Don’t Prioritize Affordable Housing Over Public Safety

On February 14, 2022, Valentine’s Day, the developers, Steven F. Venincasa and James M. Venincasa, doing business this time around as Whitney Street Home Builders, LLC, were not feeling the love from the Millbury Planning Board when with a simple majority vote (as required) denied the special permit application and site plan review for a multifamily use for a proposed 46-unit condominium project to be located at 17 Rice Road in Millbury, Massachusetts (the “Property”) referred to as Rice Pond Village (the “Project”) with Richard F. Gosselin, Jr., Mathew J. Ashmankas, and Terry Burke Dotson voting in favor of granting the denial, while Paul A. Piktelis and Bruce M. DeVault abstained1 from the vote. Richard F. Gosselin, Jr., Mathew J. Ashmankas, and Terry Burke Dotson voted to deny seven out of eight waivers. Paul A. Piktelis and Bruce M. DeVault abstained1 from voting on seven out of eight waivers. Francis P. DeSimone is currently a non-voting associate member of the Millbury Planning Board, who was vocal in encouraging his fellow Planning Board members to deny this Project. In the end the Millbury Planning Board‘s decision was a sound and defensible one based upon the facts presented, most importantly public safety. Rice Road is quite simply the wrong location for high-density development due to the numerous justifications that follow.

Some excerpts from the Millbury Planning Board‘s denial decision include:

  • “…the Project is designed contrary to the requirements…”
  • “The Project’s inadequate access would present a public safety risk for the residents of the Project and existing residents in the neighborhood with respect to vehicular access and circulation, pedestrian activity in the neighborhood, and accessibility to police, fire, and ambulances services…”
  • “The residential neighborhood in the vicinity of the Project currently has relatively low density development consisting of single family homes on lots ranging from one-third of an acre to more than half an acre. The Project would add 46 new residential units in 23 multifamily residential structures on the Property, significantly increasing the density in the neighborhood and having a detrimental impact upon the character of the neighborhood…”
  • “The application remains incomplete and fails to furnish adequate information required…”
  • “…with respect to vehicular and pedestrian circulation and would detract from the use and enjoyment of the proposed buildings and structures and neighboring properties…”
  • “…the Project would add 46 new residential units in 23 multifamily dwelling structures on the Property, significantly increasing the density in a neighborhood that currently has relatively low density development, contrary to the purposes…”

With the denial of their Project, now the developers, Steven F. Venincasa and James M. Venincasa, want to increase the density of our neighborhood by a factor of 6.23 times, from 43 existing single family homes to ~268 residential units. Increasing the number of residential units from a proposed 46-unit condominium project (the “Project”) to a threatened2 (the consensus of many) ~225 apartment Chapter 40B project (the “Threatened Project”) only exacerbates all public safety problems, exponentially increases all problems articulated in public hearings and submitted documentation, and introduces even more complexed problems that will need to be resolved, making the Threatened Project even less viable.

If the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and Town of Millbury consider granting any kind of approval for a Chapter 40B version of the Threatened Project on Rice Road without making all necessary offsite improvements at the insistence of our neighborhood (the resident subject matter experts), the Providence & Worcester Railroad, the Millbury Planning Board, and the Millbury Department of Public Works, then both the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Town of Millbury are simply abdicating the public’s safety for 56± Subsidized Housing Inventory (SHI) of low-or moderate-income housing units. Rice Road, previously referred to as Sawmill Road in recorded deeds, is a crumbling and unsafe road that dates back to at least the 1800s with a traveled width of only 16-feet in spots; what is supposed to be a two-way railroad crossing that in reality is only a one vehicle at a time railroad crossing with no visibility over the railroad crossing in either direction due to an abrupt angle and a steep downward (or upward) grade change depending on your direction of travel, no railroad crossing gates (removed in ~1979), and no guardrail on the Providence Street side of Rice Road; two nonstandard intersections at both ends of Rice Road (South Main Street and Providence Street); no sidewalk on Rice Road; no safe area for a bus stop for school-age children; and water pooling on the road surface due to poor stormwater management.

