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.
Eleven members of the public spoke at the meeting, eight of them in favor of the resolution against the proposed Springfield biomass plant. Springfield’s City Council passed its own resolution to this effect, and speakers highlighted both the environmental justice aspect of their opposition to the project as well as more general opposition to carbon-intensive power generation. Ed Olmstead and former City Councilor David Murphy both referenced Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s miniature biomass plant, Olmstead noting that the strong restrictions governing such plants when it was built have expired, and Murphy adding that he lives near it and finds it dirty and noisy.
Lucas Lang of the Youth Commission and Ace Tayloe of the Housing Partnership both spoke in favor of the package of zoning amendments pertaining to two-family units, asserting that the changes would create more affordable housing. Lang argued that it’s impossible to afford a single family home in Northampton on less than a $90,000 income.
Jackie Ballance and Murphy also spoke to concerns with the package. Murphy did not believe that the stipulation for fossil fuel-free heating belonged in the package, because it should be in the building code, not zoning, and moreover that he didn’t believe units should rely solely on electric heating. Ballance wanted more information about why the Planning Board was not unanimous in its recommendation, and how trees removed during construction would be replaced.
Wendy Foxman, who noted her support for the biomass resolution, said she was concerned that the time burden involved in City Council and Policing Review Commission meetings was prohibitive to participation of the public and of elected officials. She argued that officials don’t make good decisions when the meetings go on for many hours, and that these bodies have been overly generous in granting public comment time to the public. She supports stricter time limits for public comment.
Christine Olson, of the newly formed group Safe Tech Northampton, also spoke of concern about mini cell towers on utility poles. According to Olson, such transmitters increase cancer risk, headaches, and insomnia, and decrease property values. She said that the city has not yet provided the group with records of where these towers exist.
Announcements and updates
Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) announced that the next regular City Council meeting on March 18th will feature a public hearing on the city’s five-year Capital Improvements Plan. The plan covers known major one-time expenditures, like upgrades to equipment and buildings. It is updated annually, and the latest draft which will be discussed on the 18th can be found here.
The city is reviewing the public’s use of swim spots. Members of the public can submit their thoughts on the matter via an online survey.
Mayor Narkewicz updated the Council on vaccination efforts in Northampton. “I wish I could tell you things have improved radically,” said the Mayor, “but they have not.” In the last two weeks, the city has experienced cancelations of shipments from the state, and since the city is not in control of the registration system, is not able to do anything when they learn Sunday night their shipment has been cancelled while people are scheduled to receive shots the next day. Some of these appointments have been for second shots, causing anxiety in the public about getting the second shot in the optimum window. The city made significant investments in a short period of time in order not to interrupt their capacity as a vaccination site after Governor Baker announced he would be prioritizing mass vaccination sites: the Senior Center’s fitness equipment is now sitting in a storage container in the facility’s parking lot so that the site can accommodate enough people to qualify as a mass site. Ironically, due to interruptions in shipments, the city is now vaccinating fewer people than before these changes were made. Meanwhile, though the city has supported prioritizing teachers and school staff for the vaccine, the governor’s sudden addition of this group to the priority list with no change in supply has only added to these challenges.
Perhaps in response to recent criticisms that the Council spends too much time on resolutions, the resolution against biomass construction in Springfield passed its first reading fairly quickly. Councilors Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) and Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) introduced the resolution, which they co-sponsored. Councilor Jarrett contrasted the proposed facility with “small, efficient facilities burning wastewood,” echoing some of the public commenters in their sentiments that facilities requiring large inputs of otherwise usable wood, much less wood that could be left growing, are not a solution to the climate crisis. He also added that there are two bills on the state level that address biomass subsidies, but he and Councilor Maiore held off on endorsing them in the resolution due to a “lack of consensus” around some of their provisions.
Councilor Maiore, noting that there was little she could add to what was already said during public comment, also spoke briefly, pointing to the “persversity of having ratepayers subsidize their own ill health.” A short discussion ensued, in which Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) lamented having a similar conversation many years ago, and Councilor Michael Quinlan (Ward 1) suggested adding the Springfield City Council to the resolution’s list of recipients, which includes relevant state level officials as well as Northampton’s representatives in Boston and Governor Baker.
Councilors also considered a financial order creating a blanket authorization to accept gifts of labor and materials in minor sidewalk repairs. Mayor Narkewicz introduced the order, explaining that a recent revision to a longstanding ruling has now made this move possible.
Councilor Dwight expressed concern that the new wording of order would get rid of a “prevailing wage” requirement meant to prevent employees of city contractors being underpaid. Mayor Narkewicz replied that most contractors do pay the prevailing wage, and that the city wasn’t trying to skirt anything. “We’re talking, like, one or two panels of sidewalk,” he said.
Following this exchange, which did not seem to assuage Councilor Dwight’s concern, Councilor Sciarra asked if there was a threshold, like a whole section of sidewalk in front of a house, at which these types of requests would come to the Council as they normally would, as opposed to simply the DPW. The Mayor responded that these have not been the types of requests the city gets, but that it would be possible.
Councilor Jarrett expressed similar concerns, and wondered if the new rule would bring up issues of equity in which wealthier neighborhoods get to “jump the line” for repairs or speed humps, whereas poorer neighborhoods would have to wait for the city. Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2) added that she liked the idea of a cap on project size under the new rule, which would allow City Council to keep an eye on the equity aspect. The Mayor messaged DPW Director Donna Lascalia, who suggested the number $9,500. Mayor Narkewicz suggested rounding up to an even $10,000, and the measure passed its first reading amended as such.
Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor and new staff writer at The Shoestring. Photo by Kate Nadel.