NORTHBRIDGE, Mass. – Despite criticism and a plea from an attorney for the current owners of Oakhurst Retreat and Conference Center on Hill Street, voters unanimously agreed at a Special Town Meeting last night to place the approximately 25-acre parcel in the Heritage Zoning District.
Oakhurst Retreat, formally the House of Affirmation, is owned by the Catholic Diocese of Worcester.
Attorney Brian Falk, representing the church, said it is normal procedure for a town to consult the property owner before changing zone designations.
“No one reached out to us,’’ Falk said.
The zoning change, he said, will reduce the fair market value of the land, but will not assure preservation of the mansion on the property nor prevent its sale to a developer.
Falk said the owners have received offers, none of which have been accepted. He asked voters to “consider the property owners rights and the property value” and vote against the proposal.
The zoning change was suggested by Planning Board member Barbara Gaudette when she heard the church was selling the land and its buildings, including the Chester Whitin Lassell mansion, which was built in 1890.
She believes the last remaining Whitin mansion should be preserved, if possible, and a Northbridge resident and business owner, Access TCA owner Michael Yag, would like to buy the land, restore the first floor of the mansion to its “original glory” and use it for social events, and use the second and third floors for administrative offices.
Northbridge Historian Kenneth Warchol said the Oakhurst property was not, but should have been, included in the Heritage District when it was formed in 1980.
Under current zoning, only one and two-family homes are allowed in the Historic District, Gaudette noted. Two additional articles expanding allowable uses in the District to include administrative offices and multi-use with Planning Board approval were also unanimously approved.
Voters also unanimously approved changing the site of the former Northbridge Nursing Home on the corner of Providence Road and Upton Street from residential 2 and 3 to residential 4 which will allow renovation of the building into apartments.
Henry Lane, representing 179 petitioners who sought the zone change, said the building has been vacant for 10 years because zoning restricted it to institutional use.
“It is rapidly becoming an eyesore and a blight on the community,’’ Lane said. The change will make way for up to 23 apartments.
Also approved was a zoning change to property on Main Street, the site of the former West End School, from residential 5 to industrial 1. The proposal received a lone nay vote from a resident who asked voters to consider residents living on two sides of the parcel.
Voters approved the transfer of $129,000 in additional state aid into the Stabilization Funding, bringing its total to $1.5 million, and passed over two additional zoning articles.