The only foreseeable solution to these inadequacies of road access and public safety would be to undertake land takings from each of the seventeen residential properties along Rice Road and from National Grid on the northeastern side of Providence Street to increase the width of the right-of-way for the roads, bring the crumbling and obsolete road up to current road design and construction standards, and find solutions to all public safety deficiencies which would be exacerbated by any high density development. Are the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Town of Millbury prepared to seize people’s land by eminent domain or sacrifice public safety for the financial benefit of a private developer, to only gain 56± SHI of low-or moderate-income housing units? The answer should be a resounding “no.” This would be contrary to the public’s best interests and would not be likely to withstanding legal scrutiny.

Is there a place for affordable housing in Millbury? Absolutely. However, high density developments should be situated on a major street as intended in the Millbury Zoning Bylaws, in harmony with the established land uses, and not multiply public safety or environmental liabilities.

Our neighborhood is not against affordable housing, or the responsible development of the combined Property owned by the Rice Pond Realty Trust (the trustees being John Antaya and Kathleen (McLaughlin) Mardirosian) and the McLaughlin Family Living Trust (the trustee being Kathleen (McLaughlin) Mardirosian). However, any development should be done in a responsible and harmonious manner that fully complies with all town regulations without the need for any special permits, waivers, or variances; and without attempts by a developer to do an end run around our town’s safeguards with the use of Chapter 40B as a weapon of retaliation for not conceding to a developer’s demands. Chapter 40B should never be weaponized. Chapter 40B projects should be an asset to a community, not a liability, and when sited harmoniously can be.

For the record, our neighborhood could have been amenable to the last submitted iteration of the Project, dated November 8, 2021, if the developers, Steven F. Venincasa and James M. Venincasa, had only agreed to fund all offsite improvements mostly necessitated due to their Project and the accompanying increased vehicular and pedestrian traffic to and from their Project by their residents, visitors, deliveries, and service vehicles. Initially, the developer, Steven F. Venincasa, had only offered $10,000 for all offsite improvements, which is equivalent to only 0.0543% of their estimated $18,400,0003 in gross sales of units (“their estimated gross sales”). When the developer, Steven F. Venincasa, met resistance, the developer, Steven F. Venincasa, then doubled his offer to $20,000 for all offsite improvements, which is equivalent to 0.1087% of their estimated gross sales. After the neighborhood, not the developers, Steven F. Venincasa and James M. Venincasa, or the Town of Millbury, engaged the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad Services, Inc. (the parent company of the Providence & Worcester Railroad), a very critical stakeholder, in the Millbury Planning Board‘s public hearings, an estimate was generated for the necessitated work within the railroad’s property estimated to be $279,564.92. The developer, Steven F. Venincasa, demanded that the Millbury Planning Board remove the condition of Whitney Street Home Builders, LLC having to fully fund the $279,564.92 in offsite improvements of Rice Road within the property owned by the railroad that the public has a right to crossover, which is equivalent to only 1.6172% of their estimated gross sales. The developer, Steven F. Venincasa, then threatened2 (the consensus of many) our neighborhood and the town with the retaliation of an even higher density Chapter 40B development (the “Threatened Project”) if the Millbury Planning Board did not concede to his demands. In a last-ditch effort, the developers, Steven F. Venincasa and James M. Venincasa, made an undisclosed deal, unbeknownst to the majority of the Millbury Planning Board, offering $100,000 for all offsite improvements, but no more, which is equivalent to 0.5435% of their estimated gross sales and a $179,564.92 shortfall of the railroad crossing improvements costs alone. Think for a minute what $100,000 equates to in road and site construction costs, nothing of any real significance. Phase 1 of the Millbury Downtown Revitalization Stormwater Project was ~$1,000,000 and the scope of that project was less than the length of Rice Road with far fewer complex problems to resolve.

