Mark Maloy of BRPC explains the 40R housing initiative to the board.
ADAMS, Mass. — The Planning Board voted on Monday to continue a contentious hearing on a 40R zoning amendment that would create a smart growth zoning overlay district.
The Planning Board was split on the amendment that would designate certain areas in town for mixed-use development and agreed to continue the hearing to gather more information.
"The board may want to continue this in a more community meeting where we can discuss this," Community Development Director Donna Cesan said. "We could invite representatives from Great Barrington or other communities ... we are happy to provide the board with more information."
The standing-room only crowd in the Selectmen's meeting room were vehemently against the zoning amendment, calling it short-sighted and wrong for the small community and worried that it would increase Adams' low-income population.
Mark Maloy of Berkshire Regional Planning Commission explained that 40R is a state initiative to help communities create dense, residential, mixed-use zoning districts with a certain percentage of affordable housing units in existing city and town centers.
"We are talking about redevelopment of existing buildings. We are not talking about sprawl or growing the town beyond its developed area," Maloy said.
He said at least 20 percent of 40R units have to be deed-restricted affordable units.
Adams Senior Planner Kevin Towle added that the town's proposed bylaw has a 40 percent cap on these units so at no point would over 40 percent of the residential units be designated affordable without permission for the Planning Board.
He added that any development project would also have to go before the Planning Board.
Maloy noted that affordable housing is not Section 8 housing. He said those who want to rent affordable housing must go through an application process that is controlled by the local housing authority.
He said those who would live in these apartments would have to receive income and make no more than 80 percent of the area median income, which is $80,000 in Adams.
This would mean a person living there would have to make less than $64,000 to qualify. Rent would be determined based on income.
"This isn't for someone who can barely afford a few hundred a month. This is for people that are doing pretty good," Maloy said.
He did note it would give the town more control because, currently, developers can come in to develop affordable housing wherever they want because Adams does not meet the 10 percent affordable housing threshold mandated in the state's 40B.
This amendment would allow the town to designate these locations.
The overlay would create four subdistricts: Park Street, the schools, the mills and other smaller areas throughout downtown. Development would only be allowed in these areas.
Towle said Park Street would be 67 percent residential use leaving the rest for commercial use.
The schools include the Memorial Building, the former Commercial Street School and Hoosac Valley Elementary in case that may one day no longer be a school. This would be 70 percent residential and 30 percent mixed-use.
The former mills make up the third subdistrict. They would be 8 percent residential.
Maloy said there are financial implications to the program and the town would get up to $600,000 from the state as an incentive. More money comes with more units and the town could be looking at $2.4 million to go toward capital expenses.
He said Pittsfield, Lee, and Great Barrington have also adopted this amendment.
Cesan said the town's motivation to go forward with the program was informed by a housing needs study. She said 80 percent of Adams' housing stock was built before 1920 so much of it is very old.
"Older housing is more expensive to maintain and heat especially if routine maintenance is deferred," Cesan said. "The study strongly recommended that we work to support the development of new housing for both renters and owners across a broad range of incomes."
Cesan said the subdistricts were chosen with this study in mind and contain blighted areas and properties that have attracted inquiries from developers in the past.
"We will be creating a pathway to allow new housing development on these properties and it makes residential development more attractive and feasible," she said.
The community members who signed up beforehand to speak on the amendment were strongly opposed.
Former resident and business owner William Kolis said 40R was not a good fit for the town and better serves a larger city like Boston.
"I am against this I believe it is the wrong development tool at the wrong time and it is short-sighted," he said.
Resident John Cowie had questions specifically about rights-of-way issues and agreed with Kolis that 40R was not a good fit for Adams.
"This is an attempt by Boston to bail themselves out of a problem they created," Cowie said. "They have gentrified and zoned out people and now they are looking to dump."
Mill owner and resident Steve Dadak pointed to North Adams, which is seeing positive development without a state program.
"I think this is backdoor rezoning for private people from out of town that is totally illegal," he said. "I don't think it is for the town."
The number of 900 units was thrown around throughout the night, which many residents felt would be too much.
Cesan noted this is the maximum number and felt honestly would never happen.
"Nine hundred, that is the maximum if every single one of these properties were to be developed," she said. "This is a 20-, 30-, 50-year program ... 900 new apartments would be unimaginable. I can guarantee you that will not happen."
Residents mostly repeated their concerns. Many felt the housing would attract low-income families to the area that would put more stress on the school district and town services, others thought affordable housing would lower their property values.
There was a general consensus that abuttors had no say in potential development and there was not enough information available about the meeting or the program.
The Planning Board discussed the amendments amongst themselves and member Sandra Moderski said there is already a high vacancy rate in town and did not think they needed more housing.
She added that she thought it would take money out of the hands of local landlords and put it in the pockets of developers from out of town.
Planning member Michael Mach agreed and did not think the money would be worth the potential problems the program could create.
Both favored undergoing a study to see what the consequences of 40R would be specifically for Adams.
Chairman David Rhinemiller felt that there were some benefits to the program and said it would bring some needed development to town.
"The overall picture is this is good for the town to allow more flexibility," he said.
Member David Krzeminski agreed with an earlier statement Rhinemiller made that the Planning Board was the first step in the process and noted the Selectmen and town meeting would also have a say. He said he thought it would be a good idea just to move the amendment.
Mach disagreed and wanted to kill it on the spot.
"This will be the death of Adams," he said. "I want to kill it right now."
Residents applauded and began to chime in asking the board to gather more information from other communities who have adopted 40R or who have decided against it before taking a vote.
Great Barrington, which adopted 40R in 2017, was recently honored as a "housing hero" for its efforts, including plans for nearly 100 mixed and affordable housing units. The town of Lee adopted the zoning amendment last year, largely to secure the $60 million Eagle Mill development. Pittsfield also passed 40R with targeted smart growth overlays around the city's denser areas.
The board agreed after over two hours of discussion to pick up the hearing again on Sept. 23.
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