The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 16, 2001


Leaders listen as residents debate land strategy

It was literally standing room only in the Clark Room at Town Hall last Saturday morning, as over 80 residents crowded into the room for the opening talks of the Carlisle municipal land committee's (CMLC) first Municipal Planning Day.

In what one participant called a reversal of the normal "top-down" approach to developing policy, some town leaders were remarkably silent as members of the CMLC listened to citizens react to some of the ideas they themselves had been pondering, some for years.

Some of them have spent years attempting to develop a strategy for land acquisition for the town, and they hoped to learn how and what people who have not had a chance to study these issues think about some of the potential directions the town might follow.

The CMLC, an outgrowth of the Carlisle 2000 task force established by 1998 Town Meeting, consists of representatives from nearly all town boards and committees (planning board, conservation and recreation commissions, trails, housing authority, finance, and school committees). The committee's purpose essentially is to "plan, direct, and anticipate municipal land needs" for the next 20 yearsto identify specific needs for land, recommend and acquire those lands.

What kind of town do we want?

Over the past few years the committee's work has involved looking for answers to two questions: "How much additional municipal land do we need?" and "What actions or policies are recommended to provide needed services?" According to selectman and CMLC chair John Ballantine, answering these questions turned out also to require answering yet another: "What kind of town do we want to be in the future?" So their goal for the morning's activities was to involve citizens in planning for the town over the next twenty years. In Ballantine's words, they hoped to "listen and learn" from discussion about needs for added municipal services and facilities requested by a number of town departments: housing, a new school, pathways, playing fields, police, fire, a public water supply, community center, conservation land.

Rapid growth slows in the nineties

Ballantine presented a chart of demographic information, drawn primarily from the 1990 census, showing "significant" growth and changes in the town's population over the past thirty years. Since 1970, the population has nearly doubled, rising from about 2900 living in 640 houses to 4900 in 1670 housing units. With population growth have come vastly increased town spending and increased real estate taxes, from about $1.4 million in 1970 to $15.8 million in FY2000. The proportion of the town's spending funded by real estate taxes has also risen, from 68.5% to 79%.

However, since residents' median family income has also risen much more rapidly than inflation, from $19,600 in 1970 to an estimated $125,000 in 2000, the percent of median income paid as real estate taxes (6%) was actually lower in 2000 than it had been in 1970 (7.6%). Ballantine noted this could explain why, despite having one of the highest tax burdens in the state, taxpayers had continued to be willing to approve overrides year after year.

However, the pace of growth has actually slowed in the last decade, according to Ballantine's figures. In the eighties the number of housing units rose 440, while in the nineties many fewer homes were added (about 175). The average family size has also fallen, from 4.5 in 1970 to 2.9 in 2000.

Where will school numbers top out?

Ballantine also presented estimates of enrollment in the Carlisle public school from 1995 to 2020, using figures from the Massachusetts Institute for Social and Economic Research (MISER) at Umass, the Concord-Carlisle Regional School District, and Growing Pains, a 1998 study which he co-authored, on the financial costs of new construction and sales of existing homes.

From 1995 to 2000 the elementary school enrollments increased to 814, or nearly 35 students per year, crowding the school's cafeteria and parking lot and straining the budget. It is easy to understand, Ballantine said, how such an enormous increase in enrollment over a short time had alarmed parents and town leaders about the need to build a new school before the existing buildings exceed their absolute capacity of 900. Yet his analysis of how many eighth graders depart and how many kindergartners and first graders replace them (what he refers to as "inflows" and "outflows") shows that much of the leap in enrollment resulted from unusually small graduating classes, rather than from more children entering.

Ballantine predicts that growth in the Carlisle public school will decline to a net of only about 12 students per year, reaching a peak of 850 to 1000 when nearly all buildable land has been developed, sometime around 2010. Then, as elementary students move out of the system and are replaced by fewer kindergartners, Ballantine predicts that enrollment will stabilize at around 880.

A tipping point?

This projection of a relatively small difference between the maximum likely enrollment of 1000 and the school's absolute capacity of 900 puts the town in "a gray area," Ballantine observed, and increases the difficulty of plotting a course for the town as a whole. Potentially, such a major fiscal commitment (likely to top $1000 per household in the first five years before state reimbursement begins) could be a "tipping point" for the entire town. Dramatically higher tax bills, with little relief in sight for five to seven years, could accelerate the departure of taxpayers without children, most of whom are replaced by families with elementary school aged children.

Development pressures

The mix of housing has also changed dramatically over the past five years, as Ballantine illustrated using assessed values of all housing units in Carlisle. In 1995, 94% of all homes in town were assessed under $500,000, and fewer than 1% were valued over $1 million. By 2000, the percent assessed under $500,000 had fallen to 63%, with just over 10% over $1 million.

