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Northampton City Council OKs residential zoning changes; sets moratorium for large projects

Those are just a few of the benefits the City Council cited Thursday when it adopted most of the changes proposed in a zoning package covering the three main residential zones in the city.

But the council balked at changing the rules for larger projects with seven or more units, opting instead to pass a measure that sets a temporary, nine-month moratorium on approval of building permits for such projects.

Suggested by Ward 3 City Councilor Owen Freeman-Daniels, the amendment gives the city more time to consider design and development standards that might be appropriate for larger residential development projects with seven or more units.

Freeman-Daniels said he’s concerned about the possibility of the type of larger projects that could be developed under the proposed zoning.

“That’s not to say that I’m against larger scale development, but I do think that it needs a little more time, a little more study,” Freeman-Daniels said. “But I think the time has come to pass what there is a lot of consensus around, and that’s liberalizing the zoning for the most smaller projects.”

In addition to giving most residential property owners more flexibility to add to their units, the new zoning is intended to encourage development of more housing units to the city and increase the number of affordable, non-subsidized homes, said Carolyn Misch, senior land use planner for the city.

The changes also aim to have the city’s zoning reflect what already exists in what is known as Urban Residential A, B and C. Many homes, especially in zones B and C closer to downtown, are not in compliance with zoning.

The zoning package also, for the first time, creates new basic design standards in all three zones. Misch said many of these changes are intended to maintain a consistent look throughout neighborhoods, and may serve to alleviate some residents’ concerns about past projects which were developed without such standards.

“The idea was to ensure as we grow and allow new types of housing in our neighborhoods that they do meet a different standard than what is currently allowed,” she said.

Some of these include regulations stating that front doors must face the street, houses much have a porch, a reduction in front setback, distribution of parking and other standards that aim to have a project match the character of a neighborhood.

Misch acknowledged that taking a closer look at this part of the zoning package is a good thing, especially given the level of concern among residents.

Montview resident James Nash said he supports many aspects of the zone changes, but reiterated worries that the new standards are not specific enough. He said he is especially concerned about the potential for development of additions that could be for multi-unit housing that may not fit in with a particular neighborhood.

“That is the piece that’s missing ... we don’t want to be encouraging development into people’s backyards,” he said.

Misch said the new design standards would require larger projects with units that face neighbors’ backyards to have additional buffers and setbacks. The rules also would force developers to break up parking into smaller clusters with landscaping, rather than build one large parking lot.

The key is to strike a balance between retaining the character of a neighborhood but also encouraging new residential units in areas that are walkable and accessible to goods, services and schools, Misch said.

“This does allow smaller single family homes to be built, for which we know there’s demand in the city,” Misch said.

The zone changes have plenty of supporters, several of whom urged the council to adopt the measures during public comment time Thursday.

Olive Street resident Linda Rahm said current zoning prohibits her from splitting her larger lot in two in order to build a second, single-family home without having to connect the two structures with a walkway. She could, however, build a multi-unit structure by right.

“I’d like to be able to split the lot and have two, nice single-family homes that fit in the community, that are comparable with the other homes,” Rahm said.

Other supporters are renters who want to buy a home in the city one day, but need more choices in price ranges they can afford. Giving existing homeowners the ability to subdivide their property will help accomplish this goal.

Others worried that the zone changes may increase the value of some larger lots and lead to higher taxes because these lots could be subdivided into secondary lots that have greater potential for development. Ward 7 City Councilor Eugene A. Tacy said the state Department of Revenue likely will force assessors to value property higher under the new guidelines, which would lead to higher taxes for some residents.

Misch said that there are many examples under current zoning in which homes are not being taxed based on projected use. She doubts that assessors will begin to assess on future potential value of a property if owners don’t initiate the process to begin to use those extra lots, such as surveying the property and creating new lot lines.

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