December 28, 2004

Few Communities Interested In Romney ‘Smart Growth’ Plan

At first glance, it seems like a good "smart growth" idea: Encourage communities to build more affordable housing in areas where there's already existing infrastructure, such as near mass transit or on former industrial sites.

But the current state plan falls short in a number of key areas.

First off, one-time bonuses totaling $4,000 or so per new unit of housing is not necessarily going to do much to offset long-term costs of educating new schoolchildren or providing other services. And local officials are skeptical over whether even that promised money would ever actually materialize.

Some suburban communities view the required densities as too high (eight single-family units, 12 two- or three-family units or 20 apartments/condos per acre), and see a "streamlined approval processes" as threatening local control, according to the Boston Globe.

Not discussed in the article but an important corollary to the lack of state funding for towns that accept the program: It's simply unfair to place the primary burden of stopping sprawl and generating more affordable housing on communities that are already doing more than their fair share in the region. What about communities with lower-density development and almost no affordable housing? They should be required to contributing something substantial if they want to keep their snob zoning -- excuse me, "rural character" -- while other towns build the housing that their teachers, police officers and firefighters can afford.

As I said in an earlier post: While I support smart-growth concepts, "I’m NOT in favor of willy-nilly turning middle-class inner-ring suburbs into urban areas while allowing richer communities to continue building more McMansion developments unchecked, so they can dump more SUVs on everybody’s roads. Traffic in Framingham and surrounding communities already suffers when exurban communities build nothing but expensive housing without enough commercial development to support it. (Those people need to go elsewhere in order to work and shop). Suburban sprawl needs to be addressed in wealthier towns that can’t or won’t create smart-growth zones.

Framingham's director of planning and economic development, Kathleen Bartolini, told the Globe she didn't like either the mandated densities or new state oversight over projects under the program. "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," she said. Framingham already has more than 10% of its housing stock classified as affordable, an important benchmark to stave off loss of local control over housing development plans that include affordable housing. State officials believe other towns below the 10% mark might find the program appealing.

Boston, Somerville, Chelsea, Quincy, Newton, Natick, Weymouth, Watertown, Lowell, Grafton, Charlton, Williamstown and Pittsfield have shown some interest in signing up for the program, the Globe says. Acton, Belmont, Braintree and Hopkinton are among those communities the Globe says are uninterested.

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