The developer, Steven F. Venincasa, referred to us, the neighborhood, as “ungrateful abutters,” apparently because we would not buy into his scheme for Millbury taxpayers to subsidize his gross profits by paying a greater portion of offsite improvements mostly necessitated by his development plans.

After repeated requests from the Millbury Planning Board for construction drawings for offsite improvements for Rice Road (end to end), the developer’s engineer, James Tetreault, of Azimuth Land Design, LLC, simply failed to produce anything more than what has been termed “napkin sketches” lacking in any substantive details. Offsite improvements had been a point of contention since the first public hearing on May 10, 2021, and continue to be even after the public hearings were closed on January 24, 2022.

Had the developer, Steven F. Venincasa, not minimized public safety problems and adequately addressed every critical problem, then they might have been granted approval for the Project. It was developer, Steven F. Venincasa’s own dismissiveness and failure to furnish adequate information required that led to the denial of the Project. The denial was not due to any failings of the Millbury Planning Board, who fulfilled their statutory obligations by rendering a proper, fair, and defensible decision based upon deliberation of the facts presented, the Millbury Zoning Bylaws, and the Subdivision Control Law.

Throughout the public hearing process, Millbury’s Town Planner (at the time), Laurie Connors, adamantly insisted that the Subdivision Control Law was not applicable, because the Project was not a “definitive subdivision.” Millbury’s Town Counsel contradicted her opinion and confirmed that the Subdivision Control Law in fact is applicable due to linkage between the Zoning Bylaws and the Subdivision Control Law, a fact that our neighborhood and Millbury Planning Board member, Terry Burke Dotson, had insisted since the beginning of the public hearings. The applicability of the Subdivision Control Law was in part a basis for the denial decision of the Project.

Public safety should be the top-priority for the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and every single board in Millbury; and if the developers, Steven F. Venincasa and James M. Venincasa, are not willing to fund all offsite improvements mostly necessitated by their own Threatened Project and that are necessary for public safety, then any Threatened Project should be denied at the outset.

Why should any of this matter to you? Well, larger residential and Chapter 40B developments will be coming to other neighborhoods in Millbury. Some notable recent developments are Clearview Homes (142 units), Stratford Village (50 units), Cobblestone Village Apartments (72 units), Singletary Arms (180 units), and Canal Street Apartments (59 units). Therefore, it is important for all residents to get more involved in meetings for all town boards and committees, and not wait until your neighborhood is under assault by a developer or landowner to act. At a minimum, the Town of Millbury needs to act proactively to enact a responsible Housing Production Plan, upgrade its Zoning Bylaws and Subdivision Control Laws to align with the most recent Master Plan incorporating more detailed special permit and site plan criteria and required findings for multifamily, condominium, Chapter 40B (affordable housing in perpetuity), the new “by right” MBTA housing zoning district of 50 acres with a minimum potential of 750 residential units, and other land use planning and construction best practices to ensure Millbury’s growth is responsible, manageable, sustainable, harmonious, and in a manner that is consistent with the enacted shared vision of our residents and town regulations. Millbury’s Town Counsel even noted that our land use regulations are “lacking in clarity” and many share that assessment. Waivers should be the rare exception, not the norm. Conceding to developers should never be our modus operandi.

We have the opportunity here to do the right thing and should, for our neighborhoods and the constituents of the elected officials in Millbury. Decisions made today will have a lasting impact on tomorrow. Therefore, the Town of Millbury should press “pause” until such time that we have all our regulations upgraded to current standards for every type of multifamily project (i.e., duplexes, two-families, three-families, apartments, condominiums, etc.), subdivision, and special permits. There are success stories in Massachusetts that can be emulated, and it would be prudent to do so. Let’s be the next success story.


Special Permits require a supermajority (4 out of 5 members) to grant a special permit and only a simple majority to deny a special permit (3 out of 5 members).


1 to refrain deliberately and often with an effort of self-denial from an action or practice.
2 to announce as intended or possible.
3 46 condominiums x $400,000 each (based upon the developer’s own estimate).