Friday, June 13, 2003
Focus group identifies housing issues, but no easy solutions
What does housing diversity in Carlisle mean? Why does Carlisle need it? How can Carlisle achieve housing diversity? These three questions were put to a focus group on housing diversity in Carlisle conducted by the Community Development Plan Steering Committee on June 5 at the Town Hall. While no clear consensus on these difficult, emotional issues was reached, the committee felt that progress was made toward a Community Development Plan for Carlisle.
Community Development Plan
Housing has become an important issue for Carlisle. A town-wide survey and discussions at Carlisle's Community Planning Day, both sponsored by the committee last March, indicated that many Carlisleans are concerned about the trend towards "mansionization," the lack of affordable housing for the elderly, and the high cost of home ownership (property taxes) in Carlisle. Recent affordable housing plans (Chapter 40B) put forth by developers also suggest that housing issues will receive greater town government attention than in years past.
The Community Development Plan Steering Committee was formed by the planning board to create a Community Development Plan (CDP), the first stage in developing a comprehensive long-range plan for Carlisle. The committee is assisted by consultants from Thomas Planning Services, Inc. and McGregor & Associates, P.C., paid for by a state grant. Housing is a required element of the CDP for which the state has indicated that Carlisle still needs more work. The Planning Board will present the draft Community Development Plan to the Selectmen sometime in the fall.
Difficulty defining diversity
Thirteen Carlisle residents, with different backgrounds and experiences, were invited to participate in the housing diversity focus group, with additional residents attending as audience. The diversity of the group made it difficult to define "housing diversity." For Irene Blake, a resident since 1964 and a town employee, diversity means that town employees and young people can afford to live in Carlisle. Phyllis Zinicola, a Planning Board member and MassHousing attorney, believes that housing diversity refers to the type of housing/living units available. Condos and apartments represent diversity, as does the architectural type of single family dwellings available in Carlisle. Bill Reeder, an original member of the Housing Authority who currently lives in the Malcolm Meadows development, warned that diversity is fast disappearing in Carlisle. "We have seen a lot of tear-downs. Stearns Street is fast disappearing." Diversity also means differences in values and cultures to Ellen Huber, who is affiliated with Habitat for Humanity and the First Religious Society.
When challenged by the consultants to address the diversity of people and professions, former Selectman Ralph Anderson stated, "People self-select Carlisle, so why would they want to change it? If they wanted to have the options available to them in Lexington, or elsewhere, they would choose to live in those towns. I don't want Carlisle to be diverse."
Tricia Smith, a CDP Steering Committee member, feels that the community is trying to find a middle ground between the extremes of market pushthe mansionsand 40B, dense but affordable. John Dowcett, a developer who lives in Carlisle, told the group that "the math does not work for anything but mansions or 40B. "If we can afford a seven bedroom septic, why not a 'cluster build'?" When challenged that the town may not want clusters, Dowcett asserted that, "If we don't want to change [the types of units built], then we have to crack zoning regulations."
Ray Bahr, a resident with no children · a constituency that he said "needs representation" · stated that after an hour of discussion, "I have not heard a consensus on what Carlisle wants to move to."
Housing diversity matters
Having failed to reach agreement on what diversity means, the group explored the question of why it matters. There were two key reasons given for diversity, whatever form it will take.
First, if Carlisle does not address affordable housing, developers will be able to force the town to accept 40B housing on an ad hoc, piecemeal basis. The state mandates that at least 10% of housing stock in each community must be affordable. Towns, like Carlisle, that do not meet this goal are subject to the comprehensive permit law, Chapter 40B, which allows developers to build higher-density housing than local zoning laws permit, as long as 25% of the new units are affordable. What will emerge via this route is affordable housing that may not be consistent with the community's needs or character. In short, either Carlisle or developers will control the nature of affordable housing; but, either way, it is coming.
The second reason given for addressing affordable housing is the desire to help those who have grown up or grown old in town to stay in Carlisle. Because property taxes are high and continue to rise (along with most other costs), seniors on a fixed income may be unable to afford to stay in the town they helped build.
No easy solutions
With the scheduled meeting time running out, the consultants turned to the question of how to achieve diversity. Several ideas were identified, including building on town-owned land and placing a moratorium on tear-downs. While these ideas would provide either a financial incentive or a respite with which to develop new strategies, several problems were identified. Problems were financial ("Who will pay for town-owned land to be used?"), legal ("Are we allowed to tell owners what they can do with the land?") and operational ("Can we scale the public infrastructure required to support the growth?") in nature.
Consultant Ezra Glenn reminded the group that diversity of housing won't necessarily help the town address its 40B challenge. Realtor Brigitte Senkler remarked, "Carlisle needs to get 40B out of the way." Bahr agreed, stating, "What is the problem? 40B is the elephant in the room we are not talking about, but it is the problem. Everything else is just frills."
More work to do
David Freedman, chairman of the CDP Steering Committee, concluded the meeting by stating, "The fact is that there are problems with the solutions discussed, but that doesn't mean you can't think it through and plan for it." Clearly, there are housing issues to be addressed. Furthermore, the solution to these issues will not be easy, and will require change and compromise. Addressing the 40B housing dilemma, as part of the Community Development Plan, may make the difference between the town getting there on its own or via the courts.
A second focus group, on economic development, will be held on June 17
© 2003 The