40b & Affordable Housing

A while back a friend asked me to comment on the Town’s position on 40B projects. He lives near Wampum Corner and was referring to the Fairfield project which proposed to build a 200 unit apartment complex on Mill Pond near the Northland Farms property.

We don’t have a position.  We have a law with which we must comply. Wrentham is vulnerable to “40B projects” because Wrentham’s certified affordable housing stock is less than 10 percent.

“Requirements or regulations shall be consistent with local needs when imposed by a board of zoning appeals after comprehensive hearing in a city or town where (1) low or moderate income housing exists which is in excess of ten per cent of the housing units reported in the latest federal decennial census of the city or town . . . .” (40B, Section 20. Definitions)

Massachusetts General Law 40B was enacted by the state legislature in 1969 to address the Commonwealth’s need for low to moderate income housing. According to 4oB, Section 2,

“The purpose of this chapter is to permit a city or town to plan jointly with cities or towns to promote with the greatest efficiency and economy the co-ordinated and orderly development of the areas within their jurisdiction and the general welfare and prosperity of their citizens. (40B, Section 2)

The 40B statute primarily focuses on the mechanics and rules for setting up regional planning entities, it describes two specific planning districts (Southeastern Regional and Metropolitan Area). It also defines what concerns us the most, low and moderate income housing. E.g,

Any public agency or limited dividend or nonprofit organization proposing to build low or moderate income housing may submit to the board of appeals, established under section twelve of Chapter 40A, a single application to build such housing in lieu of separate applications to the applicable local boards. (40B, Section 21)

760 CMR 56 spells out the rules and regulations for developing 40B projects. These change over time and govern the execution of the law. Chapter 40B is the legislative foundation for the rules and procedures published CMR 760 56.

“The Code of Massachusetts Regulations (CMR) is the complete set of Administrative Law (regulations) promulgated by state agencies pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act (M.G.L. c. 30A).” (Source: Housing and Economic Development)

Currently the 10 percent figure isn’t hard and fast so long as the town has a “production plan” in place and the town achieves its numbers from year to year. This is what forestalled the Fairfield project.

The production plan in place right now was authored by the Planning Board chaired by local Attorney Dan Vieira and on which the current chair of the Planning Board, Patrick Moore and Everett “Bill” Skinner, served.  It was based on a “friendly 40b” project on the Franklin/Wrentham border.

Thus far, none of the units under that plan have been produced. Neither has the 40B Committee produced a viable plan to solve the problem.

Come spring 2009, Wrentham’s safeharbor will expire.  What does that mean? Sooner rather than later, a large apartment complex will be sited somewhere in town. It will not have to comply with local zoning. The community will have little influence over its final shape.  But we all will have to pay for the services provided to our new neighbors while the developers get rich.

So how did this happen?  Simple. Up until the Planning Board Chaired by Mr. Vieira,  the predecessor planning boards and community leaders failed to adequately plan for increasing affordable housing stock. The law was enacted in 1969. From then forward, the town needed a plan for dealing with this issue.

Moreover, community leaders chose to enact a by-law that prohibited the development of affordable housing except by 40b and then they ignored the requirement by failing to attract friendly 40bs or by taking simple measures like requiring all decent sized subdivisions built after the law was enacted to include affordable housing, particularly during the first building boom in the 80s and the most recent one from 1996 to 2006.

Suburban sprawl has reached our borders and beyond. Sticking our heads in the sand and hoping for the best is not going to work.  We need to plan. We need to act.

As far as the Commonwealth is concerned, either we come up with 10 percent affordable housing stock or a viable plan to produce affordable housing, period.

What do we know right now?  The safe harbor will  expire this spring.  Our 40B committee has spent thousands of dollars with an attorney who advertises himself as a 40B expert and has yet to produce a single unit or a viable plan.

FUD, fear, uncertainty,and doubt, derailed the hotel overlay district on South Street, the property on which the Fairfield project was to have been built is now back on the market.

Instead of a development project that would have increased our municipal budged by $400,000 to $500,000 with minimal impact on our services, we are now once again staring down the barrel of another 40B project and a budget we cannot balance without cutting services.

