Amid accusations that the town is selling off its lifestyle for money, the Planning Board voted Monday night 4-1 to approve the proposed 41-unit condominium building on the site of the old Middle School.
The project still faces a limited review by the Zoning Board of Appeals next month, but is likely to face a stiffer challenge in Land Court.
Voting for the project were Chairman Patrick Jones, Jeff Blonder, George Potts and Angela Ippolito, although Ippolito, the vice chair, made it clear she does not like the project.
Asked why she voted for it, Ippolito said, "What's the point?" She referred to the fact that the project already had a majority of three votes before she cast her vote.
Opposing the project was Sylvia Belkin.
The Planning Board hearing at the Senior Center created several heated exchanges between a room filled with about 20 opponents and a couple of supporters of the project. The neighbors complained that the size of the 41-unit condo project will be too massive for the neighborhood, which is mostly single-family homes. Others complained about increased traffic, questioned the projections on water runoff and lamented the loss of the cupola on top of the school that can be seen throughout the town.
Tom Groom, the developer, and his team, which included a lawyer, an engineer, an architect and a landscape architect, argued that the new three-story building with below-ground parking will be smaller than the Middle School.
Ken Shutzer, an attorney who represents neighbors opposed to the project, told the Planning Board it should not compare the proposed building to the Middle School because the school will be torn down. He argued and plans to argue in court that the town regulations require that the Planning Board consider only what is best for the site once the building is torn down.
Attorney Accused of Filibustering
In one of the heated exchanges, Bill DiMento, an attorney who represents Groom, accused Shutzer of "filibustering" against the project.
Neighbors against the project said they were excluded by the town and by the developer, Groom Construction, in the planning for this project.
"I am not getting straight answers," said an agitated neighbor, Freddie Phillips.
Phillips and Ellie Moore, another neighbor, said after the meeting that they felt "railroaded" by the Planning Board.
Jones, who made the motion to approve the project, told the neighbors that the town had already decided to sell the school property and set a limit of 41-units on the project. To complain now about the size of the project was two years too late, he said.
"That ship has already sailed," he said.
Developer Feels Like a Sap
Groom complained that the town asked his company to buy the property, then put him through "an extremely expensive process" of winning town approval from the Historical Commission, the Conservation Commission, the Planning Board and the ZBA. He said he has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. He will pay the town more than $600,000 for the project. It will cost $1 million just to tear the old school down because of the asbestos in it, he said.
"I am the sap here," Groom said. He said he felt "naive" now after thinking the town wanted him to build the project.
Belkin accused the town of supporting a project only to get money for selling the land and for the property taxes it will generate.
"We are a money driven community," Belkin said. "I feel the quality of life is very important and frequently gets overlooked."
She found fault with the developer's financial prospectus, which she said projects that the average condo sales at the new residences would be $450,000 each. Some of the larger condos on the upper floors with the best view of the ocean are expected to sell for more than $1 million each.
Only one condo this year has sold for more than $1 million, while 30 condos have sold in Swampscott for less than $200,000 each, Belkin, a real estate agent, said.
"I would not be doing this if I thought these condos would sell for $188,000," Groom said.
The ZBA will be asked to decide if the project can build two four-car garages above ground. Groom proposed to locate the above-ground garages to minimize the noise and lights from cars. The garages will also be more attractive to some condo buyers.