Monday, September 3, 2007

Zoning - A Social Contract

Once again there will be some zoning changes proposed for Fall Town Meeting. In general, I agree with the direction these changes are going, they are aimed at protecting existing neighborhoods around Coolidge Corner from the very real threats of loss of homes through demolition and new building that is excessively dense in relation to their surroundings. These twin goals aimed at protecting the Coolidge Corner neighborhoods arose from the lengthy and inclusive planning processes that gave us both the Brookline Comprehensive Plan and the Action Plan for Coolidge Corner. However, on the way to implementation, (drafting the zoning changes), these policy initiatives' intent have been subverted and subsumed by other special interests.

As a result of vocal opposition from a few homeowners and real estate and development interests, the Zoning By-Law Committee has failed to fulfil it's public mandate and instead have proposed modest changes which fall significantly short of stated policy goals. Without getting into the technical specifics of the proposals, I would like to comment generally on some of the issues raised by those who oppose more substantive changes and to point out some of the real costs and missed opportunities suffered by the people of Brookline and those living in the affected neighborhoods of adopting this approach.

Objection to implementation of more substantial changes seem to focus on the loss of the opportunity for individual property owners to sell their property for prices far in excess of the current home's value, based on the extra value attached to the property to be gained from building to the maximum development potential. They do not tell you that this is what they are talking about. Instead, they will say that the proposed zoning change would "reduce the value of their property". This is not true. The value of their existing property (for taxation or market value estimates) is based on what is currently built. So what they are really fighting for is their right to "cash in" by selling their property for tear down and redevelopment (at a much higher density). They consider this some kind of basic right. But what about the resulting impacts on their neighbors, and the town in general. What about the very real possibility that their actions will actually lower the property values of the remaining homes in their neighborhood. Think about it. A few individuals are fighting to protect their ability to sell to a developer who will choose tear-down and denser redevelop, but because of the widespread impacts this choice has it is not an individuals choice, and here is where we need to understand the public and social contract function of a zoning ordinance.

In every arena of human interaction, we have developed laws and rules that identify what most reasonable people think are appropriate limits and compromises on the continuum between individual freedom and public protection/benefits. Zoning came about to ensure certain basic protections from the harmful impacts of noxious land uses. Since that time zoning has evolved to ensure stability and uniformity by identifying very specific uses and dimensional requirements for each property within a given zone. Many feel the protections don't go far enough because they do not deal with many features of buildings and streetscapes that contribute to the character of a particular neighborhood. Just meeting the zoning requirements does not insure a new building will fit harmoniously into an established neighborhood setting. This realization has led to the creation of new types of zoning ordinances such as "form-based" zoning, which requires new buildings to more closely match the form of surrounding buildings.

In many cases, communities find themselves in the unfortunate position of having large areas that are "over-zoned" , thereby allowing new buildings that are much bigger in scale than existing ones, creating the very real threat of new building that is disruptive, intrusive and detrimental to that illusive yet tangible neighborhood feel many of us cherish here in Brookline. This is the case in many Brookline neighborhoods and dealing with this issue was at the heart of the policy objectives identified in our Comprehensive Plan and the C.C.D.P.C. Action Plan.

As with any law, regulation or rule, there are pros and cons, trade-offs and gray areas. In the case of reducing the allowable maximum building square footage to better match existing homes, one of these gray areas is that of additions. My calculations show that the possibility for current homeowners to add (up to an additional 1,000 sq. ft.) onto their existing homes could easily be accommodated while still meeting the overall objective of retaining appropriate scale and neighborhood character.

I believe the majority of citizens in Brookline (especially those living in those neighborhoods near Coolidge Corner where the greatest development pressure exists) would favor a zoning ordinance that retained existing building scales and neighborhood characteristics, if it were written clearly and carefully, was fairly applied and included enough "wiggle room" to accommodate modest additions and change. We have witnessed some really inappropriate new building (1 Somerset comes to mind) and many individuals who have never thought twice about the import of zoning are left scratching their heads. Yet, we don't seem to be able to have an informed and intelligent discussion about these issues. In this way, the social contract is invalid from the outset because is was not developed as a reflection of the public consensus.

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