Community Development Director Donna Cessan was on hand to provide explanations of the program to the planners.
ADAMS, Mass. — The Planning Board in a split decision recommended Monday night that the town adopt a controversial 40R overlay district.
The vote was 3-2 with Chairman David Rhinemiller, Dave Krzeminski and Lisa Gazaille in favor and Sandra Moderski and Michael Mach against. The matter will now get passed to the Board of Selectmen to be put on a warrant article which will then be taken up at Town Meeting.
The discussion Monday night was civil and almost sedate compared to prior Planning Board meetings at which residents filled the meeting room to capacity and voiced their concerns. Board of Selectmen members James Bush and Christine Hoyt were on hand as well as Community Development Director Donna Cesan and Town Planner Kevin Towle. There was only one other attendee besides the town officials.
The state instituted 40R to incentivize developers to utilize existing structures to create market-value housing along with a certain percentage of affordable and commercial space. The statute provides incentives for developers as well as towns, such as access to capital and a payment to the town to acknowledge and ease the impact of increased housing and traffic.
The board had several questions for Cesan before taking up the vote. Gazaille asked what many residents have been confused about since the town started discussing the move about two years ago.
"Affordable and subsidized are completely two different things, correct? Affordable housing is more for the working class?" she asked.
Cesan explained that when the state was developing the program it was put in as "workforce housing."
"This really came about because your typical teachers, firefighters, police officers, early in their careers could not afford to get an apartment in some of the town centers, particularly in the Boston area, but now the same phenomenon is happening across the state," she said.
Mach, one of the bylaw's opponents, thinks Adams inherently has enough affordable housing and doesn't need to take additional measures to ensure it gets more. He cited the old Krutiak property on Route 8 that was redeveloped as a perfect example of natural market conditions drawing development to Adams.
"All the mills in North Adams are basically all full. You're gonna see what's going on in North Adams, that's gonna start filtering into Adams. It already is. Look at what's happened at the old Krutiak Mill. George Lemaitre ... look how he's redone that mill. He's gonna have his own sculpting gallery there. He made a residence up there. He came here from Nevada," he said. "We've got lots of artists moving here now. They are starting to come here for one reason: we have affordable housing already. 40R would be good in Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox and places like that. For the simple reason that, yes, a nurse or a young engineer can't afford homes out that way. But they can come here and get a decent home. There is affordable housing right here in town. Plenty of it."
The other no vote, Moderski, asked Cesan what other incentives the town has available for developers as an alternative to 40R and if there has been an uptick in interest from developers since the town has considered adopting the measure.
"Since we've been talking about this for several months have any other developers come forward and said 'I'm interested in a property that's located in this district?" she asked. "What other incentives do we have besides 40R?"
Cesan said there has been some interest expressed.
"I talked to somebody that's interested in the Jones Block and Armory block recently and they asked what incentives we have. We're about to issue our [request for proposals] for the Memorial School and I have a little thing in there that the town may be adopting 40R. Nobody is knocking on our door… 'Have you adopted 40R yet?'" she said. "I talk about how we are eligible for New Market Tax Credits. That's not used very extensively. They did use it with the cinema project in Pittsfield. My understanding is it really doesn't make sense to use it except for projects in excess of $1 million dollars."
There has been "a lot of buzz" about the section of Adams designated an Opportunity Zone," Cesan said, but added "again that's high finance and very difficult to develop but we always let people know. ...
"The state has made it clear that its money is in projects like 40R. 40R is its workforce housing. It has a lot of other programs for low and very low-income housing."
One of the sticking points of adoption of 40R has been the perception that it's a fait accompli specifically targeted to the redevelopment of the old Waverly Mill on Hoosac Street. The property was purchased by Jeffrey Cohen in 2014 with plans to put in 150 workforce housing units. A popular sentiment on the street and on social media has been that his ultimate intent is not affordable housing but Section 8 public housing.
There are no plans currently in front of any town board related to the Hoosac Street property. Cohen is in the middle of a $60 million redevelopment of the old Eagle Mills in Lee into a mixed-use property consisting of market-rate and affordable housing as well as commercial space.
Under the proposed bylaw, at least 20 percent of all units created in the new overlay zoning district, which includes areas of Park Street, various mills, schools, and some other large structures, must be considered affordable. The town can set the limit anywhere between 20 and 40 percent in the bylaw. Anything over that would need special approval by the Planning Board.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sets standards every year for what is considered affordable housing. It varies wildly given a region's economic conditions.
Currently, to qualify for affordable housing, an individual living in Adams could earn no more than $49,700. That rises to $70,950 for a family of four. HUD calculates affordable housing in Adams as $843 a month for a one-bedroom and about $1,300 a month for a three-bedroom.
Rhinemiller hopes the zoning amendment will spur development of long vacant and deteriorating properties.
"All the areas we're proposing to go under this are all big sites that are either dormant or spaces that can be used in the future. Large-scale projects. All the old mills or the school. Right now they are doing absolutely nothing," he said. "Under the present zoning, [developers] would have to get a bylaw change to put housing in an industrial district. They would have to get permission to put it in there. This gives them a 'by right' to put it in."
Moderski was wary of the potential for a too rapid increase in housing units in the downtown corridor and how it would affect the nearly 250-year-old town.
"All these properties that are proposed ... total units developable as of right now under existing underlying zoning there are 64 units. You pass 40R as it is ... over 600 units," she said. "I know it would be phased in over time, maybe we would get 100, maybe 50. But that's gonna really change the character of this town. From an existing 64 units to over 600 units."
The "by right" wording of the statute concerned some members of the board as well as the public in general. Cesan explained the meaning of the phrase to the board members.
"It allows, if you are now in a 40R zoned district, you have rights that make your property OK for residential use. By right does not mean that tomorrow you start building. There are still review processes that you have to go through," she said. "With 40R, we actually will have more control, the Planning Board will have more scrutiny for a residential project than we do right now.
"There are provisions in this bylaw where you as a board can reject a project altogether if it does not meet certain tests.You can limit it and say 'We don't feel comfortable. We feel there is not enough parking and you're going to impact the street. Therefore instead of your hundred units we only want 70.' You can do those types of things under 40R."
Krzeminski wanted to know how this would impact the neighbors of a newly created 40R district and what protections they might have against runaway development.
"They have the same power they would for any project that came before the board. They have the ability to say, 'Hey wait a minute, this is impacting me.' You as a board would try to mitigate those impacts," Cesan said.
Town Administrator Jay Green offered comment in an email to iBerkshires.
"Notwithstanding the Planning Board vote or the eventual town meeting vote on the Smart Growth overlay bylaw, I think it's important for the community to know that their town government heard their request to pause the process and allow additional time for public outreach and fact finding," he wrote. "After receiving positive feedback about the public information sessions to explain the nuts and bolts of the proposed overlay bylaw, these types of initiatives will include a public information component as part of the process in the future."
The next step in the process will be the Selectmen putting it on a warrant article for town meeting.
Chairwoman Christine Hoyt said the board is unsure right now if it will be presented at a special town meeting or wait for the regular one in June. Right now the zoning bylaw would require a two-thirds vote for adoption but Cesan said the state is looking at tinkering with that number and it could change to a lower threshold by next spring.
The town does plan to hold further information sessions for town meeting members.
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