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The Fastest Growing Communities in Central Mass

Saturday, May 19, 2012


During the recession, new home construction skidded to a near halt in Central Massachusetts, but some communities are now on the rebound, a GoLocalWorcester review of US Census Bureau data revealed.

Among those growing in a sluggish economy is Shrewsbury, where one builder said there has been “a lot of activity.” Worcester’s Route 9 neighbor issued 51 new building permits in 2011. Since 2005, Shrewsbury has issued 742 permits, including 96 in 2010. Holden dipped from 56 to 45 permits in 2011, but has maintained a relatively steady level of growth since 2006.

Grafton started the most projects in 2011 – 56. There were 43 in 2010 and 31 in 2009. While last year’s number pales in comparison to the 274 permits pulled in 2005, it offers reason for tempered optimism. In some cases, the numbers reflect one or more multi-housing projects being done at the same time, resulting in an increase in the number of permits being issues.

Location, Location

“It’s just a great community,” said Robert Berger, inspector of buildings and zoning enforcement officer in Grafton, of the lure for new housing developers. “It really is all about location, location, location. We have a real bedroom community.”

Contributing to the increase in permitted projects were three recent Chapter 40B, or affordable housing, projects, Berger said, noting, “We also have a 43-unit development that is not affordable housing.”

Berger pointed out that, in 2005 when there 274 permits issued, “We had three huge subdivisions going on at the same time.”

One of them, Valley View, “was out of control,” said Berger. “It kept us going for a couple years.”

So far in 2012, according to Berger, 14 permits have been pulled, but “we haven’t gotten to the busy part of the year, yet” for construction.

In addition to new projects, Berger noted, some developers who already had permits and started work before the recession are restarting projects that were idled by the poor economy.

Recent Successes

Lunenburg and Northborough are other towns that have seen a flurry of activity, largely due to multi-family housing projects. Lunenburg only issued seven permits in 2011, but a whopping 308 in 2010.

In Northborough, although there were just 14 permitted projects in 2011, there were 69 in 2010 and an eye-popping 366 in 2009. Like Grafton, Northborough had multiple projects underway at once.

“We’ve been active,” said Williams Farnsworth Jr., Northborough building inspector. “In 2009 we had Avalon Bay Communities, which had 283 residential units in 15 buildings, some with garages. Plus, we had other townhouse and condo units.”

Farnsworth said the town recently received an application for four building projects with three units each.

“We’re going to do it as one permit for each unit,” he said, “so that will be 12 right there.”

Holden has long remained a desirable place to live, as a rural town that offers old-time charm while remaining connected to the vibrancy of a nearby city. It is also part of a school district that is attractive to many parents.  

“A lot of people have gravitated to Holden for that reason,” said local realtor and broker Dave Stead, who said builders are itching to get back to work in earnest.

“A number of builders would like to get really going again,” said Stead. “The issue has been the cost of lots hasn’t really come down, yet.”

Crawling Out

A slow-to-recover economy has kept activity at a snail’s pace.

“Everybody’s permits dropped off after 2007,” said Guy Webb, executive director of the Builders Association of Central Massachusetts. “The economy went to hell. That’s all it is. I hate the term ‘bubble,’ but we had a bubble. It is what it is. We are crawling out of it now. Slow crawl is absolutely the right way to put it.”

Fitchburg Building Commissioner Robert Lanciani put it succinctly, saying: “The economy isn’t really hot. New housing is not being built. There’s a lot of foreclosed property.”

That is especially true in Fitchburg, where, Lanciani said, “There are literally hundreds of foreclosed properties in this city. Developers aren’t able to give their houses away.”

Why They’re Succeeding

As Berger said when it comes to new residential growth it is location that matters. For Grafton, its close proximity to a train station and the Mass Pike make it a desirable place to settle.

Northborough benefits from similar surroundings. There is easy access to major routes such as 128, I-290 and the Mass Pike, which Farnsworth acknowledged are attractive elements to homeowners and developers.

“People like it here,” he said simply. “And they want to build when the economic climate is good.”

PlacesThat Slowed

When the bubble burst on the economy, it did so in a devastating way. Foreclosure and For Sale signs became as familiar part of local scenery as the grass and trees. Projects that had been on the verge of becoming reality were put on hold.

Webb’s assessment was accurate: After 2007 many communities saw their number of building permits plummet. In some cases, it had already started. And those that in 2005 had permitted projects numbering well over 100 now have single- and double-digit projects in the works.

In Clinton, there were 136 new housing projects in 2005. Seven year later, in 2011, just 15 permits were pulled. That was up five from 2010, when there were just 10. But even that number represented a stark decline from 2009, when there were 37. Sturbridge, where Old Sturbridge Village calls out to tourists and major roads run through, permits bottomed out at nine in 2011. In 2006, the town issued 111 building permits. Worcester wasn’t spared, either. In 2005, there were 501 permits pulled for new home building projects. That number went down over the next two years – to 332 in 2006 and 239 in 2007 – before plummeting to 73 in 2006. In 2011 there were 79 projects.

Joel Fontane Jr., director of planning and regulatory services in Worcester, didn’t want to comment at length for this story, but offered a reason. The city is getting ready to release a housing market study – the last one was done around 10 years ago in 2002. Fontane didn’t want to “steal the thunder” from that report.

“We will have a lot of dialogue at that time,” he promised. “I just don’t want to talk about it off the cuff. We’re doing a detailed market analysis that will touch on all these things.”

What Drove Them Away

One of the culprits for a decline in new building is the local permitting process, according to Webb. Under Home Rule, Massachusetts towns are able to set up their own procedures.

“You have to go through so much before you’re actually pulling building permits,” Webb said. “It’s gotten increasingly more difficult, costly and lengthy. You’ve got each individual town making its own rules. Generally, they’re not always builder-friendly.”

Stead concurred, adding the Massachusetts Association of Realtors has been lobbying state officials for more uniform standards concerning such issues as Title V and wetlands.

“All these developers have to be savvy with all these different towns and their idiosyncrasies,” Stead said.

A Chance To Plan

Just as Worcester is doing a housing market analysis, other communities have had a chance to catch their breath and think of how they want to grow as housing development starts to pick up. In Southbridge, Economic Development and Planning Director Cassandra Acly said proper planning is essential.

“We’re doing our master plan this year,” Acly said. “We’ve put off making a lot of decisions regarding housing so we can include it in our master plan. You can’t just plan for housing. You have to plan everything.”

That, she said, might include looking at zoning regulations and saying, “Gee, during the last boom we realized we don’t have the right zoning here. Master planning is designed to just that.”

Cities and towns were afforded the opportunity to plan ahead under former Gov. Paul Cellucci’s Executive Order 418 for long-term planning.

“He saw a huge boom closer to Boston,” Acly said. “Developers came into towns and caught them unaware. They left no room for economic development, transportation, open space and those things.”

Looking Up

Area housing experts see things headed in the right direction, with Webb saying the signs are visible.

“It’s picking up now,” he said of new construction. “It’s noticeable just driving around here. It hasn’t been ugly. That doesn’t mean it has been good. But the more desirable towns are going to see more permit activity now and going forward.”

Added Stead: “A few months from now, the economic indicators are going to show we’ve come off the bottom. I really think the market’s improving substantially.”

Webb doesn’t want that improvement to lead to another housing boom.

“It seems like the downturn is almost always equal to what the uptick was,” said Webb, noting the cyclical nature of the housing market. “I don’t want to see a boom again. I want to see a moderate market. There will always be ups and downs, but if the downs are somewhat moderate, the economy can survive those better.”


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