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A short history of the SLV proposal/process:


On April 6th, 2021 Strategic Land Ventures (“SLV”) decided to end its negotiations with the Board of Selectmen (“Board”) on its proposed multifamily project on Shingle Hill, submitted under the State’s Chapter 40B law.  We are grateful for the Board’s thorough assessment of the project, and its determination to seek the best outcome for the town.  We are also grateful that SLV’s proposal has galvanized such support for well-located housing that addresses well the needs of low- and moderate-income residents.  North Shore CDC’s intended acquisition of Powder House Lane is one such example.

On April 19 SLV filed with MassHousing for a Project Eligibility Letter for a 136-unit development at Shingle Place Hill. A Project Eligibility Letter (“PEL”) from Mass Housing would enable it to continue on the 40B process later this year or in 2022.   The application and the developer's plans are posted on the Town's website.  Towns generally receive thirty days to respond to MassHousing applications.  In this case Manchester officials requested and received an additional thirty days to provide comments and feedback to MassHousing.  On June 23rd, The Board of Selectmen finalized its letter to MassHousing.        


On September 16th, SLV received a Project Eligibility Letter (PEL) from MassHousing.  


Manchester’s Zoning Board of Appeals has opened a hearing on the project SLV has proposed for Shingle Hill to determine whether to grant a Comprehensive Permit for that project.   The hearings started in the fall of 2021 and will and extend over many months and include ample opportunity for public input.  CIMAH will be an active participant and will advocate for the health, safety and environmental interests of the town and all its citizens, including those who might reside in SLV’s ill-designed project.  We would expect any such process and potential appeals to take many months and likely years, especially given the very significant health and safety issues that have been raised regarding the proposed Shingle Hill development.  Please check here for more information on the ZBA process.   


In December of 2021 MassHousing issued a letter to Geoffrey Engler (co-Founder of SLV) suspending him from any future involvement in its 40B application process, due to his "lack of the forthrightness and candor that MassHousing expects and requires from applicants for Chapter 40B project eligibility" because of “a material misrepresentation” Mr. Engler made in connection with his application for a separate 40B project in Wellesley. The letter also required Mr. Engler certify within 30 days that he has made no other “false or misleading statements” in his applications to MassHousing in connection with 44 other current projects with which he is associated – one of which is the proposed 136-unit development in Manchester. 


1. What project has been proposed for Manchester?


Needham-based Strategic Land Ventures (SLV) has proposed to build a 4-story multifamily property of 136 units on a 24-acre parcel atop Shingle Hill, just north of Route 128 and just west of School Street. 


2. Has SLV ever built anything like this? 

It has not.  SLV is a newly formed business composed of two real estate businessmen. The one in charge of this project is Geoffrey Engler.  Mr. Engler’s principal experience is working for his father Bob Engler in their small practice consulting to 40B developers.

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3. What experience does SLV have?  

As a consultant, Mr. Engler has advised real estate developers about the state’s 40B law and related regulation.  As a developer, Mr. Engler recently has received permission to build a project in Winchester.  CIMAH knows of no multifamily project that SLV has ever completed.

4. Does SLV own Shingle Hill?

It does not.  Shingle Hill has been owned since at least 1974 by members of the large family of Peter and Anastasia Brown.  SLV has a contract to purchase Shingle Hill from the Brown family for $4.0 million, including several additional conditions.  One of them is that the Brown family will have access to two apartments for their personal use for the next 50 years at the minimum (affordable housing) rental rates.


Another condition is that the Brown family has agreed to make a $30,000 bonus payment to SLV for every unit over 133 units for which SLV receives Town permits.  CIMAH cannot explain why the living members of the Brown family wish to reward SLV for increasing the impact of this project on the town that their ancestors loved, and to which they contributed so much.


5. Under what law does SLV propose building on Shingle Hill?

Massachusetts has had a law since 1969 which is usually called 40B.  It speeds the permitting of new housing by offering waivers from local zoning and other regulations, if at least 25% of the units built are deemed “affordable” by being rented to residents whose income is 80% or less of the median income for their area.  In this case, for example, qualifying residents for a 2-bedroom apartment in which four persons live would need to earn $89,200 or less.  Their rent could not exceed 30% of that figure, or $2,230 per month.  SLV has proposed that 34 of their 136 units be rented on this basis, for $1,898 plus parking and other fees, and the remaining units be rented at market rates of, for example, $3,000-3,500 for a 2-bedroom unit.  The 40B accelerated permitting process applies to municipalities with less than 10% of their housing stock certified as affordable on the state’s Subsidized Housing Inventory (SHI).  Manchester currently has 5% of its housing units so certified.


