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State Pressures Towns to 'Grow Smart'

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State to towns: Plan smart

By FREDERICK MELO | July 14, 2004

STAFF WRITER

When the town of Bourne put in new sidewalks, trees and benches along Main Street in Buzzards Bay last fall, more than two-thirds of the funding came from a $400,000 state grant.

For residents and town officials eager to inject a little more life into Buzzards Bay, the funds made the difference between a viable revitalization project and a pipe dream.

With towns under pressure to preserve open space, increase housing options and make room for new businesses, planners have often looked to state development grants to fund a wide range of projects.

But changes to the funding formula for state grants are making some town planners nervous. Competition for that money is about to get tougher.

When reviewing applications, the Office for Commonwealth Development this month began taking into account how closely town zoning adheres to the state's principles of "sustainable development."

Grants now will be issued on a weighted scale, and towns that receive poor marks for sustainable development, sometimes call "smart growth," will be at the end of the line for funding.

"We want to be clear what we would like to see in terms of growth," said Jim Sturgis, undersecretary for policy in the state's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

"We're not asking you to actually build yet," Sturgis said. "We're asking you to have the right kind of zoning in place."

Led by Office of Commonwealth Development Secretary Doug Foy, the Commonwealth Capital Fund was created by Gov. Mitt Romney this year to coordinate the grant efforts of the state's Department of Housing and Community Development, Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, Division of Energy Resources and Executive Office of Transportation and Construction.

A Commonwealth Capital Fund representative will meet with town planners at 2 p.m. today at Yarmouth Town Hall to go through the new criteria and offer guidance.

Towns hoping to apply for grants from any of the four state agencies are required to fill out a "municipal scorecard" that rates their zoning on a 140-point scale.

A town would earn seven points, for instance, for having an affordable housing plan that's been approved by the state.

A town with a "binding commitment" to create such a plan would earn three points.

The scorecard will represent 20 percent of the application's rank.

The merits of the actual application will determine the other 80 percent.

Cape planners say they respect state efforts to encourage responsible growth.

Towns such as Barnstable have worked closely with the Cape Cod Commission to create plans that provide outlines for their development goals.

Some towns, such as Mashpee and Dennis, have sought to encourage mixed development, such as housing above storefronts, another principle of smart growth that calls for concentrating development in order to avoid sprawl.

"Particularly, for the communities of the Lower and Outer Cape, it's going to be more difficult for them to score as well," said Paul Ruchinskas, housing specialist with the Cape Cod Commission.

But state officials say the Cape, as a whole, is poised to fare well in the new rankings, in part because of initiatives like the Cape Cod Land Bank, which allows towns to buy open space.

From Cape Cod Times

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Little support for smart growth

School costs cited in housing plan

By Anthony Flint, Globe Staff | December 28, 2004

The state's latest strategy to build more affordable housing and limit sprawl is drawing little enthusiasm, including in Governor Mitt Romney's hometown of Belmont, according to a new report and a survey of town and city planners.

Officials in about a dozen of the Commonwealth's 351 cities and towns say they are interested in the program, in which the state provides cash for zoning changes that allow dense development in town centers or near transit stations. At least 20 percent of housing built in such "smart growth districts" must be affordable.

Among local leaders' concerns is the lack of money to offset school costs to handle new children in that housing, a provision removed by former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran earlier this year. Towns also say the districts require too much density, especially in suburban areas.

If those issues are not addressed by the Romney administration and the Legislature, broader participation in the program is unlikely, said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which finished a report on the program this month.

"I wouldn't even waste the time of the Planning Board to discuss it," said Timothy Higgins, town planner for Belmont. "The density is much too high, local control far too weak, and it's doubtful at best that the state would come through with the financial incentives promised."

Under the new program, spelled out in Chapter 40R of the Massachusetts General Laws, cities and towns that change their zoning for more dense development in the designated areas get about $1,000 per planned housing unit and another $3,000 per unit once the housing is actually built.

