Precinct 1, 5 Community Meeting - Apr 10th, 2019

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We held a community meeting for precincts 1 and 5 in the Thompson School Library. Pat Hanlon facilitated, and I spent part of the meeting taking notes on easel paper.

After a go-round of introductions, we worked out an agenda for the evening:

  • The high school rebuild, debt exclusion, and tax override
  • Affordable Housing (Article 16)
  • Election Modernization
  • Tax Relief (Articles 43 and 38)
  • Accessory Dwelling Units (Article 15)

Toby Jackson of the high school building committee gives a presentation on the AHS rebuild effort. The project has finished the schematic design phase. The full cost is $291M. The MSBA will contribute $83M of that, leaving $208M for the town.

Later this month, a special town meeting will vote on whether to authorize the bonding. If the bonding article passes, we'll have a debt exclusion vote on Tuesday June 11th.

Construction will start in the summer of 2020. By 2022, students will be able to use the first two wings of the new building. Construction should finish in 2024.

The new building is designed with a central spine, which consists of a lobby and shared spaces. There will be four wings: performing arts, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math), humanities, and athletics. There will be additional athletics field space once the building is finished.

The site is challenging to work on. There's a significant elevation drop from the front to the rear, and there's also soil contamination from a previous use. The new building will have six floors.

There will be a drop-off area along Mass ave, and access via the minuteman bikeway. The new building will have 225 parking spaces, vs the 200 we have now.

Question: What if the debt exclusion is voted down?

If that happens, we'll need to modify the plans and vote again. Or, we'll have to renovate, with the town picking up the entire cost.

Comment: I recently took one of the tours of the high school. Taking the tour removed any doubt I had about the need for a new building.

Question: How will the cost of our high school compare to other high school rebuilds?

The cost will be comparable. The need to phase construction and site challenges are factors in that cost.

Someone asks if there will be environmental monitoring, due to contamination on the site. There will be environmental monitoring.

Someone asks how the funding will work. The construction will be paid for via 30-year bonds. The debt will be phased in, meaning we'll borrow money when it's necessary for construction. The tax increase will be about $800/year for an average single-family home.

There's a question about environmental impacts. The new school is designed to be energy efficient. There are a number of sustainability features like solar panels and geothermal wells. Our goal is to have a net zero building.

Someone asks about the amount of embodied carbon in the site (i.e., the carbon footprint of replacing the building). I missed the answer to the question.

There's a question about asbestos. We're expecting the building to contain asbestos, and mitigation will be needed.

A resident asks if the high school could be like a college, where the town solicits donations to offset construction costs, and perhaps names a wing after a donor. Mr. Jackson said the building committee hasn't pursued that option, and wasn't sure if it was possible to do so.

Housing articles are the next topic. There are two main areas of interest: the Affordable housing article (article 16), and the accessory dwelling unit article (article 15).

I introduce myself as the citizen proponent of Article 16, and give a brief presentation about it. Arlington recodified its zoning bylaws in Feb 2018, and I was part of the committee that worked on that recodification. During the process, I became interested in how our 1975 zoning recodification was done, and read every public record and newspaper article from that time that I could get my hands on. I also started reading about zoning policy in general, to better understand our bylaws. I learned that zoning can be a policy tool for economic segregation. Zoning influences what types of housing can be built; some kinds of housing are more expensive than others (e.g., apartments vs single family homes), and that cost affects who's able to live in a particular area. 70% of our town is zoned for single-family homes, and the 1975 recodification greatly limited the opportunities to build multi-family housing like apartments. I believe this is one of the reasons why our housing prices have been increasing so much. There's more demand, but a limited supply.

I describe article 16 as a set of five points:

  • Projects of six or more units are required to make 15% of those units affordable. That's part of the current bylaw.
  • Projects of 20 or more units are required to make 20% of those units affordable. That's a new provision in the article.
  • Projects that produce the required number of affordable units are not eligible for the density bonuses listed in the article.
  • Projects that produce more than the required number of affordable units are eligible for density bonuses. That means 15% plus one, or 20% plus one, depending on the size of the project.
  • Projects of 4--5 units are eligible for the density bonuses. This provision is intended to allow more smaller multi-family projects. For example, on lots that aren't able to accommodate six or eight units.

