Proponents say it could increase affordable housing stock in the city
By Brian Zayatz
On Thursday, March 4, Northampton City Council heard a package of amendments to zoning law in Northampton that would allow two-family units anywhere in the city. Such zoning is currently limited to areas surrounding downtown Northampton and Florence.
The amendments, as explained by Planning and Sustainability Assistant Director Carolyn Misch, would remove the current definition of “accessory dwelling unit,” which is allowed anywhere but must be limited to 900 square feet on an owner-occupied building, and replace it with wording for two-family units with no size limit, as long as required open space and frontage are maintained. It also requires that new two-unit constructions have on-site fossil-fuel free heating systems—basically, electric. Misch also explained that the two “no” votes on the planning board were concerned about this latter measure, and one was also concerned that there was no size cap on two-family constructions.
During an initial lengthy exchange with Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3), Misch used measured language to describe the changes: from many of the different angles you could look at this issue, the changes are not very significant. When Councilor Nash said he thought the changes seemed counter to the city’s big picture goal of building up population around the urban centers and protecting the other areas, Misch responded that accessory dwelling units have already been allowed, and that the changes will not result in a huge increase in density—they are primarily intended to create more flexibility and rental opportunities, recognizing that single family zoning is exclusive and carries a history of inequity. Nash then raised environmental concerns, and Misch replied that no other regulatory structures are being minimized, such as the Wetlands Protection Act. Concerning the crowding of structures onto lots, Misch pointed out that open space and setback requirements still apply.
Misch is likely right to use conservative language. Zoning is only one tool to address housing issues, and often a subtle one. Advocates hope that these changes will increase housing stock and lead to more affordable units, while skeptics worry that it could lead to monster constructions taking place in otherwise modest neighborhoods. In reality, neither of these is likely to happen, at least not in the short term. Strong Towns, a national organization advocating sustainable urban planning and development, reported that in the first year after a similar change in Minneapolis, a total of three applications were filed for new two-unit dwellings. In their blog post about it, the group likens zoning adjustments to identifying the limiting nutrient for a plant—if you add a bunch of nitrogen but actually need phosphorus, the plant is likely to show little change in its performance.
Speaking to The Shoestring on the subject, UMass graduate student Oriana Reilly said, “As an urban planning student I think increased mid-level density is good from a land-use perspective,” also noting improvements in walkability and resource conservation. “As a tenant I’m pretty neutral,” Reilly continued. “I also highly doubt it will reduce rental prices by increasing supply, [a] theory which generally doesn’t hold up.”
Unfortunately, the market is its own beast. Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) asked Misch for data on whether residences built within the last ten or fifteen years had been on average larger than the city median of roughly 1800 square feet, but Misch did not have such information. Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) lamented a former five-unit building in his neighborhood which was torn down to put up a single family residence, the owner’s second home at that. The anecdote prompted Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) to share that he “feel[s] the frustration” of what the Council can do with zoning.
Councilors briefly discussed the fossil-fuel free heating stipulation, which Councilor Dwight observed would incentivize smaller structures. Misch responded to criticism from former City Councilor David Murphy during public comment that such heating systems need a non-electric backup, pointing out that even oil-burning heating systems these days almost universally have an electronic control panel. “We’re all gonna be screwed” in the case of a power outage, Misch said, excepting those with wood stoves—she did not seem bothered by this.
Councilor Jarrett spoke to some of the more general concerns of the matter, having researched whether the electric grid would be able to handle such an increase in demand. He found that the utility companies are already preparing for an increase in electrification as fossil-fuel burning is reduced, and it in fact complements the grid’s capacity well, since usage is usually higher in the summer.
Councilor Jarrett also pointed out that, under the new ordinances, two separate tree-replacement rules would apply to new buildings: the Significant Tree Ordinance, requiring property owners either to replace trees over 20 inches in diameter removed during construction or pay into the city’s tree fund, and a new stipulation included in the zoning amendments, requiring the replacement of any tree over three inches in diameter with a tree at least one inch in diameter. Misch replied that she does have draft language ready that would grant the Planning Board discretion to review specific cases, but no motion for an amendment was made.
The package passed its first reading, save for one amendment the Planning Department had asked to rescind. City Council will take their final vote on the package on March 18th.
Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor and new staff writer at The Shoestring. Photo by Kate Nadel.