Dense development is defined as eight single-family dwellings per acre, 12 two- or three-family residences per acre, or 20 apartments or condominiums per acre, all on land that is either downtown, near a town center, near transit, or on a vacant industrial site.

Once the rules for building and design are established in the districts, the local government cannot require developers to go through any further regulatory hoops, a provision added to cut red tape to achieve the goal of 30,000 new housing units statewide within 10 years.

Boston, Somerville, Chelsea, Quincy, Newton, Natick, Weymouth, Watertown, Lowell, Grafton, Charlton, Williamstown, and Pittsfield have shown interest in signing up for the program when it becomes available in February.

But many communities are saying no thanks, including Kingston, Dennis, Sandwich, Acton, Braintree, and Hopkinton. Several more are on the fence. The most common concern cited in interviews with town planners and in the Metropolitan Area Planning Council report was the lack of permanent new funding for additional schoolchildren, expected as families fill the housing units. Another concern was the requirement for dense development, which was often described as especially out of character with suburban communities. Local leaders also balked at details such as a provision that towns return money if the housing is not built, and they were wary of the new streamlined approval process.

"I have a real problem with the mandated densities for any community over 10,000 in population," said Kathleen B. Bartolini, director of planning and economic development for Framingham. "I also believe in home rule and do not think we need to give [the state] another layer of review and approval over our zoning. I believe in density and general housing production to help decrease housing costs -- supply and demand -- but this is too superficial to work well as a land-use tool."

Douglas Foy, secretary of the Office for Commonwealth Development, said the program is entirely voluntary, but is a good way for many mostly suburban communities to increase their affordable housing so they are not subject to fast-tracked development proposals under Chapter 40B.

"This isn't a way to cede control; it's a way to seize control," Foy said.

Under Chapter 40B, developers can override local zoning in any community with less than 10 percent affordable housing. The contentious battles over that law led in large part to adoption of Chapter 40R.

Foy said that if 20 to 50 communities sign up in 2005, that will be a good start in the effort to change development patterns and increase the supply of housing. Cities and towns that adopt 40R districts can also take advantage of additional state aid for changing zoning and encouraging development near train stations and jump to the top of the list for state assistance with water, sewer, and transportation infrastructure.

Romney supports additional funding to cover school costs associated with the new development, Foy said, which might be done in the upcoming legislative session by adjusting the statewide school funding formula.

Developer Ted Carman, one of the architects of the 40R program, said the extra money for school costs would probably be about $40 million or $50 million more per year 10 years from now, less than 2 percent of the overall state budget for schools. But some are doubtful that the state will provide extensive financial incentives for housing.

"The Commonwealth will resist making a permanent financial commitment, but that's what it would take," said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Even the funding for the basic cash incentives is uncertain. The money is set to come from the expedited sale of state surplus land. But the law covering that process is set to expire in June, and some lawmakers have said they will not vote to renew it.

Carman, who drafted the 40R program with housing specialist Eleanor White and Barry Bluestone, a professor at Northeastern University, said all those details need to be worked on in the coming year. The basic problem was that modestly priced housing generally does not produce enough in tax revenue to cover school costs, he said.

"This is the mechanism that can address that," said Carman, president of Concord Square Development Co. "It also puts the development where we want it to be. This will make it possible for landowners and developers to come forward and make far more attractive proposals. It's going to change the negotiations about development enormously."

Environmental groups have said the state's typical development pattern -- spread-out single-family subdivisions deep into Worcester County and Southeastern Massachusetts -- will worsen traffic congestion and destroy open space.

At the same time, high housing costs hurt the economy, with a recent US Census Bureau report confirming a continuing population exodus, attributed in part to high cost of living.

A report released last week ranked the state's housing costs second only to California, in terms of the hourly wage needed to rent the typical two-bedroom apartment.

From The Boston Globe

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"This isn't a way to cede control; it's a way to seize control," Foy said

I agree. Smart growth is stupid for small towns like Hopkinton and should only be used on a case by case basis, not unilaterally.

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