Monday May 21, 2007

History vs. Affordability

Judy Markland writer

It’s tough when two important civic goals like affordable housing and historic preservation are in direct conflict, and even tougher when a state law doesn’t allow the town much leeway to assess one relative to the other.  That’s the problem with Chapter 40B. When less than 10 percent of a municipality’s housing units are affordable, Chapter 40B permits a high-density project to override local bylaws and regulations if 25 percent of the units are affordable and profits are limited to 20 percent of total construction costs.

The law was intended to encourage development of large multi-unit projects providing big boosts to the affordable housing stock. However, in towns with very high land costs, Chapter 40B projects tend to be eight to twelve-unit “empty-nester” developments on one to two-acre lots where high-traffic volumes make McMansions economically unfeasible. In Weston, these lots are typically in historic areas with important older buildings. The Boston Post Road National Register District alone has seen two formal 40B proposals and several informal ones in the last several years. Each would have added three market-rate units for every affordable unit created, allowing little progress towards the goal of 10 percent affordability.

Weston has supported four previous 40B projects, but, the Selectmen and Historical Commission are now opposing one proposed for 823 Boston Post Road in the Post Road National Register District. This is the site of the pre-Revolutionary Joseph Livermore house and outbuildings, known as "Hayfields." We believe that the cost of losing this irreplaceable resource is greater than the benefit of adding three two-bedroom affordable units.

Hayfields is one of Weston’s favorite scenic views, a rare historic farm complex visible across the abutting hayfield. The 40B development would raze the barns and fill the 2.2-acre site with five new buildings containing 12 two-bedroom units (roughly 29,000 square feet of construction). The new buildings would be taller than the colonial house and surround it on three sides, stripping it of most of its historic character. 

The conventional wisdom is that a community is powerless against a 40B proposal.  However, as of this writing, the town seems to have gained at least a temporary victory by rallying public support to contact the state agencies that oversee the 40B process. The developer hasn’t renewed his option on the property, although it remains vulnerable to another proposal. Getting this far took a lot of resolve and hard work by the Selectmen and the Historical Commission, and we learned a lot in the process.

Document your historic resources and establish the tools to protect them. The fact that Hayfields is on the National Register doesn’t save it from demolition but it does ensure that the press and state agencies take its historic status seriously.  Massachusetts Historical Commission must review any 40B project affecting any property on the State Register of Historic Places and has the power to require project design changes to protect these properties. Our Demolition Delay By-law gives the Historical Commission the power to delay demolition of important historic properties for six months. That’s not a lot of time in the case of a 40B project but the public hearings required under the by-law generate attention and start a community dialogue.

Leverage Community Preservation Act funds creatively. CPA funds can be used to purchase a preservation easement on private properties – and also to combine preservation with affordable housing. Weston invested over $300,000 on a preservation easement to preserve a historic house and barn and to support the affordability subsidy for a 40B project only two lots away from Hayfields.  We’re hopeful that we can purchase an easement on Hayfields to help save it from development as well. The availability of CPA funds facilitates a dialogue and can give the town a meaningful place at the 40B table.

Create a dialogue with the developer. In many cases it’s possible to work out a solution that keeps everyone relatively happy. The developer of the 40B project mentioned above had intended to tear down the house and barn, but we were able to keep both buildings and to use them to help screen the rest of the development from the street, preserving the scenic viewalong the Post Road. Unfortunately, the developer at Hayfields was unwilling to establish a dialogue with the town.

Generate public awareness. It’s amazing how much support is available when people know what’s at stake. Not only have Weston residents rallied around Hayfields, but former owners and residents and far-flung members of the Livermore family have contacted us offering to help. The local press and our state legislators have been interested.  Their letters and phone calls have been very effective with the state agencies.

Ultimately, though, the only real protection against 40B is to have enough affordable housing stock.We need to insure that moderate and low-income families can afford to live in towns like ours without running the risk of having our historic sites picked off one by one for high-density development.  The best solution is a comprehensive affordable housing plan and creative incentives to encourage affordable housing.  Our Selectmen have urged the Housing Needs Committee and the Planning Board to think creatively to make this happen.  Your thoughts and ideas would help too. 

Judy Markland serves as chair of the Weston Historical Commission



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