The town’s economic health is in serious jeopardy right now.  We will barely balance this year’s budget.  Next year, according to Town Administrator Jack McFeeley’s analysis, we will be nearly $1.6 million  in the red assuming we provide the same level of services.

There are those who might be tempted to cite the current economic troubles as a good reason for doing nothing.  But we all know that is only going to provide temporary relief.

With the South Street property’s proximity to 495 and the Mall, the moment the economy turns around, it is only a matter of time before someone comes to town and builds a two hundred or more unit apartment complex.

Imagine a scenario in which we have struggled financially, made the hard choices, and when we finally turn the corner, bam a big apartment complex comes along to further burden our resources.

There is some good news.  Before the last Town Meeting the only way to create affordable housing in Wrentham was with a 40B project.  That is no longer an impediment to taking control of our affordable housing destiny.

It is time to cast aside the old politics of FUD and face this issue head on. It is time to act now.

Here’s a recource: 40bfactsheet2004.pdf

Participate!

Very often I hear people talking about what the town did or did not do. We are the town. If we want something different, then we need to elect different people. Let’s hold yur elected officials accountable.

There are approximately 7400 registered voters in Wrentham. In most years 1000 or fewer vote in the April election and therefore choose our local officials.  Town Meeting sees an even smaller portion of the electorate participating. Typical turn out for a town meeting is around 200.

The smallest uptick in participation can mean the difference between business as usual or meaningful change. Your vote is a critical part of the process.

Don’t leave your welfare and your money to the whims of others.

Get On Up!

Most people feel like they cannot make a difference. But you can. As the late, great James Brown said in his 1971 single bearing the same name, “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved.”

There are  many roles to play in bringing about the necessary changes to meet the new challenges.  Running for office is only one.  You can help by encouraging and supporting the best and brightest to run. You can vote. You can educate yourself about the issues.

You can participate.

A Call to Action

Wrentham is facing what very accurately could be described as a perfect storm of crises. State aid is being cut.  Real Estate values have plummeted.  Revenue from taxes is dropping.  Our economy is in recession. We have an affordable housing problem that will not be solved by lawsuits or assisted living facilities, or delay tactics. We have signed Union contracts we cannot afford to pay.

The Town Administrator estimates we will be some $1.6 million dollars in the red in the next fiscal year, 2010. Hard choices are ahead.

Unless we revisit leadership and discover creative ways to fund our services, we face a combination of service cuts, staff layoffs (including Teachers, Police, and Fire) and the possibility of digging into our pockets for a tax override.

Where many see insurmountable obstacles, I see challenges and opportunities for meaningful change. This is an opportunity for the people in Wrentham who possess individual courage, conviction and a sense of balanced perspectives to step in and lead the town.

Petty disputes, personality driven politics and the “not-in-my-backyard” attitude that has been the modus operandi of past leadership has no place in today’s situation.

Our leaders and local political commentators have to stop looking for the dark cloud for every silver lining and start using their energy to overcome our challenges and make Wrentham a better place to live.

Selectman’s Race

There are two seats on the board of selectmen up for grabs. This is an opportunity to build on last year’s campaign of change. We have new problems.  We need new answers.  We need new community leaders to step up and bring fresh perspective and new energy to governing the town.

Planning Board Race

The Planning Board’s job is to balance the needs and wants of the community as a whole, abutters, and property owners. The process is almost completely governed by state, federal, and local laws.  Contrary to what you might think or may have been told, there is very little room for subjective decision making in the permitting process.

There are four seats available in 2009.  Three are three year terms. The fourth is for one.  Incumbent Everett “Billy” Skinner is running and he has my wholehearted support.

For the remaining three seats, we need folks who, like the current Planning  Board, respect the integrity of the process, who can scrupulously follow the rules while simultaneously balancing the interests of property owners and the community.

How to Run for Office

If you are interested in running, stop by Town Hall and speak with someone from the Town Clerk’s office.  They can advise you about the process. Call me if you have any questions or want some help.