Gloucester's 40-year struggle with a controversial housing project across from Good Harbor Beach may come to a close, with a citizens group looking to buy the Brierneck Crossing site back from the developer with the city's help.
The Friends of Good Harbor Beach, a nonprofit corporation made up of residents who live near the beach, plans to orchestrate buying the property at 70-74 Thatcher Road back from the developer, Brierneck Realty LLC, for $750,000, and placing it in Gloucester's hands.
To do that, the group plans to draw $250,000 from the state, raise another $250,000 and garner a tax credit — and receive $250,000 in Gloucester revenues from the Community Preservation Act.
Gloucester Community Preservation Committee Co-Chairwoman Sandra Dahl Ronan said the city only has $319,000 in CPA dollarss to give out, with several applicants vying for money. That money is generated through a 1 percent surcharge on Gloucester's property tax rates approved by city voters in 2008, and through state money drawn from deeds fees.
"If the city can't do the $250,000," said Denton Crews, a member of the Friends of Good Harbor Beach, a part-time resident of Old Nugent Farm, and point person for the project, "then it's hard to imagine how the whole package can be put together.
But, he added, "you just see this property and you look at it and say, that ought to be marsh," Crews said, adding that The Friends of Good Harbor want to preserve the beach and the marshland, rather than take an antagonistic position against the developer.
Crews attended one of the litany of court hearings on the Brierneck Crossing proposal to build a condominium complex on the site project, with a percentage of the units set aside for affordable housing to qualify the project for the state's Chapter 40B housing regulations.
Crews said the city argued on two technical points about Chapter 40b — a state provision that allowed Brierneck Realty LLC developer James Grifoni to build at the site, and to bypass local zoning constraints and take the project straight to a state housing panel.
But Crews said he wondered — why not talk with the developer and see if they would be willing to let go of the property, which has languished in the face of Gloucester's legal challenges and then the decline of the housing market.
Last August, Crews said he spoke with Steven Goodman, of GFI Partners in Boston, who said the Brierneck Realty would consider selling it for $750,000.
Now, both Brierneck Realty and Friends of Good Harbor Beach are working through an agreement to purchase the site. The company, said Crews, is willing to do it, provided they aren't penalized in permit and other fees during the process of selling the land through a "tolling agreement."
Ideally, the Friends of Good Harbor's CPA application states, the purchase process would start next October, and the city would close on the property the end of January 2013. Neither Goodman nor Grifoni could not be reached for comment on this story.
The Brierneck Crossing parcel contains about six acres of marshland, with roughly two of them buildable.
The city's political leaders and residents of neighborhoods along the Good Harbor marsh fought development on 70-74 Thatcher Road, since Majeed Sallah filled a section of marshland behind the beach and put up a restaurant.
That restaurant eventually burned down ,and North Andover developer Grifoni bought the property back in 1990s.
In the early 2000s, Grifoni tried to build market-rate condominiums on the site, calling the project Brierneck Crossing, but city opposition put the brakes on any development.
That's when he filed with the state's Housing and Finance Agency, saying he wanted to build 23 units at market rate, with six affordable housing units, through Chapter 40B. The agency reduced the project to 12 units and certified it. The city's Zoning Board of Appeals shot that project down.
Chapter 40B allows a developer to bypass local approvals if a project has an affordable housing component. Grifoni appealed, and the state's Housing Appeals Committee overturned the local zoning board decision in 2008, saying the board didn't demonstrate that local environmental concerns outweighed the need for the affordable housing additions.
Since then, the city has fought the matter in the courts, losing at the Superior and Appeals court. The Supreme Judicial Court finally struck down the city's appeal in June 2011, clearing the project to move forward.
With that, Grifoni could build 12 units, four of them, certified as "affordable" under state guidelines. But there's been no movement at the site since.
Gary Le Duc, another member of Friends of Good Harbor, said buying that parcel is an important step for any such restoration.
"We got together and we said, we love the beach and the natural marsh there and let's see if we can prevent it from being ruined for future generation," Le Duc, said.
The preservation, he said, is what matters. Blocking the development, he said, isn't what the Friends of Good Harbor are after.
"It's not just getting a parcel to stop something from being developed," said Crews, "but it's part of a vision."
Before any of the Friends of Good Harbor's plans of the property can happen, the city has to become owner of the six acres, said Councilor Paul McGeary. He's supportive of the project, and said it's a real opportunity for the city.
"The key thing now is just to get protection of the property," McGeary said. "Then you can talk about restoration and enhancement.
To do that, Crews said, the Friends are set to apply for a $250,000 grant from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The property owners will contribute by reducing the price for a $125,000 tax credit, and the Friends of Good Harbor will raise $125,000 in private donations and grants.
The remaining money, Crews said, would hinge on the city's CPA backing.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.