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Changing spaces: Debate over infill heats up in Northampton

  • Houses at the corner of 121 Fern Street and 2 Juniper Street in Florence. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Another example of an infill project took place at 55B Middle St. in Florence. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gretchen Werle, who lives at 121 Lake Street in Florence, stands in her back yard while talking about a house her neighbor is planning to build behind his existing house, left, Tuesday, April 10, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Condominium at 111 North Main Street in Florence. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gretchen Werle, who lives at 121 Lake Street in Florence, stands in her back yard while talking about a house her neighbor is planning to build behind his existing house, Tuesday, April 10, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hatfield Corner, left, a condominium complex at the corner of Hatfield Street and Bridge Road, was built beside 711 Bridge Road, right. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • 53 Middle Street in Florence. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



@BeraDunau
Saturday, April 14, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — When Gretchen Werle moved to Florence from Rhode Island in 1992, it was the character of the neighborhoods, especially the yards, that drew her in.

That feeling still remains after 25 years, though it was threatened last year when her neighbors proposed building a second home in their backyard, which abuts Werle’s backyard off Lake Street.

Werle and other neighbors on Lake Street were taken aback with the plan, and with the city zoning that allows such development, known in planning circles as “infill.”

The plan was scrapped after objections from abutters, but the debate over infill remains. Critics like Werle say that some of it is changing the longtime character of neighborhoods.

“Who’s designing this town? Dr. Seuss?” Werle asked, during an interview this week.

City planners take a different view, as do many residents who weighed in on the concept during a rezoning package adopted in 2013 that drew significant public comment.

Those changes allow infill projects in Urban Residential District B, which stretches from downtown Northampton to downtown Florence, and Urban Residential District C, which surrounds downtown Northampton.

The goal, city planners say, is to have more — and a greater variety of — housing closer to the city’s urban centers. The changes are also meant to offset population loss in these areas, and allow people to drive less.

Carolyn Misch, the city’s senior land planner, said that the 2013 zoning changes were made to allow people more leeway to develop their property.

“The idea behind the zoning was to create more flexibility,” she said.

Lake Street project

The zoning allowed Patrick and Sheryl Malone, of Lake Street, to propose building a second home in their backyard. The Malones intended to live in the new home and rent out their existing house.

Patrick Malone said that he and his wife initially wanted to put a barn in the backyard for his wife’s dog agility training. However, the city informed them that an accessory building of the necessary size could not be built on the property. The building inspector suggested, however, that a residential building could be put in the back instead. Malone then drew up plans for a more than 4,000-square-foot structure.

The Planning Board rejected the first version of the project because it was too large in relation to the lot’s existing home. The board later OK’d a smaller structure of about 2,400 square feet.

 

“The Planning Board was great,” Malone said.

He noted that a number of neighbors objected. In the end, the Malones decided to go in a different direction. They will instead continue renovating their existing building, convert part of it for agility training, and build a 1,395 foot addition for parking and a workshop.

“It’s a blessing,” said Joanne Katz, a neighbor who has lived on Lake Street for 24 years.

Katz said that a house in a backyard abutting hers, which the Malone property does not, would “absolutely” threaten her privacy.

Katz and Werle are concerned that infill development will decrease property values and change the way neighborhoods look.

“It changes the neighborhood,” said Werle, on building a house in a backyard.

They also expressed other concerns about infill development, such as its affect on things like stormwater runoff and the sewage system.

Werle said she’d like to start a conversation around zoning, and she said that the changes should be tempered by and grounded in the Sustainable Northampton plan with considerations for mass, height, style and the impact on the neighborhood. Allowing the building of a house in backyard can have a cumulative effect, she said.

“It encourages other people on the street to do the very same thing,” she said.

Not just on Lake Street

In Werle’s view, a number of developments in Florence are out of character for their respective neighborhoods, including a house on Juniper Street on a small lot that was taller than its neighbors; two large condos whose style didn’t match neighboring homes on North Main Street; an attached unit on Middle Street; and eight units of housing closely clustered together on Hatfield Street and Bridge Road. She said that all projects were built within the last year.

“I see it as a trend,” said Werle, who called the trend atypical.

Werle did express appreciation for one backyard development on Middle Street, however, where the new structure stylistically matched the one in front of it.

“It’s not weird looking,” she said.

She said that building a house in a yard can be done in a tasteful way that doesn’t violate the character of a neighborhood.

“You need to look at the architecture of the neighborhood,” she said.

Katz said that she would like to see the city’s zoning revisited so that projects will pay more attention to the scale and consistency of the surrounding neighborhood. She also objected to people putting houses in the yards of neighborhoods like Lake Street.

City’s position

Wayne Feiden, Northampton’s director of planning and sustainability, said that infill development has become a four-letter word for some people. However, he noted that the 2013 zoning changes, which he worked on, had been in service to a larger goal.

“We want to be a more sustainable community with a smaller environmental footprint,” Feiden said.

 

Feiden said that the number of people living around Florence Center and the downtown has been steadily dropping for about 30 years, which is as far back as the city has studied the data. He said that this is due to families becoming a lot smaller. Part of the goal of adding more housing to these areas is to combat this population loss, and that getting more people into areas where people have to drive less was a desired effect.

He also said that these changes were made in response to demand for more housing in these areas, as well as different types of housing, such as townhouses and multifamily houses.

“That was part of the community debate,” he said.

He acknowledged concerns expressed about what these changes would allow to be built, and that building in yards was something that had been anticipated.

To address some of these concerns, the city adopted stronger design standards that govern massing and scale for non-single family homes in relation to other properties, as well as where parking and garages can be located for all homes.

Feiden also noted that the changes reduced lot sizes needed to build a residential structure in the targeted areas. However, he noted that the lot size had been increased in 1974, making much of downtown Northampton nonconforming, and that the 2013 change allowed for development to be able to replicate older patterns.

In the case of the Malone property, Feiden noted that while the zoning change had allowed the Malones the ability to erect a new dwelling in their yard, the old zoning would have allowed them to add a third family unit to their building.

“I thought it was good,” said Malone of the zoning changes.

He noted that he’d heard of one family who’d built another house on their property so their disabled daughter could use it. He also said that, if the original plan had gone forward, he would have been able to rent another unit on Lake Street.

“That would have been another affordable apartment,” said Malone.

Malone said that there are good and bad things that can come out of the zoning, noting development for development’s sake, but said that he felt that there are check and balances in place.

Asked about Sustainable Northampton’s goals of providing more housing stock, and a greater variety of housing stock, closer to the city centers, Katz spoke approvingly of mixed-use developments on Pleasant Street, and said that she’d like to see such developments also happen in downtown Florence.

“That to me is better planning,” she said.

Ward 3 Councilor James Nash said that he expressed concern with the zoning changes back in 2013, including that buildings might be built in yards. He said that he would like to see density increases take place closer to the street, and not in yards, which he said would be in proximity to people’s private space.

“Your backyard is their view,” he said.

He also said that there was less opposition to infill projects in areas where people expect to see development, as opposed to “anywhere where people are expecting to see trees and grass.”

Nash said that he would be open to revising zoning if other members of the City Council are amenable to it, although he doesn’t think there is the political will at this time.

“If a colleague approached me I’d talk,” he said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com