‘Innovative zoning’ package advances in Northampton; will allow 2-family homes by right

  • Northampton city hall File photo

Staff Writer
Published: 3/5/2021 6:00:01 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The city is closer to allowing two-family homes by right all across the city.

At its meeting on Thursday night, the City Council unanimously approved, on first reading, a package of zoning changes that would allow two-family homes by right anywhere in the city. Ordinances need two votes for council approval.

“Single family home zoning is exclusive,” Carolyn Misch, assistant director of the city’s department of planning and sustainability, told the council. “And in that way, it sort of demarcates who’s allowed and who’s not allowed. And so we want to start to lift those sort of historic patterns of inequity and acknowledge the fact that we don’t want to create the barriers for people and their choice about where they want to live.”

Already, two-family homes are allowed to be built in the areas generally in walking distance from downtown Florence and Northampton.

The package of zoning changes aims in part “to add equity by providing more rentals in all neighborhoods of the city,” Misch said. “We also know there’s a reduced energy consumption particularly in the situation where you have shared party walls for a two family.”

New two-family homes would require heating without fossil fuels if the project triggers a site plan review, which in two districts of the city means any two-family home with 2,000 square feet or more of new construction. In other districts of the city, it means any new two-family home of any size, according to Misch.

City solicitor Alan Seewald weighed in on the legality of the proposal and requiring fossil-fuel free heating in some cases.

“It is a close call. Any time you do innovative zoning it’s subject to challenge. And this is innovative zoning,” he said. “We don’t have to allow two-family by right at all … it’s my position that we have the right to determine the terms upon which we will allow two-families as a right.”

There was significant discussion about the package, and councilors asked Misch questions about the details of the proposal.

Ward 3 Councilor Jim Nash asked if the proposal was enough to incentivize two-family homes.

“The idea is really to provide the opportunity and make sure that we’re not restricting that,” Misch said.

“When I was running for council, one of the things that I heard about most was people’s concern about the need for additional affordable housing in Northampton,” Ward 2 Councilor Karen Foster said. “It is something that’s very much top of mind for people.”

Foster noted her hope that the change would bring more housing for families to the city.

“Units that can accommodate families with multiple children would be a valuable piece of this,” she said.

At-large member and council president Gina-Louise Sciarra added that affordable family housing in the city “is severely lacking.”

Councilors also brought up concerns about development some people in Bay State Village have expressed, including that some neighbors take issue with the density and price of new development and think it’s making the area more expensive.

Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore said, “I guess I wanted to honor the work that residents have put in, especially in Bay State ... I don’t think what they are concerned about can actually be solved in what we’re doing here in this package of ordinances.”

Ward 5 City Councilor Alex Jarrett echoed Maiore.

“I also feel this frustration about the limitations of what we’re able to do in zoning,” Jarrett said. “We can’t regulate single-family homes by the state, in many ways, but also we can’t regulate the issue of wealth inequality. But we can provide incentives, and I think that’s what were trying to do.”

The proposed zoning changes for two-family homes “is part of an overall series that the mayor and our office are sponsoring,” Misch said, “to try to address the issue of housing in Northampton, both to close the gap in the needs that have been identified through several studies and planning processes and also to provide opportunities for housing development at all different levels and provide different options for people.”

On Monday evening there is a hearing for two proposed ordinances — one about affordable housing and another meant to incentivize units that are 800 square feet or less — at a joint meeting of the Planning Board and the City Council Committee on Legislative Matters.

“That’s part of this whole scheme as well,” Misch said.

Biomass objection

At the same meeting, the council unanimously approved a resolution opposing state incentives for biomass plants. Following a similar measure from the Springfield City Council, the resolution opposes the state’s proposed changes to the renewable portfolio standards that will loosen the requirements for biomass.

Jarrett, Maiore, and the Northampton Energy and Sustainability Commission recommended the resolution.

“Proposed RPS regulations would wrongly incentivize the construction of large-scale wood-burning biomass plant proposed by Palmer Renewable Energy in Springfield,” it reads, “an Environmental Justice community already heavily burdened by industrial air pollution and by record-setting rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.”

A number of people spoke during public comment in support of the resolution.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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