Two-family zoning change sparks debate in Northampton

  • Northampton City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/27/2021 1:06:19 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A proposed zoning change that would allow two-family homes throughout the city sparked a debate about development and housing prices at a recent City Council meeting before councilors voted to approve it on a second and final vote.

Early this month, the council had passed the ordinance on first reading, which allows two-family homes in all areas of the city, along with some heating requirements. In the council’s March 18 meeting, councilors passed the ordinance with an amendment that requires a special permit if the homes are a certain size. Already, two-family homes are allowed to be built in the areas generally within walking distance of downtown Florence and Northampton. As part of the package of zoning changes, all space heating in homes must be powered by wood, wind, solar or grid-sourced electricity.

“We know those units typically tend to be smaller than large, expensive single-family homes. This is one of those ways we might be able to provide lower-cost housing for people,” Carolyn Misch, assistant director of the city’s department of planning and sustainability, told the council at its March 18 meeting. In the city, the median single-family home is around 1,600 square feet, and the median-size unit in a two-family, she estimated, is less than 1,200 square feet.

“It’s all about different strategies to encourage different housing types to meet the needs at different levels,” Misch said of the zoning changes being considered. Also on the council’s agenda was a first vote on two related ordinances — one about affordable housing and another meant to incentivize units that are 800 square feet or less.

Robert Eastman, a resident who grew up in the city, spoke in favor of the two-family zoning change at the meeting.

“I am facing the reality, coupled with my background and the fact that I have a lot of student debt, that I will probably never own a home in Northampton or Florence. It’s kind of hard to hear community members and neighbors talk about changing the character of the neighborhood when there’s such a gap in generational wealth here and that many of the people who were born here and grew up here can’t afford to live here anymore,” Eastman said.

Bill Ryan, who lives in the Bay State Village neighborhood, said he supports expanding two-family housing but doesn’t want to see two single-family homes on one lot. There is “aggressive development” in his neighborhood, he said, and putting two houses on one lot “is just going to add fuel to that fire,” he said. He wor ries homes will be built in backyards.

George Kohout, chairman of the Planning Board, disagreed, however.

“Talking about two houses on one lot as a big house in the backyard is a bit of a misnomer.” It has happened, “but many times because of our open space requirements for homes on a lot, the homes won’t be big McMansions. I think that’s a little bit of a fear tactic.”

“If we want to continue to attract people to Northampton — a diverse citizenry — we really need to look at our different kinds of housing options,” Kohout said during the public comment period.

Kathryn Komidar, who lives in Bay State Village, said she supports expanding two-family housing. “I think that would be a great addition to our neighborhood and our city, provided that those two-family homes are built in a way that fits in with the character of the neighborhood they are built in.”

Johnny Scarborough said he’s lived in Northampton on and off since the 1940, and that what he grew up with “will be totally lost” if the zoning change is approved. “What I see happening is going to be literally a destruction of the neighborhoods. I don’t have a problem with two-family homes that fit in with the existing neighborhoods.”

Councilors discuss

Misch, whose department recommended the package with Mayor David Narkewicz, took councilors’ questions.

Ward 2 Councilor Karen Foster said she’s heard concerns about smaller, less expensive homes being torn down. “I am sympathetic to the concerns around seeing those torn down and seeing new larger structures put in,” she said. “I’m just wondering if there is anything that zoning can address for that situation?”

Misch said some homes need significant work done, and that it makes sense to tear them down. “I don’t think we’re in a position as a community where there’s so much demand that it’s more cost-efficient to demolish a structure in order to build new units. There’s not a tear-down craze in Northampton.”

She added, “I think part of the issue that’s driving up the cost is that we don’t have enough supply at different levels. Because the demand for people moving here has increased … I’m hopeful that creating different ways of allowing people to build housing sort of helps to address that demand and maybe relieves some of that pressure.”

Misch also clarified that nothing in the proposed ordinance changes any preexisting height limits on homes, which she said is 35 feet in most residential areas.

Ward 1 councilor Michael Quinlan said he’s heard concerns from constituents that “the zoning laws are being used to raise property values in the area and as a result, they are feeling run over by the city sometimes.” Across the street from his house used to be one house. Now it’s eight condos, he said. “Every one of those condos is selling for more money than any house on the street has in 25 years.”

Misch commented, “We don’t have enough housing stock to meet the need. That’s keeping those prices elevated.”

At-large Councilor Bill Dwight recognized residents’ concerns about developers, but he added that people were getting caught up in “what ifs.”

“We’re talking about a comprehensive package that creates opportunities and provides opportunities to people that are currently excluded,” he said.

Ward 5 Councilor Alex Jarrett said he doesn’t like it when homes are demolished. “But the argument that if we had zoning that prevented more housing that that would make it more affordable, I don’t think holds true because of just the extreme demand and who’s getting these houses that are in bad shape,” he said. He said those who are homeowners, including him, and bought before the current level of demand “won the lottery.”

Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore suggested an amendment to the package that, in areas where two-family homes were previously not allowed, requires a special permit if both units are 1,800 square feet or more.

It would be an unlikely situation, Misch said. “Given that we’re not getting huge two-families, I think it would be a rarity,” she said.

Councilors approved Maiore’s amendment, and with other smaller changes, including a change to the heating requirement language, the package on two-family homes unanimously passed.

After the vote on the package, the other two related ordinances about affordable housing and providing incentives for units 800 square feet or less remained.

“I think these other zoning orders are really important, and I would like us to be able to have a real substantial conversation about them when we’re not at this state at one o’clock in the morning,” at-large member and Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra said. The council voted to table those proposed ordinances to their April 1 meeting.

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