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Regis decries judge’s rejection of retiree housing plan

By Jim Lockwood
Posted: 1/15/2010

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In a decision that Regis College officials say could have wider implications for religious and non-profit organizations, a Massachusetts Land Court judge upheld a challenge to a planned housing development for retirees on the college’s Weston campus.

The college had argued it was exempt from local zoning restrictions under a provision of Massachusetts state law commonly known as the Dover Amendment. That section of the law states that zoning laws shall not “regulate or restrict the use of land or structures for religious purposes or for educational purposes” on land owned by the state, a religious entity, or a non-profit corporation.

Opponents of the project, which included Weston’s zoning board and a group of neighbors, said that financial gain, not education, is the primary purpose of the retirement housing project, and therefore Regis should not be exempt from local zoning regulations here.

In his Jan. 4 decision, Massachusetts Land Court Judge Alexander Sands said that Regis College’s proposed 362-unit home for senior citizens does not qualify as having an educational purpose under the Dover Amendment.

“While Regis has set lofty goals of having Residents ‘age in place’ by living independently, with a focus on health, wellness, stimulation, and education, that does not mean that the program is primarily an educational facility,” Sands wrote. “In light of the above, the Project’s educational component seems subordinate to Regis’ desire to provide elderly housing and/or a source of revenue for Regis. Thus, it is this court’s conclusion that the dominant purpose of the Project will not be the fulfillment of a significant educational goal.”

The proposal for the development known as Regis East calls for several buildings to be built on college property on the east side of Wellesley Street in Weston. The project would include classrooms for children, seniors, and college students, computer labs, three libraries, at least one clinical teaching room, a fitness center, dining areas, and a woodworking shop. The plan also includes 362 residential units for seniors.

Residents would be required to take at least two academic courses per semester. Courses could be traditional academic offerings or recreational activities and classes could be taken with the school’s undergraduate or graduate students. If residents do not complete the academic requirements, they would have to leave the community.

Under the plan, residents would pay between $700,000 to $1 million for a unit, and upon vacating the unit, 90-percent of that payment would be returned. In case of death, the return would be paid to the resident’s heirs. In addition to unit costs, residents would have to pay fees for services.

Arnold Zenker, a neighbor who was named as a defendant in court actions to stop Regis’ plan, does not think the project is mainly educational. Zenker was among those who formed a neighborhood group called Stop Regis Overdevelopment to oppose the college’s plans. Members of that group were named as defendants. Weston’s Zoning Board of Appeals was also named as a defendant.

“We thought it was the wrong development in the wrong place and for all the wrong reasons,” he said. “This was a move to shore up the financial problems and not really an educational venture. They tried to masquerade it as an educational venture.”

Regis College President Dr. Mary Jane England said that the project fits with the college’s history of multigenerational learning on campus. Senior residents would have access to the campus. She also said that the college’s existing pre-school program would be relocated to Regis East, and that the college’s 600 nursing students would care for the seniors.

The college also has a program for women to return to school, England added.

England remains critical of Judge Sands’ decision.

“Essentially, he’s playing into the hands of the self-protective zoning laws,” England said.

“This was very surprising. I’m very sad,” England added. “This is very dangerous what has gone on here.”

“It has an educational purpose,” England continued. “It has a different demographic. It’s seniors -- not teenagers or young adults.”

England said that other universities have used the amendment to justify building other structures, like a parking garage at Tufts University in Medford and a dormitory at Boston College.

“Is a parking garage sufficiently educational?” England asked. “I don’t think so.”

Additionally, she said the Dover Amendment has allowed religious orders to build retirement communities for their members.

England also said that her plan is rooted in precedent. She said that Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Oberlin College in Ohio have built similar retirement communities.

She also said that the plan would have a psychological benefit for senior citizens.

“We know that if seniors stay stimulated intellectually, they would be less likely to be depressed and isolated,” England said.

She added that seniors who interact with preschool-aged children enjoy similar benefits.

England acknowledged that the college has been struggling financially, and said this program would help alleviate that because profit generated would help fund the school’s undergraduate programs.

“It would be fair to say that smaller colleges find it difficult when we’re so dependent on tuition,” she said. “This program will also be helpful to support the mission of the college to educate students of low and moderate incomes.”

The school is open to exploring other avenues, England said, including possibly filing a motion to justify the project under Chapter 40B law, which stipulates that towns do their “fair share” in providing affordable housing to low and moderate wage earners.

A Feb. 9 status conference is scheduled to resolve any remaining issues.