|Zoning||<– Date –> <– Thread –>|
|From: John R. Abrams (jabramsvineyard.net)|
|Date: Tue, 13 Jan 1998 06:08:52 -0600|
Dear Glenn, You said: >I put our a request two weeks ago looking for groups who have had zoning >rewritten to allow cohousing and received a couple of responses and was able >to get a second zoning overlay for our planning board to use as a model. We >had a meeting with the board tonight and they would like us to get more >examples for them. This is gonna be a long reply which suggests a different approach if your current path is unsuccessful. If it's not useful, I apologize in advance. I'm posting to the general list in view of recent discussion. We are in the same state and situation as you but taking a different route, which you may have considered. If not, it may be useful. My company is development consultant/designer/builder for Island Cohousing on Martha's Vineyard. Our group owns property and is in the middle of permitting. The Vineyard is the land of large lot zoning. The town we are working in has a toothless cluster zoning by-law which doesn't encourage clustering because it has no density credits for open space or anything else to encourage developers to cluster (Typical zoning problem: by-laws that imply what a community doesn't want rather than saying, loud and clear, what it does). In Massachusetts, as you may know, there is a law, Chapter 40B, commonly known as the "anti-snob zoning law". It was established in the 70's to encourage affordable housing. It provides that any development which 1) is planned for a community in which less than 10% of the existing housing meets the definition for affordable housing (very few communities in MA have more), 2) plans at least 25% of the housing in the development as affordable housing (affordable to those with 80% or less of median income) and 3) has a federal or state subsidy for the low/moderate income units, can apply to the local Zoning Board of Appeals for a "Comprehensive Permit". The application does not have to comply with local zoning and the ZBA can issue a single permit without full consent of other boards. If the ZBA turns down the application without good cause, it can be appealed to a state body called the Housing Appeals Committee, which generally rules in favor of the development if it is truly designed to provide affordable housing, and not just a shuck-and-jive way to by-pass zoning. It's a powerful housing tool. The rub has always been the federal/state subsidy, which often comes with constraints that your group or mine may not wish to comply with. There are other complexities that I won't go in to here; it will suffice to say that we are in the process of using this law in a way that is likely to get us what we want in a non-confrontational way and relieve the town of the burden of setting precedents they'd rather not set. We recently did a small, innovative housing project for our local housing authority that required a Comprehensive Permit. We got it, but not without some blood, sweat and tears because of the subsidy requirement and the state agencies that therefore became involved. Now I'm going to impose on your time and patience to tell a little story about that project. As part of fulfilling the subsidy aspect, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Communities and Development (EOCD) had to approve the financial viability of the project. We had a hard time with EOCD. Our attorney and I traveled to Boston to meet with them. They said our application was unacceptable - it didn't meet their formulas for financial viability. We talked back and forth without making progress. Finally I said, "This is gonna sound stupid, but I'd like to propose something. In this instance the town is 100% behind the project. A local bank is committed to providing long-term, low-interest financing. A local design and construction company is willing to build at a deeply discounted rate, and for a fixed price. How can it lose? Why don't you, just this once, forget your formulas and have some FAITH in a community's ability to get something done?" They chuckled, and said, "We don't have faith. We've seen that anything can happen, and the worst is what usually happens." Marcia and I left. We were told later that when we left, the EOCD people said, "That's the last time we'll see them - they'll never make this thing work." It wasn't, and we did. We massaged, and cut, and discounted further, and puffed some things up to make them look good, and hounded EOCD until they threw up their hands and said, "OK, it's close enough." We built the project, and had an opening ceremony at completion. Some of the EOCD people, who had nearly sabotaged the project, came to share in the joy of its completion. The EOCD assistant secretary came up to me and said, "Could I have a few words with you?" We walked away from the gathering. She said, "I've seen a lot of affordable housing. In fact, I've seen all the affordable housing that's been built in Massachusetts. But I've never seen anything quite like this. Today I have faith." I thanked her for her generosity of spirit and hoped she'd remember the next time we came in. (By the way, the project is nothing so special - it's just well conceived, well designed, high quality affordable housing that's reasonably energy and resource efficiency. Since most affordable housing is none of those things, it stands out.) With that experience as background, when we began to develop Island Cohousing I initially wrote off the use of a Comp Permit and advised the group against it. The EOCD would take one look at our composting toilets and laugh. As the project developed, however, two things happened: 1) it became apparent that it was going to be very tough to do what we wanted without a zoning change, which would be hard to get, and 2) our Boston attorney, Matt Kiefer, who has worked on a number of cohousing projects, introduced us to Bob Engler, a housing consultant who has been advocating for and successfully doing affordable housing since before I was trying to levitate the Pentagon. Bob has recently developed interesting ways of using the Comp Permit process that mitigate/eliminate some of the more onerous aspects. Coupled with our commitment to subsidize the low/moderate income units internally, his strategies make it all work for us. >From the beginning, nearly two years ago, we have worked very closely with local officials and neighbors and carefully responded to their queries and concerns. So when we brought forward this process, as a simple way to permit our project (which most support but which they see as a square project that doesn't fit into our round zoning by-laws), they didn't feel like it was a means of circumventing the town's zoning, but rather a way to facilitate an important project without jeopardizing the town in the future. I can't say we have succeeded at this yet, but I'm optimistic about our chances, and it may be useful for you or other groups in Massachusetts to consider. I don't know if other states have such laws (do they?) but Chapter 40B has been successfully used in this state to create affordable housing which would otherwise have been shouted down, and I think it is an extremely valuable tool for the cohousing movement. If you have further interest, you may wish to contact Bob at Stockard & Engler & Brigham in Cambridge. Good luck. John Abrams
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