I have worked with many different municipalities in my line of work. As a design and construction professional, it is part of my job to make sure our projects adhere to local codes and policies, as well as help my clients navigate various requirements with wetlands, zoning and the board of health. I also love making the most of something as we figure that out and meet our clients’ needs. I will say that most of the towns I work with are tough, but fair, consistent and transparent. That is what makes for good policy. Good policy change, when the times change, create an environment where citizens can work together to resolve issues. Many folks do not pay much attention to the changes that occur in a town department because they don’t see how those changes will affect them until they are before a town board or see areas of the town’s regulations that create some form of distress. I’ll give you a couple examples of how I think trying to over-regulate can stop growth and backfire.
About 15 years ago; in a local more populated town nearby, “mansionization” was the mantra being misused by a group of folks who didn’t want their neighborhoods to change in any way. As a person who loved those neighborhoods too, I didn’t like seeing pictorial neighborhoods with like-scaled homes start to become pockmarked with neoclassic oversized homes, it didn’t fit. This led to a tremendous amount of poorly drafted by-law changes in this community. Every effort was made to stop projects of any size by trying to re-write setback requirements, home sizes, etc. I remember representing an owner in one of these neighborhoods who wanted a family room and master suite. We were adding 400 SF to a 1,200 SF home in a way that was very respectful to the neighborhood and the architecture (picture below). The neighbor next door in the 2,500SF colonial hired an attorney (after calling my client a yuppie – true story) to argue that we were “mansionizing”. For the next several years we had many projects delayed because we would plan a project with the current zoning by-laws and then a petitioned and proposed change by a citizens group would be enforceable even before the Town people could vote on it because they met some threshold of signatures. It seemed very underhanded to me that a small organized group could put a stop to reasonable projects and that the property owners would have to incur additional design and delay costs. I believe that the misguided effort only bolstered the chess game about how to get the most house on the lot. 15+ years later, one of my favorite “small home” streets is about 80% full of new homes and I now look forward to when the last homes will be finished so the neighborhood will have achieved a balance.
My town is experiencing a 40B surge with 2 projects about to break ground. (Larger less regulated developments that include affordable housing). We do need affordable housing, but it isn’t smart growth when you don’t have a master plan that combines the right mix of that, along with some new commercial space or single family homes. We love our rural feel here in Sherborn and most of us would like to see that stay as close to that as possible. For better or worse, buildings age, populations rise, and what was once the largest worldwide supplier of apple cider is now has smallest population per acre in the area. We are actually less commercial than we were 150 years ago! Right now in Sherborn, if you want to build a couple of homes on a parcel of land, it is likely our local regulations (which are much stricter than the state regulations) will find that the property is unsuitable for 2-4 homes. We overregulate (or overstep in some cases) to prevent change, which simply invites growth that is more burdensome as it is not anything we can plan for. In the case when a developer seeks permission to build 3 homes and gets rejected, they can file a 40B in any town that doesn’t meet the minimum affordable housing units and on that same land have imposed upon it a large development that has much less restriction on wetlands, zoning and of course board of health requirements. In our case, stonewalling to slow the growth is getting us two new, much less difficult to manage, projects.
Another small town election season is upon us. There is always more at stake in these elections than budget overrides when it comes to our local policy. Most New England towns are short on the people capitol as much as we are the financial capitol. We need people that will work hard to help improve our local towns, and make it easier to live and work without losing sight of why we all picked the town we live in. I believe that we have to stop on focusing on what we cannot do and see how we can keep it beautiful with the things we can do.