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SJC sides with Kingston in battle over zoning near train station


The state Supreme Judicial Court sided with the town of Kingston in a dispute over whether a property near the town’s commuter rail station was properly rezoned for a massive mixed-use development.

The victory was a Pyrrhic one for town officials because a developer already abandoned plans for as many as 730 units of housing and 300,000 square feet of commercial space in February at the site, citing delays caused by legal appeals.

Instead, property owner Mary O’Donnell is moving forward with plans to build four wind turbines on the 109-acre site off Marion Drive. The turbine project, if it moves forward, could mean that the town will have to surrender $600,000 that it received from the state as a reward for approving a “smart growth” overlay zone that allows dense housing near a transit hub.

Still, Kingston officials embraced the SJC’s decision on Tuesday to side with the town and its overlay district over the neighbors who initiated the lawsuit.

“We are very gratified that the SJC had validated the hard work and creativity of the town,” said Jill Myers, Kingston’s town administrator. “Smart growth development was a priority for the town. We’re hoping that will still continue.”

The suit had eventually been whittled down to one issue: whether the town erred by not properly accounting for the amount of land at the site that should be considered “priority habitat” for rare species, including the eastern box turtle.

The SJC on Tuesday agreed with a Land Court judge’s decision to dismiss the case. Both the SJC and Land Court rulings essentially said that while the town’s calculation of the amount of developable land was incorrect when the overlay zone was adopted at a town meeting in 2007, the error wasn’t big enough to invalidate the zoning amendment itself.

Thorndike Development of Norton dropped plans for its mixed-use project at the Marion Drive site in February. At the time, the company’s president said the project’s financing fell apart because of delays caused by legal appeals.

The town’s planning board in June approved a plan to install four wind turbines at the site, town planner Thomas Bott said. That approval is also being challenged by neighbors. This time, the appeal will be heard by the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

Bott said it’s likely the town will need to return the $600,000 it received from the state, because the Thorndike project has been dropped. However, he said there may be room on the site after the wind turbines are built for a more modest development along Marion Drive.