for State Senate

Middlesex & Worcester

 

Terra, a former municipal official with  decades of business experience, believes we are in a state of crisis. And if we do not immediately embrace fiscally, environmentally, and socially sustainable solutions, that our lives will change dramatically and irrecoverably in our lifetimes.

What is "Smart Growth"?


On first glance, the idea of sounds great, right? Who doesn't like "Smart"? Who doesn't like "Growth"?


Click here for the "official" definition...And then please come back and read this page for what I've learned, in my decades of studying and working on public policy in Massachusetts. And please check out this page about "Smart Sewers" in Littleton [it may be coming to your town!]


The term "Smart Growth" was cleverly designed to have you think that it will be wonderful. But please be careful of any "land use" proposal that has the word "smart' in it...Smart Growth, Smart Sewers... these proposals are designed to give public subsidies to developers in the hopes of the public gaining enough benefit someday, that it's worth suffering the environmental destruction today. BUT few of these promises have come true. And so we need to scrutinize every one to determine if the benefits are even remotely possible.


What we've gotten is road congestion, more expensive housing, crowded schools, tainted water, and loss of precious forested open space.


Background


The term "Smart Growth" was designed decades ago to help the construction industry "sell" us on the idea that growth is good, as long as it's high density and near infrastructure. Terms like "walkable neighborhoods" started springing up, to further woo us into the fold. The promise was more affordable housing and more open space.


Did it work? Do we continue to promote "Smart Growth" as a state?


OK, OK...We "do" want growth-that-we-need to be near a train station and to conserve on resources, right? We "don't" want to be NIIMBYs, right? And we "do" want to ensure that people who need housing can get it, right?


But do we want unlimited growth? or should we distinguish between good growth and bad growth? between "public necessity" building, and building that merely lines the pockets of developers and other businesses down the food chain?


Whether we can agree on all that or not, we might want to decide very soon, on whether or not we want to limit building so that we have enough water.


"Smart Growth", on the other hand presumes that there is unlimited growth, unlimited water, unlimited road capacity, unlimited school capacity. "Smart Growth" presumes that you will figure out how to accommodate the growth "somehow", later, on someone else's tab.


Ideally, Smart Growth could work. We could all have wonderfully designed cities and we could all live in one, right? I don't doubt that there are some very good things about Smart Growth in an ideal world. But do we want to turn a blind eye to the destruction that it's staging for us? Do we ignore the limits of nature?



State Agencies Promote Unlimited Construction Calling it "Smart Growth"


In Eastern Massachusetts, the state has an actual agency to promote "Smart Growth". That agency is paid for by your taxes, and is called MAPC (the Metropolitan Area Planning Council). While MAPC does some really great things, it has a legislative arm that is basically a construction industry lobbying group. The group prepares bills designed around giving developers "zoning relief", so they can erect high density housing to "meet the market demand". And then the group works really hard, all day long, with [[tax]] paid employees, pushing these bills at the Statehouse.


Your tax dollars paying for construction industry lobbyists


There are issues with government spending resources and giving subsidies for businesses to "meet market demand", since a basic business tenet is that if there's actually a demand, business will meet it. MAPC justifies this by the presumption that we can't get what we need for "affordable housing" unless we allow developers so much freedom and so many subsidies that they will build so much housing that there will be plenty for everyone and when the new housing units flood the market, then prices will be reduced and poor people will magically have a place to live. This is the basis of the urban renewal movement of the 1970s and the subsequent Chapter 40B legislation that trumps local zoning. These did not work. We have more homeless people per capita than we did when these programs started. what is the problem? "Smart Growth" advocates will tell you that it's because we didn't give the developers "enough".


But I've been around a long time. And there's a point where we've given enough. And we decide that we can't keep throwing our state and our towns under the bus with the hope that developers will save the day. The experiment has failed.


Lack of Planning Results in Water Shortages, Road Congestion, Unsafe Intersections, Crowded Schools


While MAPC is pushing these growth proposals, they have failed to do a statewide water study to see if their growth proposals will result in water shortages. Their plan is to figure out how to force you to conserve more water, and to perhaps even limit the amount of water you can use. At the same time encouraging new water hook ups for new construction.


So what do we do?


There's a movement to distinguish between "market demand" building and "public necessity" building, where subsidies are given only for "public necessity building". Your town may define "public necessity" differently than another town. The point is that somewhere, someone should be making the distinction between what deserves government subsidies, such as water, road capacity, school capacity, staff time, and agency attention.


Here are my suggestions:


Demand that State Legislators:


-  limit MAPC's authority and force them to engage in land use planning that reconciles with the natural limits of what our water and road capacity can support.

- stop MAPC from engaging in lobbying. They should be what they were originally intended, an agency for study and research and coordination

- require MAPC to engage in a statewide water and road capacity study, and update it yearly with the changes that are occurring  

- enact a "building moratorium" except for "public necessity" building

- require that all building include "actual" affordable housing for people who actually need help, or contribute to the affordable housing fund [People's Housing Board: 50% at 50% median income or below, including 30% at 30% or below]

- require developers to preserve 15% of all land used, to be reserved in perpetuity for public open space or pay an equivalent amount into an open space fund, or preserve open space onsite. 

- enact a transfer tax on all real estate sales to pay for open space and affordable housing to ensure that we have a sustainable future.


We need to demand that MAPC prepare the analysis necessary to determine the limits of our water, and what the limits on building have to be to ensure a health eco-system and food security here in Massachusetts. And then work backwards And to fully understand the difference between "market demand" and "public necessity", so that it can focus only on what is necessary. MAPC's strategy is based on the presumption that if you allow developers to build without constraints that affordable housing and other "ills" will solve themselves.


While MAPC also has bills that guarantee "some" affordable housing, through MAPC's recent push was in concert with Governor Baker.


There are currently NO LIMITS in "Smart Growth" in any of MAPC's plans. We need to rein them in and get back to what they were supposed to be doing... credible research and regional collaboration toward a sustainable future.