Stonegate lawsuit dismissed, developer stresses situation is not over

Jeff Mucciarone

A lawsuit that could have cost Stoughton up to $21 million was dismissed last week in United States District Court, but the developer behind the suit says it’s a long way from putting it to bed.

The West Street Group, which had proposed to build a 120-unit Chapter 40B development on West Street, filed suit in December against the town, the Zoning Board of Appeals, and two consulting firms on allegations of conspiring to stop the proposed Villages at Stonegate.

“It’s a limited decision where the court ruled on a technical issue because the court found that a 40B permit is discretionary,” said Attorney Joseph Krowski Jr., who represents the developer. “The court ruled there was no due process violation. However, the court did not rule or find that the various boards and members acted appropriately—that issue remains to be litigated.”

Judge Joseph Tauro ruled on the suit July 10.

“While I’m disappointed, I’m not completely surprised,” Krowski said, adding the federal court only looks at constitutional issues. “The federal court has been very reluctant to hold town’s and municipalities liable for the conduct of their boards and various members.”

Chapter 40B legislation allows developers to get comprehensive permits for projects where a percentage of the units are deemed affordable, allowing them to circumvent local zoning by-laws. The law allows developers to build under 40B regulations if less than 10 percent of a town’s available housing is deemed affordable.

The ZBA actually approved Stonegate 3-2 Nov. 8, but reduced it to 80 units, which the developer says makes the project economically not viable. The ZBA also limited the building heights to two and a half stories.

With Stoughton close to 12 percent affordable housing at the time of the decision, the ZBA could have denied the project outright without fear of the state overturning its decision.

On face value, Town Manager Mark Stankiewicz said it appears it could be an uphill battle for the developer, though he said the ruling can be appealed and that this is likely long from over.

 “It’s never over until someone formally drops the suit,” Stankiewicz said. 

The West Street Group plans to amend their suit and re-file it in state court. Krowski said there would be new allegations coming out of pre-trial investigations.

Developers claim in the lawsuit that public officials, who were supposed to be acting objectively and with the town’s best interests in mind, conspired to stop Stonegate. The original suit states the town, ZBA, Conservation Commission and the Open Space Committee, “engaged in a calculated effort of wrongful coercion, interference, and influence of public boards and processes to defeat (Stonegate).”

To the allegations of a conspiracy to thwart Stonegate, Stankiewicz said he didn’t see or hear anything suspicious during the permitting process.