By Dustin Luca
---- — A zoning proposal coming to Town Meeting aims to put elderly housing development in west Andover in the fast lane.
The Senior Residential Community Overlay District, articles 26 and 27 on the warrant, seeks to turn 113 acres of land around the Franciscan Center on River Road into a privately developed, independent elderly living community.
The zoning pitch is the end product of about two years of work for the Franciscan Overlay Task Force. The volunteer committee developed the zoning after Wingate Healthcare, with an elderly housing facility on Andover Street, expressed interest in buying the land in 2011.
Wingate eventually withdrew its interest in the site, but the task force kept moving forward to see the zoning proposal through, according to task force Chairman Charlie Kendrick.
“The purpose of this article is to take the single-family district and put some features on it so there is some additional flexibility on it” for developers, he said.
The land already has a laundry list of allowable uses, including the following: residential zoning, multi-family dwellings, municipal or childcare facilities, and even things as specific as farm stands and keeping or boarding of horses, ponies, cows or other large domestic animals.
But as time has gone on, the site has housed only the Franciscan Center, used since its creation as a retreat by the Franciscans until recently. No other development opportunities have moved forward, according to Planning Director Paul Materazzo.
Meanwhile, “for the last 20 years, as part of the master plan for the town of Andover, they’ve been finding ways to make the town more accessible financially for the elderly population,” Kendrick said.
Therein lies the heart of the issue. For decades, stereotypes have supported the notion that elderly New Englanders migrate when they enter retirement.
In these economic times, that isn’t happening anymore, officials say. New England is getting older, yet the cost to live here is still getting higher, according to Mary Cormier, a member of the task force.
“They’re looking for more of an option to live, but to live independently,” she said. “There really isn’t a good option in the town of Andover like there is in other communities.”
The zoning is tailored to take the Franciscan Center land and overlay a new zoning option. The present development opportunities would stand, but because it would be easier and faster to develop the land as elderly housing, Materazzo said that would become the preferred option for anyone looking to invest in the property down the road.
And since town officials have developed the zoning, it puts Andover in the driver’s seat in determining what that development should look like, Materazzo said.
With that, officials had two particular interests they wanted to protect on the site, according to Materazzo: keeping the existing seminary buildings intact, and leaving open space along the back of the property abutting the Merrimack River undeveloped.
Development on the site is limited to 200 residential units and 200 assisted living, congregate living and skilled nursing beds. It also must keep a minimum of 30 percent of the land untouched by construction, in order to preserve open space.
However, if developers keep the seminary buildings on the site and add another 20 percent of community space to what already exists for open space, they’re able to increase the number of units by 15 percent for each item, Materazzo said.
With those development perks, “you preserve the greatest asset, which is the character of the land itself,” Kendrick said.
If residents support the zoning measure at Town Meeting, the Planning Board would be the deciding authority on any senior residential permits sought, according to Materazzo.
Town Meeting begins on Monday, May 6, at 7 p.m. at the Andover High School field house, 80 Shawsheen Road.
The event is slated for three nights and is expected to run the full duration.