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Marblehead approves its first assisted living facility

An architect's rendering of the proposed Mariner assisted living facility. (Courtesy image)

MARBLEHEAD — Plans to build the town’s first assisted living facility are back on track.

The Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously voted to approve the special permit needed for the Mariner project to proceed, reversing a decision it made last year. More than 200 residents packed the gallery to argue for and against the Mariner project, which would sit in a neighborhood of single-family homes.

Developers Michael Lafayette, Heather Cairns and Phil Helmes are also allowed to exceed the area’s height restriction thanks to a special permit issued on Monday.

Located at 265 Pleasant St., the Mariner development would contain 87 apartments, including some two-bedroom units. The 4.5 acre site and would feature parks, walking paths, seating areas, patios and gardens. The residences would include a restaurant, private dining, pub, cafe, beauty salon, health and wellness room, library and movie theater, according to the developer’s website.

To earn the board’s approval, the development team agreed to use building materials that are more compatible with the surrounding neighborhood. They also agreed the Pleasant Street facility’s open spaces more accessible to pedestrian traffic.

Several abutters argued the site was too small to accommodate a project the size of the Mariner. Others said that seniors considering moving into the assisted living facility were going to get a rude awakening when they find how much it would cost to live there.

Another resident said there wasn’t enough parking planned for the site. Mariner attorney Paul Feldman said developers believed the proposed 70 spaces was more than would be necessary, as not everyone who lives at the facility would be driving.

Ron Grenier, a resident speaking in favor of the project, said Marblehead’s sizable elderly population is deserving of the Mariner option, which would allow them to stay in town and not have to look elsewhere for similar services.

“The town of Marblehead must stay competitive, must remain desirable and offer our residents modern services like the Mariner will provide,” Grenier said.

Feldman said the assisted living facility is a real need in Marblehead — he cited census figures that showed that seniors 65 and older are the town’s largest age group, accounting for more than 20 percent of its population. He said that is higher than the national average of 15 percent. He said senior living options in Marblehead barely exist.

Advocating for the project, Feldman said Town Meeting in 1999 adopted a new zoning bylaw to promote elderly housing options within the town. Town officials said the town zoning bylaw special permit for nursing homes and assisted living facilities was adopted that year.

Last year, the ZBA denied the developer’s application to build the Pleasant Street facility, though the Planning Board had previously granted site plan approval. The move seemingly killed the Mariner project, but the developers appealed of the board’s decision with the Massachusetts Land Court, challenging the legality of the vote.

The land court judge remanded the matter back to the ZBA, which resulted in Monday night’s public hearing. Town Administrator John McGinn said recently that it was a matter of potential settlement that the ZBA was taking up at the public hearing. He said if the ZBA didn’t change, then the Land Court trial would have proceeded as scheduled on Nov. 14.

Board chairman William Moriarty said the board denied the application last year over two issues. The first basis was that the architectural and design features of the project were said to be incompatible with the existing neighborhood. The second basis was that the adverse effects on the abutters and neighborhood were not minimized.

Feldman said prior to the public hearing that the zoning board and applicant moved the Land Court to order a remand so the ZBA could consider some proposed changes for the project, including changed architecture and materials, in a public hearing.

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