The latest zoning change is the densest yet
By Brian Zayatz
On Thursday, May 20th, Northampton City Council held their last regular meeting before budget hearings begin, and as has become the norm over the last few weeks, heard over two hours of public comment at the start of the meeting.
Twenty-one speakers spoke in favor of further defunding the police and reallocating those funds to the Department of Community Care or other services, expressed concerns that the budget does not line up with the city’s progressive values, or otherwise attested to experiences of racism from the NPD or police generally. Among them, Attorney Dana Goldblatt shared the story of a woman who locked her keys in her car, called the police and received over an hour of fruitless assistance until the cops called Ernie’s towing, who fished out the keys. To Goldblatt, the story demonstrated how police often stand in the way of actual services, and yet the woman was still conditioned to publicly thank the officers on the Northampton Facebook page. Another speaker, Gwen, recounted her experience as a child with the “blue wall” when the police in her town refused to take action against her abusive father, who was friends with some of the officers. Jamila Gore, who is running for an at-large City Council seat, commended the Mayor’s work building a strong financial footing for the city, and asked “How are we going to use that to help the community, instead of just trying to get a AAA bond rating?”
Three speakers, none revealing their full names, spoke in favor of the police. A number of speakers affiliated with a group called Northampton City Lights spoke against a plan for the Roundhouse parking lot that would include new lights inconsistent with the city’s sustainability and light pollution goals. Some suggested the city create an oversight board so that concerned residents did not have to scramble reactively whenever new plans for lighting were proposed. A number of speakers, mostly from Bay State Village, spoke against further updates to zoning laws that would allow a zero lot line (ZLL), and others endorsed a resolution in support of a new anti-wage theft bill at the state level, including Margaret Sawyer of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, and a representative from the Carpenters Local 336.
The “Resolution Urging Action on an Act to Prevent Wage Theft, Promote Employer Accountability and Enhance Public Enforcement” was co-sponsored by Councilors Bill Dwight (At-Large), Alex Jarrett (Ward 5), and Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large). In his introduction, Councilor Dwight shared some context, arguing that the anti-wage theft ordinance the City Council passed several years ago has served the city fairly well, but that the term “wage theft” is still not defined on the state level. As the text of the resolution reads, the amount of wage theft is estimated to be at least three times that of robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts combined each year. Councilor Jarrett said codifying a legal framework for wage theft prosecution at the state level would be an important step in getting local law enforcement, the Department of Community Care, and Community Legal Aid versed in these issues, and getting the Attorney General more resources to prosecute. The resolution passed in two readings and will be sent to Governor Baker and a number of relevant state legislators (Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and Senator Jo Comerford are both already co-sponsors).
The Council also passed in second reading the resolutions in support of Gazette workers in their contract negotiation effort (which, as Newsguild member Bera Dunau reported during public comment, they had already made some progress on), as well as a resolution supporting all fourteen recommendations of the Northampton Policing Review Commission. The latter originally endorsed only the creation and funding of a Department of Community Care, but Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) suggested an amendment to include all recommendations, several of which call for the immediate shifting of responsibilities away from the NPD. The resolution passed as amended.
Zero Lot Line zoning
The Council also considered an ordinance amending the city’s approach to Zero Lot Line zoning. ZLL reduces the required setback of a building from the lot line to zero, allowing buildings to be closer together. The ordinance would lay out the specific circumstances and requirements homeowners or builders would have to meet in order to build closer to the lot line than would normally be required, rather than send it into a special permit process. Opponents argued during public comment that it would simply lead to developers building bigger houses on smaller lots, further exacerbating the affordability crisis in the city and creating alleys where once was open space.
Assistant Director of Planning and Sustainability Carolyn Misch explained in a presentation some of the applications of ZLL. One key advantage is that it allows owners of large lots more options to subdivide and build multiple houses, whereas otherwise, to build the same number of houses, they would have to be included on one lot as part of a condo association. She also pointed to an example in Northampton of a lot which housed a two family home that was divided down the middle to create two lots—the families could then each own their own lot and their own side of the house, rather than renting from an owner who could afford a much larger structure and lot. ZLL also gives builders more options for where to place a house on a lot, which can aid in the preservation of existing trees. Typically, the issue only arises once or twice a year, but Misch noted that there were now five or six developments pursuing a ZLL, several of which in Bay State Village. Opponents argued that ZLL developments should always go to a special permit, to give the community the ability to weigh in.
The Council discussed the issue at length, and came to no solid conclusions. Councilor Jarrett suggested an amendment that he called “reduced lot line,” which would make possible setback reductions a function of what they normally should be, rather than simply zero. Councilor Dwight also pointed out that much of the discussion was informed by complaints about a specific developer in Bay State Village, and that crafting zoning laws against specific developers was not only bad practice, but illegal.
The Council ultimately passed in first reading an ordinance moving ZLL code from one section of city law to another, and postponed the vote on the second, substantial ordinance.
Brian Zayatz is a member writer at The Shoestring.