applications were withdrawn from the board of appeals and planning board.

The multifamily zoning amendment approved in the annual town meeting in September was designed to create workforce housing. The change removed restrictive lot size requirements and developed a new means for determining the number of bedrooms that could be located on a particular parcel.

Attorney Benjamin Zehnder said the plan before the board was essentially the same project proposed last February. His client was willing to make three of the units “small a” affordable, aimed at working people, as part of the plan, he said.

“It provides a much needed resource at no cost to the town and we believe it is a great project for the town,” Zehnder said of adding workforce housing.

Planning Board Chairman Duncan Berry said the board received 10 letters and emails in opposition and one in support. Concerns included density, nuisance issues relating to vehicles and pedestrians, environmental and septic concerns and sidewalk and parking problems.

The letter in support came from Art Bodin, chairman of the town’s housing committee, who spoke about the need for workforce housing and said this was the best use for the property. Bodin also said the project would help to revitalize Harwich Center.

Larry Brophy, a member of the affordable housing trust and a former planning board chairman, agreed there is a dire need for such housing in Harwich. Brophy said the COVID-19 pandemic has driven up housing costs, and this project would help provide reasonably priced housing for workforce and small families.

But attorney David Reid, representing Greg Winston and David Plunkett, who own property across Parallel Street from the Royal building, said the zoning amendment does not dissolve all their concerns, and his clients remain in opposition.

Reid contended there are building non-conformity issues that have not yet been addressed. He referred to the height of the building, use of a third floor, curb cuts and the closeness of the building to the street. When a non-conforming building is being altered, it requires a variance from the board of appeals, he said.

Under the new zoning, the site density is controlled by parking density, Reid said, and 23 of the 43 parking spaces are within the 50-foot setback from lot lines. The applicant has applied for waiver relief for parking provisions under the Harwich Center Overlay District bylaw. Reid contended those waivers are not allowed under zoning provisions. Any changes are not supposed to affect the neighborhood, he said.

“We contend it will,” he said. “It changes a benign retirement center to a very active housing complex. Traffic increases by 300 percent with this use. It’s a significant, detrimental change to the neighborhood.”

Interim Town Planner Charleeen Geenhalgh said the board has historically granted parking waivers sought by an applicant sought under similar conditions.

Zehnder took exceptions to Reid’s opinion, saying the preamble to the bylaw states the board can waive any provisions on setbacks if it doesn’t substantially derogate from the bylaw. As for the issues of building nonconformity, Zehnder agreed with Reid, but added there are no plans to alter the exterior of the building.

With the disagreement over the legal interpretations of the zoning bylaw, it was agreed the board would get an opinion from town counsel.

Several residents raised issues about crosswalks and concerns about the use of Parallel Street as a bypass for Harwich Center. Parallel Street resident Peter Antonellis said police and fire vehicles travel the road at high speeds as do many other drives that use it as a short-cut. He said the Royal assisted living facility generated no traffic and 26 apartments would increase traffic considerably.

Despite a call for a traffic study, the board agreed one would not be necessary. There were also recommendations to add crosswalks. Alex Borden, speaking on behalf of Royal Apartments LLC, said the owners would be willing to provide a donation to the town to address sidewalk needs associated with the project.

With the need for a legal opinion from town counsel on issues raised by Reid and Zehnder, and with recommendations that additional discussions be conducted with town officials over sidewalk issues, the board continued the hearing to Feb. 9.