The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 24, 2005


Town looks at Affordable Housing plan Addressing a challenge that won't go away

Carlisle has been discussing the need for affordable housing for two decades, but what makes the conversation different this time is that the 40B threat is now undeniably real: two small 40B developments have been approved by the Board of Appeals. A third one, 56 units off Concord Street, is working its way through the state to the BOA, and has galvanized Carlisle into action.

Last Thursday, June 16, the Affordable Housing Plan Task Force, chaired by David Freedman, presented a draft of a ten-year housing plan to the Board of Selectmen and 20 or so residents who attended the public meeting. On June 28, the Board of Selectmen will decide whether to send the plan to the state or make further revisions.

Freedman pointed out that Carlisle has a long way to go to meet the state's goal of 10% affordable housing, or approximately 170 residential units. In fact, the town has only 18 units, or 1.09%, that are deemed affordable, all at Carlisle Village Court senior housing which was built on a two-acre parcel of town-owned land in the 1980s.

If the town does nothing, it lies open to 40B development by private interests. Aside from resident concerns about how 40B developments may affect their neighborhood or the town, 40B is an inefficient method of increasing our stock of affordable housing. For every 12 units of affordable housing built in a standard 40B, 36 units of market-rate housing can be built. And all 48 units can be built on much smaller parcels than permitted under our current zoning bylaws.

The Planned Production alternative

The State provides an alternative to the private, market-oriented 40B development model, said Freedman, and that alternative is called Planned Production. The State's Planned Production Guidelines tell us we need to start with a plan.

Freedman then introduced Karen Sunnarborg, the housing consultant who helped prepare the plan. Sunnarborg presented the elements of the plan, discussing goals, the housing needs assessment, the inventory of affordable housing, and Planned Production regulations. She also listed the elements necessary to implement the plan, including planning and regulatory reform, building local capacity to produce housing, preserving existing housing, and the immediate next steps the town should take.

Freedman then presented more details of the Planned Production Program, reviewing one possible scenario by which the town could get certified by the State over ten years by achieving annual production goals that would add up to 153 units of affordable housing. See Table 1

He stressed that this is only one scenario. In other words, the plan itself is a statement of intent. While it cannot be vague, unsubstantiated, or without a rational foundation, it need not be followed exactly. "The state will not care whether we follow it exactly as long as we actually produce affordable housing," he said. "It is up to the town whether we want to decide where housing will be built or leave it up to market-based developers." In answer to a later question, Sunnarborg stressed that the plan may be amended at any time by the town, but once approved, it does not have to be updated on any regular basis.

During the discussion John Williams, a new member of the Board of Selectmen, pointed out that, "There is a big cost associated with not submitting a plan quickly. Once it is submitted, we will have time to fight about the details."

Much of the current plan is based on using land currently owned by the town. However, as task force member James Bohn emphasized, "The plan doesn't preclude the purchase of land that might come available at a good price."

Creative Strategies

As everyone involved with affordable housing in Carlisle knows, meeting the state-mandated goal is extremely difficult with many constraints, neighborhood constituencies, and opinions to be considered. The task force considered a variety of approaches to arrive at the recommendations offered in the plan. Karen Sunnarborg outlined some of these.

Implement planning and regulatory reforms: amend accessory apartment bylaws to make them affordable and 'legal'; promote allowable conversion of pre-1962 single family homes to two-family; explore 'smart growth' funding options; waive permit fees and streamline approval processes

Build local capacity: conduct educational campaigns and housing 'summits'; create and capitalize an Affordable Housing Trust Fund; hire a housing coordinator to drive process, mobilize volunteers; re-establish the Municipal Land Committee; provide support to the Board of Appeals

Produce affordable housing: make town-owned property available for affordable housing; explore conversion of existing housing to affordable; support scattered-site housing; ensure that affordable housing remains affordable (that is, it does not revert to market rate).

As an illustration of creative thinking, Freedman cited the Year 5 recommendation for expanding Carlisle Village Court by adding a third floor and elevators and making use of the new wastewater treatment plant that will be built for the school. If Carlisle is to reach the overall goal, creative approaches will be needed.

Different Points of View

Doug Stevenson, chair of the Board of Selectmen, asked for feedback from the town and pointed out that no vote would be taken until the Board of Selectmen had a chance to consider any input received. He then opened the floor to a lively discussion that mostly focused on the use of town-owned land and illustrated the difficulty in arriving at a plan that everyone can support.

Christy Barbee asked if there is any chance the state will "reform" 40B. Do not count on it, recommended Sunnarborg. Others had spoken with state Senator Susan Fargo and Representative Cory Atkins who do not believe any meaningful reforms are likely. There is still a strong "city versus suburbs" mentality. The cities are bearing their burden and do not have much sympathy for wealthy suburbs.

Concern about use of conservation lands

Lynn Knight suggested that it would be a breach of promise on the part of the Town to develop conservation land and would undermine future efforts to buy more land. The Task Force maintained that there will be "no net loss." Any piece of conservation land that is used for housing will need to be matched by putting conservation restrictions on other land. However, Ken Harte pointed out that the town has to establish that there is no reasonable alternative to using conservation land for housing, and economic arguments are insufficient to overcome the State's Article 97 restrictions. He suggested that the plan as proposed to purchase land in Year 10 should be placed ahead of all other plans to convert conservation land.
Won't the state throw out the plan since Article 97 says you can't develop conservation land? Sunnarborg noted that, in her experience, the State Department of Housing and Community Development does not reject plans for these reasons, and in fact, rarely rejects complete plans at all. The State, she said, wants to be as flexible and helpful as possible in this process.

What is the cost?

Warren Lyman said the plan was not a credible blueprint for Carlisle, and asked if the Task Force had calculated the costs of following this plan vs. the cost of doing nothing in terms of infrastructure impacts. Freedman replied that cost estimation was not a part of the charge to the Task Force, nor an element of the plan as defined by the State.

Ballantine offered that if we do nothing, then the town will definitely grow as developers come in. "Growing Pains", the report developed in 1999, looked at the cost of growth which indicated that Carlisle could reach a population of 7,000 by the year 2030. With unchecked 40B development, the population would be far higher and would result in enormous costs for schools, roads, sewage, water and other infrastructure, and a significant change from the town we know now.

Another question: Won't a debate Balkanize Carlisle? Answer: Any plan will Balkanize Carlisle. If we had $20 million to buy the land and build the housing, it would be simple. If we can't reach a consensus, then developers will make the choices for us.

An abutter to the Concord Street 40B development commented that he regretted the loss of the open space close to his house but realized "everyone would have to make a sacrifice."

Next steps

The task force will meet again to consider the feedback from the meeting and will revise the draft for presentation to the Board of Selectmen who will vote on the plan at their meeting on June 28.

Once the plan is submitted, the DHCD has 90 days to respond.The task force and the consultant expect a helpful dialogue with the DHCD to resolve any minor issues with the plan. If the plan is approved, all affordable units built or converted to affordability (such as deed-restricted accessory apartments) can be counted toward annual goals.

For each annual or bi-annual goal met, the town can apply for and receive state certification, which means a moratorium during which developer-initiated 40B projects can be denied by the Board of Appeals. To maintain certification, the town must continue to produce affordable housing per the 'planned production goals.'

The task force hopes to submit the plan by the end of June and hear from the state by September.

In closing the meeting, Doug Stevenson acknowledged the difficulty of developing a plan that requires approval by the Board of Selectmen and also by the DHCD. He thanked the task force for meeting the challenge and completing a thorough plan in record time.

The draft of the plan is available for review at Town Hall and at the Gleason Library and here online


2005 The Carlisle Mosquito