Is growth good? If so, how much is too much?
These are the questions Hopkinton residents are still wrestling with, after voting to allow two major development projects that will ultimately create some 1,400 new housing units.
Satisfying State Mandates
In 2008, Hopkinton was looking for a way to satisfy the state mandate that ten percent of housing in town be affordable. Ken Weismantel was on the Planning Board when, he said, the town got a bit of good luck.
“Turned out to be a great opportunity for the town when Weston Nurseries went bankrupt," he said. "That put nearly 900 acres into play.”
After a lot of discussion, some of it testy, the town voted to allow a developer to put up the town’s first-ever apartment complex with 240 units, plus another 700 single family homes, condos and tract housing on 400 acres of the land. Weismantel said the other 500 acres is set aside for wetlands, recreation area(s) and open space.
The development, called Legacy Farms, includes about 75 affordable units. Another new project, with a total of 280 apartments, has gone up as well. Between the two projects, the town will more than satisfy state statute 40B, which “enables local Zoning Boards to approve affordable housing developments under flexible rules if at least 20-25% of the units have long-term affordability restrictions,” according to the state’s Housing and Community Development office.
Weismantel said the town had next to no affordable housing before the two developments.
The American Dream
Praveen and Shwetha Balan moved to Legacy Farms a year ago. Praveen Balan said they paid a bit more than they wanted to spend, but they loved the idea of buying into a homeowner’s association.
Balan stands in the doorway of his home, one of hundreds of identical looking units with perfectly coifed lawns and gardens.
“They promised to build a playground by the time these are finished. And there are amenities like you get with any HOA, homeowners association, like the lawn maintenance and snow clearance. But we pay for it, you know,” Balan said.
The Balan family was living in Norwood, but Shwetha Balan said they wanted a town with good schools for their two daughters. Norwood, she said, was too transient. That said, she’s finding Hopkinton just a little too sleepy.
“I find it very quiet compared to my previous town,” she said. “It was more active community compared to here. There's nothing much happening in a small town. But my kids go to school, and the schools are very good.”
Quiet is exactly what Binh Nguyen was looking for when he moved here in 2015 from Dorchester. He came to run his own chiropractic business, called Cedar Chiropractic and Sports. He said he was surprised by how big the development is and how many people live here, but ultimate he likes it a lot. And he was excited to own a new house with a warranty.
“You don't have that if you buy an old house. The minute they sell it to you, you got the keys and two weeks later the roof came down, you can't go back to the owner and say, ‘I want my money back, I want that roof fixed.’ It doesn't work that way," Nguyen said. “And that's the reason why we decided to go with a new construction because price-wise it was basically the same price as an older but you're getting more for your money.”
More Than They Bargained For
Detractors say the town is getting more, alright: More traffic and more kids crowding into the schools.
At the Muffin House Café on Main Street, Pam Litchfield and some friends were having coffee. She left Needham about 20 years ago to escape what she called “incredible congestion and traffic.”
“I knew that if I needed to run errands, I had a window of time between, like, 10:00 and 2:00, because traffic was going to double my errand time," Litchfield said. "And I never really had to think about that here in Hopkinton, but I do now.”
She, like most of the other women at the café, came to the town for its quiet, rural character, and they said the new housing development has upended that.
“The growth needs to be better planned and managed,” Litchfield said. “And have resources in place before the big developments are allowed to go in.”
Andrea Cotter said one of the problems is that the Legacy Farms developer promised that one and two bedroom apartments would attract only singles — young couples or older people. She said that was nonsense.
“Who's going to come to Hopkinton and pay huge taxes except people who can't afford a single-family house but can afford a two-bedroom apartment. I would do the same thing, I don't have a problem with people doing it, but we should’ve planned for it. We may want them to come, but they're not coming here,” Cotter said. “We live further outside the city and we don't have a hopping town center. And older folks are moving out to someplace cheaper.”
A real frustration is the schools. Sixty additional kids enrolled in kindergarten this fall. Class sizes went from 16 to 21. In the school for fourth and fifth graders, some classrooms have 25 or 26 students. Overall, Hopkinton has gotten about 350 new students over the past four years, an almost ten percent increase.
Hopkinton School Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh said every time you add 20 students you need to add 1.4 full time educators, which has led to a budget increase of 6.5%.
“That's art teachers, music, PE, wellness, special educators, ELL teachers, guidance counselors,” she said.
Cavanaugh said it’s been hard to catch her breath with all the increases.
“Overall it's a wonderful thing to have a whole lot more children in our district. But when we have to hire a staff of nine to teach our English language learners, I worry about there being a ‘those students’ kind of an attitude that may be pervasive throughout the community, like 'why are we spending our resources on students who are not proficient in the English language?'" she said.
Cavanaugh said the new students speak about 50 languages, mostly Spanish, Mandarin and Telegu — a language spoken in India.
Highlighting the demographic shift, Cavanaugh said ten years ago the town was 95 percent white; now, it’s about 70 percent.
Looking To The Future
Ken Weismantel, the former chair of the Planning Board, gets that all this transition is tough, but he said people are looking at the situation all wrong. When he moved here, he said, the schools were awful. Lots of parents sent their kids to Holliston next door for public school. Things only changed when the town passed a lot of overrides and built new schools.
Hopkinton just passed its third under-ride, to reduce the amount of real estate and personal property taxes to be assessed for the upcoming fiscal year.
“That's $3 million in under-rides,” Weismantel said, giving back three or four percent to the town's taxpayers.
All of this made possible by the new developments. The Legacy Farms units “are selling for a lot more money than anyone envisioned 15 years ago, and they're bringing in way more tax money than anyone thought they would," Weismantel said.
And with that money, he expects the schools will be taken care of, as well as other fixes to the town’s infrastructure, like new roads.