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Roxbury residents push back on developer

Avery Bleichfeld
Roxbury residents push back on developer
Abutter Pat Courtney makes a point during a meeting with developer Gerard Harrigan. PHOTO: AVERY BLEICHFELD

Community members in the Mount Pleasant, Forest and Vine neighborhood in Roxbury are pushing back against a proposed development at 20 Forest St., which they say is too large, both in comparison with the surrounding houses and for the lot itself.

Annette Grant, an abutter to the property, said she worries the lot is too small for the building that Grant Harrigan, who is in the process of buying the land, has proposed. She also said she believes she should have been able to buy the property before anyone else did.

Harrigan presented plans to the community to build a three-family house on the lot at a neighborhood association meeting Feb. 23. He was accompanied by his lawyer and his architect.

Gerrard Harrigan meets with abutter via Zoom. PHOTO: AVERY BLEICHFELD

Grant, who has lived at 22 Forest Street since 1997, said she moved into her house after the building next door at 20 Forest St. had been burned down. Within a year, the city demolished the remains of the building and the property proceeded to sit vacant.

For the next 20 years or so, Grant said she unofficially took care of the property, removing trash and shoveling snow in the winter. Meanwhile, when she went to the city to tell them the property was sitting vacant, they said that they’d reach out to the owner about upkeep. She said the city also told her that if the property were to be put up for sale, she could expect to pay about $5,000 for it and would be offered it first as a direct abutter.

“That was always what they said to me. It may have been right, it may have been wrong, but they were saying that whatever happens, the property would be offered to you first because it abuts directly your land,” Grant said.

When Phillip Smith moved in on the other side of the lot, he began to help keep the lot clean. Still, they heard nothing from the owner.

According to records from the Suffolk Registry of Deeds, the parcel was sold in 2017 to Owen Kiernan. Grant said the lot continued to go uncared for. Now, as a new owner is preparing to buy the property, Grant and the other abutters are pushing back, saying that no house should be built there and that they should have that land.

Under Harrigan’s current proposal, the house would violate zoning laws covering lot size and would need a variance. Without it, the plans would need 6,000 square feet on the lot — 4,000 square feet for the first two units and an additional 2,000 square feet for the third. According to the city’s assessing department, the lot is about 3,940 square feet.

The plans would also need a variance for open space. Originally, it would have required a height variance to accommodate the roof deck that was proposed, but following a Dec. 27 community meeting, Harrigan’s plans were revised following feedback from the community.

Ryan Spitz, an attorney representing Harrigan, said at the Feb. 23 neighborhood meeting that he thinks needing some variances isn’t out of the ordinary.

“Any time you’re going to erect a new structure, pertaining to zoning, it’s very rare that you’re going to see something that’s going to comply in all aspects,” Spitz said.

But the abutters say the variances push the plans too far and that they worry about the quality of life in a property that the city’s assessing department has classified as “unusable.”

“The people in the suburbs are not putting up with this; they’re not putting up with a little small shed that somebody threw up and then they’re putting their family there,” Smith said at the meeting. “That’s not quality of life. I’m working just like you’re working. I’m doing my best to provide for my family. I want to make sure that if I’m buying a house, they have a quality of life there. They have a place to play and a backyard. If I’m spending all this money and all you’re giving me is two rooms and a kitchen, that’s not OK.”

According to the city’s Assessing Department, “unusable” doesn’t mean nothing can be built there. The code is intended instead to reflect the value of smaller properties that have nothing on them. If the owners can get permission to build from the city, the assessing department changes the code to reflect that it can be used.

Grant said she worried the sale of 20 Forest St. reflects a larger issue of developers coming in from outside Roxbury without knowing the area and its communities.

“They don’t have an understanding of the community; they don’t know how hard we as residents on Forest Street and Mount Pleasant have worked in our community to get it to where it is now,” Grant said. “They just come out of nowhere wanting to build, and it’s just like money, money, money. There’s no forethought about the other person, they just want to stick something somewhere and make a sale without considering the residents, the people who have been there this long measure of time.”

Harrigan — who has the property under agreement with Kiernan, the current owner, but whose name isn’t yet on the deed — said at the neighborhood meeting that the abutters’ responses had given him a lot to think about.

“I understand people are angry, I really do; I’m just trying to make a living for me and my family. That’s all I’m trying to do,” Harrigan said at the meeting. “I’m not a big developer — I’m really not — I’m just trying my best to get on with life. It’s a lot for me to decide for right now. I’ve spent money hiring a lawyer and doing plans and doing things, and really, it’s a lot for me, right now at the moment.”

Beyond his appearance at the neighborhood meeting, Harrigan could not be reached for comment.

At the meeting, abutters pushed for Harrigan to back out before the deed is transferred to him, or otherwise to resell the land to the abutters.

If she had control of the property, Grant said she would use it to expand her yard to give her grandchildren more space to play and set up a garden.

“It’s a lot that you put in [to your neighborhood], and you just have to see the outcomes of things and hope for the best,” Grant said. “And I’m hoping for the best for 20 Forest St.”