By Christina B. Farnsworth. The Dicksons are part of the rarely heard-from YIMBY (yes in my backyard) movement. To help solve the affordable housing shortage in Weston, Mass., Polly and Edward Dickson donated 11 acres now known as Dickson Meadows in 1997 and 1998. The couple formed the Dickson Meadow Advisory Committee to come up with a development plan for the acreage that would provide affordable housing.

The committee came up with a unique solution: It conceived a community where the profits from the market-rate housing, combined with the land donation, would essentially offset the construction costs of the affordable homes. It selected nonprofit Community Builders in Boston to implement the innovative plan.

"When we began, we weren't certain which of the homes would be the affordable and which would be market rate," says Acorn regional sales manager Marc Pedi. And that is part of what makes Dickson Meadows, an enclave of 18 homes that includes eight affordable units, such a success.

The group could have built nearly anything without seeking local approval. Massachusetts Chapter 40B, the law governing the project, allows developers to bypass local planning, zoning, and other regulatory hurdles if at least 25 percent of the housing will be targeted to families making less than $60,000 a year.

Photo: Courtesy Deck House

Note the arrows on the site plan that orient each house to views of woods or meadows. Each house has 350 square feet of window area yet is also oriented for privacy from adjacent homes. Dickson Meadows did better than that, selling six homes--33 percent of the project--for $105,000 each by lottery to first-time buyers making no more than $47,800 a year, which is 80 percent of area median income. (Deed restrictions require that the below-market-rate homes be resold only to low- or moderate-income buyers, preserving the affordability ratio.)

Two units sold to households earning no more than $89,700 (150 percent of area median income) for $285,000. The remaining 10 market-rate homes sold for between $720,000 and $875,000 (depending on the amenities buyers added), primarily to empty-nest, move-down locals who wanted to stay in the neighborhood.

The Dickson family was local, too. It was their land. So even though they did not have to play by the rules, they spent years on the planning process, wooing reluctant neighbors fearful that affordable housing would reduce property values. When it came time to develop the site plan, the advisory committee selected Acton, Mass.-based Deck House for the job and L.D. Russo as general contractor.

Deck House's Acorn division designed the homes (14 single-family and four duplex units) and supplied the pre-engineered housing packages (panelized post-and-beam houses) that Russo then built. Acorn senior architect Douglas Govan built a model to convince the committee that the rolling site should hold individual houses and duplexes rather than the townhomes originally planned.

Govan sited each home towards views of woods and meadows, including a preserved open area in the site's center. As local committee participants and interested locals played with placement of homes on the model, no one knew which would be the affordable ones. The several-year process resulted in unanimous approval by the Weston Board of Selectmen in April 1999. Construction started in mid-1999, with all the houses completed by early 2002.

Photo: Courtesy Deck House

The homes are about the same size (2,100 to 2,300 square feet, with three bedrooms, two and one half bathrooms, a full basement, and a two-car garage) and look essentially the same outside. The houses are New England farmhouse, Cape, and Country house plans with cedar siding, premium windows, and solid-oak stairs and railings. So, clustered on a rolling site in which three acres continue to be verdant meadow, an $875,000 home may nestle next door to one that sold for $105,000. Look at the picture on the right to see if you can figure out which is which.