A consistent "vision"

Given ongoing market pressures represented by such changes, Ballantine described what he sees as three possible trajectories for the town's continued growth. The "Weston model" would result in an expensive and exclusive town with a population of 6,000. Following the "Lexington/Concord" model, the town would be more densely developed (with new zoning bylaws) and provide more services to a population of about 8,000, but without the commercial tax revenue.

The CMLC "vision" for Carlisle in twenty years retains the same values as the Carlisle of today, putting a high priority on education, conservation, and community. At 6,000 population, the town would be "a bit" larger than currently, maintaining two-acre zoning and a mix of housing stock despite continued growth, continuing to provide more limited services than its neighbors. But, asks Ballantine, is it possible for the community to maintain this stable direction under the "tremendous pressure" on land values and housing costs?.

Supply and demand

Louise Hara, member of the trails committee, planning board and CMLC, reviewed the committee's work on identifying the "demand" (specific needs for land), the "supply" (the amount of suitable land the town already owns), and tools to help the town fill the gap between supply and demand. "What will be the costs and trade-offs that we will be faced with as we guide this town into the next phase of growth?" Hara asked.

Hard choices

Land planning in Carlisle is "about hard choices," she said. Historically, Carlisle's citizens have valued education and conservation, making the town so desirable that it may not be possible to maintain the past mix of housing options, or the current quality" of education. "If we don't slow the pace of new housing development, we'll need a new school" and those costs could "possibly imperil" the town's ability to maintain the current high quality of the school. "We could slow the housing growth by buying up more conservation land," but that involves costs and may drive land values even higher, she said.

Needed: 70+ acres

Fortunately, excepting the school, no new acquisitions will be required to expand existing facilities, which can be accommodated on their current sites. Some other plans, for pedestrian paths and trail easements, will require few or no purchases, and if a public water supply is developed for the center it will almost certainly be on land already publicly owned, probably the O'Rourke Farm or Hart Land.

However, a variety of functions and services may potentially require municipal land, ranging from public safety to conservation and recreation. Hara presented charts developed by the committee, showing how characteristics of land the town currently owns match up with the need for land to provide a new school building, recreation facilities, and affordable or senior housing.

Hara's charts indicate that for municipal services only (that is, without counting 300 to 1,000 acres that could be purchased for conservation), the town could need at least 70 acres , and possibly much more, to meet future needs: 10 for a school, 12 to 25 acres for playing fields, 5 for a swimming pool or pond, a minimum of 40 to 150 for housing.

Available: 30 to 55 acres

According to the CMLC, seven town-owned parcels, with no conservation restrictions on at least part of the land, have some potential to fill these needs , assuming the community is willing to see some developed. Key characteristics and possible uses of these parcels are described

The committee estimates that 30 to 55 acres on these lands may be suitable for municipal development. Planners hope a new school can be located on ten acres at Banta-Davis, when and if a second building must be constructed. However, this could force the relocation of playing fields already developed and planned for the future.

Even without having to redevelop fields lost at Banta-Davis, the CMLC estimates a need for 12 to 25 acres for more playing fields, which might be located at Foss Farm, as was anticipated when federal funding was obtained for the original purchase (5 acres possible). Part of the Town Forest might be suitable for recreation as well.

Housing: 40 to 150 acres

The town's "single biggest challenge . . . central to . . . how we perceive our community" is housing, Hara stated. With rising property values, financial incentives to tear down smaller homes to build larger homes also increase. A plan to provide housing for older residents probably cannot be implemented without community support. Finally, the town needs affordable housing stock to meet state mandated requirements..

Hara suggested that a "more modest approach" than the state mandated standard of over 160 affordable housing units (10% of the town's total) would target somewhere between 40 and 150 units over the next twenty years. Assuming that state Title V standards for septic will require about one acre per unit, a minimum of 40 acres to 150 acres will be needed, and this must be doubled if Carlisle's two-acre zoning cannot be bypassed. The committee sees the Town Forest, originally obtained as a woodlot for the poor, as the only land currently owned by the town that might be suitable for such development.

Historic support for conservation

Despite Carlisle's historic support for buying conservation land, at current high prices it will be difficult for the community to bear the cost of buying more, Hara said. Each of the key parcels in the Open Space and Recreation report, selected for features or characteristics that make it important to preserve, should be targeted for "community action" as it becomes available, she stated. She also cited the work of the Carlisle Conservation Foundation, which is trying to preserve an additional 1,000 acres of land through conservation restrictions and purchases.

Tools for the town

Hara closed by describing a comprehensive list of many potential strategies available to the town to cope with the need to provide municipal services and the pressures of growth, such as Chapter 61A purchase

2001 The Carlisle Mosquito