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Courtesy of Strategic Land Ventures

6. How does 40B work?

Under an admittedly complex process, the Board of Selectmen work to  determine whether or not it can negotiate an acceptable letter of endorsement for the project.  This letter is key to a Local Initiative Program for 40B (LIP, also called a “friendly 40B” because the Town collaborates from early on).   


The Board began these negotiations on January 27th 2020.  In the event that it had agreed on the terms including various concessions from SLV, the Board’s Endorsement Letter would have allowed SLV to obtain permission from the state on an accelerated basis.  


The town did not reach agreement during these negotiations, so SLV decided to withdraw its proposal, and sought state permission without the Town’s endorsement (so-called “hostile 40B”).  The state generally grants such permissions even when Town Selectmen have declined to give their endorsement.  In this case, in September of 2021, MassHousing issued SLV a Project Eligibility Letter.  In either case, the developer then files with the Town’s Zoning Board of Appeals for the detailed permitting process.  (While 40B simplifies this permitting process by eliminating most other Town boards such as Planning Board, the Town Conservation Commission will still review the impact of the project on wetlands under the state Wetlands Protection Act.).


Town residents have no opportunity to cast a binding vote on the project via Town Meeting.

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7. Would SLV’s proposal aid Manchester’s goal of meeting a goal of 10% of its housing stock being considered affordable?

Under a clause of 40B, all 136 units SLV proposes would count for SHI purposes, including both the market-rate units and those rented to residents at 80% of average median income.  Due to this technicality, the completed project would push Manchester well above the 10% threshold, even though it would not serve those who need affordable housing priced below, for example, $1,898 for a 2-bedroom unit.

8. How would SLV’s proposal address the needs of low- and moderate-income residents of Manchester?

It would not.  Only 25% of units in the proposal will be classified as “affordable.”  The great majority of units will be  market-rate apartments, likely out of reach of low- and moderate-income residents, including many elderly, teachers and civil servants.  Note that roughly 30% of Manchester citizens are over 65, and many are on fixed incomes.

9. How would SLV’s proposal impact the plans of the Manchester Affordable Housing Trust to address the needs of Manchester’s low- and moderate-income residents?

It would mean that the Town no longer has the incentive under 40B to add genuinely affordable housing through executing the plans of the Trust.

10. How often are proposals such as SLV’s stopped?

Very often.  They are especially prone to failure when well-organized citizens’ groups expose their flaws early in the process.  Both Hamilton and Weston, for example, have recently stopped poorly-conceived 40B proposals.  Mr. Engler withdrew a project in Wellesley in the face of citizen responses which he characterized as “very destructive, closed-minded and unwelcoming.” 

11. How complicated is it to build on Shingle Hill?

Very complicated.  By Mr. Engler’s own admission, Shingle Hill is a uniquely challenging site, which is why the Brown family has been unable to sell it for the last five decades.  It is a dream for hikers, bird lovers and naturalists.  It is a nightmare for real estate developers and the engineers, contractors and others tasked with executing their plans.  Mr. Engler has offered no evidence of his intention to provide a completion bond, an environmental indemnity or other third-party insurance products to protect himself, his bankruptcy-remote entities and the Town from the considerable financial liabilities to which they will otherwise be exposed.  The Town and Mr. Engler may plan on including such insurance protection on the list of mitigation measures.  Given the risks associated with the project, CIMAH suggests that Mr. Engler provide such bonds prior to opening hearings with the Zoning Board of Appeals.