Because I was speaking during the Q&A for this part of the meeting, these notes are my best recollection of what the questions were.

A resident asked what "affordable" meant. The definition of affordable is based on the Area Median Income (AMI), which is set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. For Arlington, that's about $100,000 for a family of four. AMI varies by region, and by the number of people in the household. Housing is "affordable" if a family at a given AMI doesn't need to spend more than 30% of their income on housing. Our ZBL states that affordable units are limited to 60% AMI if they're rented, and 70% AMI if they're owner occupied. The have to remain affordable in perpetuity, which I understand to be 99 years.

One resident asserts asks if the 4--5 unit projects need to provide affordable units. They don't. The resident asserts that developers will build 4--5 units, to avoid creating affordable housing. I respond with skepticism. A large project on a large lot is very different than a set of smaller projects on subdivided lots. For example, the ARB is currently hearing a special permit for the redevelopment of 10 Sunnyside ave. That project involves a mixed-use building with 26 units on a 16,000 square foot lot. If that lot were subdivided into three, the developer could only build fifteen units, instead of 26 -- a much smaller project. There's a financial incentive to build the bigger project.

A resident asks if a 4--5 unit project could produce less expensive housing. I respond by talking about the cost of land. A typical lot in Arlington costs around $360,000, based on assessed values. Putting a single-family home on that lot means that one household has to pay the entire $360k. Putting a two-family home means that each household has to pay $180k. That number drops to $120k/household for three units, and $90k/household for four units. Land is a major component of housing cost in Arlington, and putting more units on a lot makes a big difference in that area.

A resident asks if the article will do something to "protect us against big ugly white boxes, like the one next to Stop and Shop". I answered in the negative. That building was constructed under the existing bylaws, and a similar building could be constructed on a similarly-zoned lot, regardless of whether article 16 passes. The resident asked how she could prevent this. I stated that mixed use projects (like the one near stop and shop) go through a special permit process, which involves a set of public hearings. I suggested that she participate in the public hearings.

There's more discussion about special permits. Anything that could be built under the changes in Article 16 would have to go through a special permit process, with the associated public hearings.

A resident asked if I considered anything else. I stated that land trusts might be worth considering. I questioned their effectiveness in Arlington though, given our high cost of land. Another resident stated that there are really only two ways to fund affordable housing: grants, and inclusionary zoning, where market rate units subsidize the affordable ones. Article 16 takes the inclusionary zoning route.

One resident asked about landscaped open space, and how the town ensures that property owners have plants growing on their landscaped open space. I noted that landscaped open space doesn't require plantings. Walkways and patios satisfy the criteria of landscaped open space.

One resident said she was concerned about the cost of housing, but that she was more concerned about the environment. In particular, storm water runoff, and the amount of phosphorous it contains.

At this point, we're running short on time, and move on to Accessory Dwelling units (Article 15).

ADUs would only be allowed in single-family districts, which are R0 and R1. They're limited to 750 square feet, and must be entirely contained within the envelope of a house as it existed on Feb 14, 2019. ADUs must be owner-occupied, and the owner must sign an affidavit stating compliance with ADU regulations. ADU leases must be for a minimum of one year, and they cannot be sublet. ADUs cannot be used for short-term rentals, like Air BnB. Other MA communities allow ADUs, and they generally get a small number of permit requests each year. If a home containing an ADU is sold, the new owner must sign an affidavit of compliance, or remove the ADU.

Finally, we cover to articles relating to tax relief. Article 38 proposes to raise the income limit for tax deferrals. This allows a homeowner to avoid paying taxes while they're living in their home. The unpaid taxes accumulate as a lien, and must be paid when the property is sold.

Article 43 proposes tax relief for seniors. This article excuses the taxes for eligible individuals; other taxpayers in town would make up the difference. The Select Board's packet from April 8th contains the language of these articles.