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Editorial: Northampton floats flexible zoning

Residents of Northampton will want to tune in — and fast — to a major revamp being considered in how the city regulates what people can and cannot do with their properties.

The city’s Ordinance Committee and Planning Board have been holding public hearings on a package of proposed zoning changes that would affect most residential property owners. Two more public hearings are on tap, one Thursday before the Planning Board and another June 10 before the Ordinance Committee.

The package is being called “flexible zoning.” It gives residential property owners more freedom to add to their units while still striving to maintain the character of neighborhoods.

We think these changes will be good for the city and fit with the “Sustainable Northampton” vision of guiding growth into sections that are already developed and close to or in downtown and reduce vehicle traffic. But these are dramatic shifts and are sure to alarm some. The “givens” are poised to change dramatically.

If the changes go into effect, following approval by the City Council, the following options will be available to residential property owners:

Families could add to their homes — or downsize them — depending on their needs. This is not easily possible with current zoning.

New design standards would be defined in the city’s three main Urban Residential Zones, covering Leeds, Florence and downtown. These will help maintain how neighborhoods look. Rules will govern things like attached garages, covered entries, buildings that face streets and parking.

Homeowners will be able to preserve existing historic and older homes through their possible reuse as rental units. This is not allowed now.

∎ Lot sizes would decrease dramatically throughout the three zones. Lot sizes in the downtown and Florence center areas would drop to basically 2,500 square feet for a single-family home; 5,000 square feet for a two-family home; and 7,500 square feet for a three-family structure. Now, the sizes are 8,000 square feet for single family, 12,000 square feet for two family and 21,000 square feet for three family. The Leeds area is slightly different. The changes would shrink the minimum lot requirement to 5,000 square feet from 12,000 square feet and still only allow construction of single-family homes and accessory units.

We like Ward 3 City Councilor Owen Freeman-Daniels’ idea, now adopted, to require a special permit for multi-family or townhouse projects of seven or more units in some zones, easing fears of large projects changing neighborhoods.

Interestingly, the proposed changes will align the rules with how neighborhoods already look.

According to city officials, many homes are not now in accordance with zoning. For example, some house lots in Ward 3 east of downtown are already smaller than current zoning says they must be.

The “flexibility” in the new rules is healthy. While the plan sets new standards in place, these rules anticipate and respond to today’s economy and to the fact that modern families must plan for shifting needs. For instance, a young family can buy a two-family house in the city now and convert it for their use. But they cannot readily shift it back to two-family use, after children are grown, and rent one unit out.

The bottom line should be to preserve what’s most appealing about Northampton neighborhoods without imposing unnecessary restrictions.

The changes are real — and imminent. People have at least two more chances to be heard before the City Council votes this summer.

Legacy Comments1

This new zoning may well give flexibility to owners of 1-4 family homes, but it also gives too much latitude to developers of larger projects. Bad infill can permanently disrupt historic neighborhoods and lead to severe parking scarcity. The example of Houston's Cottage Grove is instructive: http://northassoc.org/2009/07/05/houston-chronicle-density-unkind-to-cottage-grove-texas.aspx Jim Nash was a member of the Zoning Revisions Committee. I urge you to read his critique of the current zoning proposals: http://northassoc.org/2013/05/15/urban-density-zoning-concerns.aspx

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