May 2, 2007

Greater Boston Growth Plan Unveiled; Urges Smarter Growth

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council yesterday issued its recommended plan for the Greater Boston area, hoping to counteract current trends of "fastest growth rates ... in low-density areas, but far from existing transit lines, sewer systems, and town centers." The plan urges suburbs to "steer two-thirds of their growth to town centers and villages," with half of new suburban housing created through overhauling already developed areas in order to protect open space.

The "MetroFuture" report says by following its recommendations, there would be more starter housing built (96K units vs. 54K under current trends) while open space lost to development would be 36,000 acres instead of 152,000 acres.

"The aim is to have 80 percent of new housing and new jobs in cities and larger municipal centers such as Framingham, Peabody, Norwood, and Marlborough. That would enable more people to walk or use mass transit and thereby reduce traffic and pollution," according toa Boston Globe report on the plann.

I'm in favor of smart growth as a concept, and I'd like to see more of that kind of development in the Framingham-Natick area. My problem is with allowing neighboring, wealthier communities to keep their snob zoning -- unless they start doing their fair share to create moderate-income housing and provide needed social services, or funding of local government is radically changed.

In a posting on the blog Blue Mass. Group, "Charlie on the MTA" notes that Brookline has done remarkably well with high-density development, being desirable and family-friendly as well as offering smart growth.

But I say that you can't ask inner-ring suburbs to do high-cost (in terms of services such as schools) smart growth, allow exurbs and wealthier communities to keep their multi-acre zoning, AND keep financing municipal governments the same way.

Yes, that may work in upper-income communities like Brookline, where there will be enough money to fund local services anyway, but the model falls apart in middle-class and blue-collar towns. There needs to be a radical restructuring of the way state aid is apportioned and the way local government is funded.

In Framingham, for example, the problem is compounded by an exceptionally high regional concentration of state-funded social service agencies. These agencies take properities off the local tax rolls while adding state-mandated high expenses. For instance, it's my understanding that local government in Framingham has expenses in six figures to provide transportation for children of homeless families to their former school districts. I don't have any problem with homeless families finding shelter in Framingham, but I have a major problem with a state-funded social service agency bringing such families into Framingham and then sticking the local community with the school bus bill. Especially when that means cuts elsewhere in the school system because of Prop 2 1/2.

If you increase density of development in Framingham while allowing other, wealthier communities nearby to keep their snob zoning, this situation is just going to increase. Which is why a lot of people in town may not support smart growth. Brookline doesn't face the same sort of problem, because it's surrounded by other communities that also have dense development and proximity to public transportation. Smart growh policies have to be accompanied by equitable government funding. When there's just one community in an area with more urban development patterns, there are other consequences that need to be addressed.

Where are state-funded agencies likely to site regional social services? Is the state likely to send a lot of out-of-community homeless to a place like Lincoln, or a place with dense development near public transit? If you are looking to site a regional social service, are you more likely to site it in a community with minimum 2-acre lots and no way to get from a train station to the rest of town without a private automobile, or a place where there are apartments within easy walking distance of town?

Communities that are shouldering a disproportionate share of the region's burden in providing housing and services for low-income people need to get a disproportionately higher share of state aid from sales tax, income tax and other sources. Communities that are doing less than their fair share should get less funding. As a start, Framingham and other communities should be getting payments in lieu of taxes for every piece of property that state-financed social service agencies have taken off the property tax rolls, and that money can come from cherry-sheet aid to towns not hosting such services.

In the longer term, I agree absolutely with Governor Patrick that we need to shift the local funding model away from property taxes, an inherently regressive form of funding. The problem is exacerbated by Proposition 2 1/2, which gives communities incentive to approve development that's the opposite of smart growth.

"What's better for a town's bottom line: four 1,000-s.f. houses on an acre selling for $200k apiece or one 4,000-s.f. house selling for $600k? Property taxes from the 4 houses will be just 1/3 more than the one large home, but there could be 3-4 times the number of people living in the 4 houses," "NoPolitican" wrote on BlueMassGroup.

"What's better for a town's school system -- 1 house where the income is high enough so that only people earning $100k and up can afford it, or 4 houses where people earning $30-40k can afford it? Keep in mind that wealth tends to correlate with educational performance."

Let communities keep more of the income tax from residents in "smart growth" units, and the incentives would start changing to approve more dense development in some areas while keeping other areas as open space.

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