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Aerial Photograph of Shingle Hill including Engler Proposal (Courtesy of Strategic Land Ventures)

12. How much will it cost to build on Shingle Hill?

Mr. Engler has provided a Sources and Uses statement which projects the project to cost $69.2 million.  The same statement projects total site costs of $5.0 million.  CIMAH believes that Mr. Engler has failed to calculate fully those costs, including the removal from the site of an estimated 7.5 million cubic feet of granite, topsoil and other material.  To put this in perspective, this is almost as much as the cubic footage of Boston’s Federal Reserve Bank Tower. It is enough material to cover the entire land mass of Manchester to the depth of one inch.  The correct calculation of site costs and other factors has a material impact on the returns Mr. Engler would realize on his projected $23.1 million of equity.

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Federal Reserve Tower, Boston

13. What are the reasons to support SLV’s proposal?

The Town will have more freedom in its future planning if it is no longer subject to 40B, and the SLV proposal would lift this longstanding threat.  Many 40B projects prove to be financial burdens on the towns in which they are located, but RKG, a consultant to the Town, has suggested that the SLV project might be modestly additive to net Town revenues. Last, the proposal would also bring a different kind of housing into the Town than is available today.  The Town currently lacks the kind of high-density suburban apartment complexes seen along Route 128 in Wakefield, Lynnfield and Burlington.  Those who wish for Manchester to more closely resemble those communities may view the proposal as a positive.   

14. What are the reasons to oppose SLV’s proposal?

CIMAH believes that, if executed, SLV’s proposal will violate numerous state and federal laws intended to protect the health and safety of the residents of the Town.  The proposal’s combination of a long access road, a steep grade, a large unit density and no secondary access is unprecedented.  Stantec, a consultant to the Town, has said that it knows of no project in the state comparable to this one in posing such danger.  Mr. Engler has conceded that his proposed development is less safe with only a single steep, narrow and twisting driveway.  He was able to name only one other development as a comparable site – which turns out to have been built on an essentially flat grade.  


The project appears problematic in other respects than its threats to the health and safety of Town residents.  These include threats to wildlife and the Town’s fresh water supply. Further studies of stormwater runoff and wildlife habitat will enable the Town to understand these threats better.  These factors too, may represent future SLV violations of state and federal laws.  In addition, the building and access road (with substantial retaining walls) will permanently mar the experience for many walkers and cyclists using Old School Street and the Wilderness Conservation Area.


The design of the project is similar to that seen in other “suburban sprawl” projects.  An island segregated from the rest of the Town, the project’s conception is indifferent to its hilltop site and to the architectural fabric of Manchester.  Locating a project of this design on Shingle Hill ruins the first impression of the Town, and of the Wilderness Conservation Area, for all those who drive on School Street or Route 128.


Further analysis of the financial impact of the proposal may show that it will become a financial burden on the Town as, for example, the project that SLV named as a comparable (Parc Westborough) has become.  


Last, many Town residents wish for Manchester to include more genuinely affordable housing.   CIMAH believes this project would obstruct such construction elsewhere, on sites such as those proposed by Manchester Affordable Housing Trust.  We also believe that increased diversity from such well-located housing can strengthen the Town, while the SLV project would weaken it.


15. Why is Shingle Hill important?

Steep, forested, untouched for more than 100 years, this is a uniquely beautiful refuge for hikers and multitudes of birds, animals and amphibians.  It is quiet in the daytime for walking, and dark in the night for the animals and plants who are its rightful residents.


We all depend on it, as Shingle Hill is crucial to the Town’s water supply.  All storm water on Shingle Hill drains directly into Sawmill Brook, which feeds the Town Well, supplying 40% of our ample and pure drinking water.


This is a critical habitat for many species, likely including some rare and endangered critters that have already been identified on conservation and Town land on both sides of Shingle Hill.  This private property has never before been formally evaluated for environmental protection and endangered species, although it has been inspected carefully by many other potential developers, all of whom rejected this site as “completely unbuildable.”


Last, it is a vital piece of the legacy of open space preservation in Manchester.  Shingle Hill is part of the land originally preserved by the efforts of a young woman in Manchester in the 1870s, with the help of other Town citizens.  It is the highly visible gateway to 1600 acres preserved over the past 50 years by the people of Manchester and Essex, under the Manchester Essex Conservation Trust (MECT), and adjoins hundreds of acres preserved by The Trustees of Reservations at Agassiz Rock and other locations.  The Trustees and MECT have added their voice to the growing chorus seeking to protect Shingle Hill and to cease SLV’s plan for its destruction.

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