Guest columnist Jackie Ballance: Cap the size of single-family homes in Northampton

  • Homes under construction at Warner and Federal streets in Northampton. Submitted photo

Published: 2/19/2021 4:04:45 PM

We punt our local climate responsibilities at our peril.

     The Northampton City Council has passed a new Climate Resilience         and Regeneration Plan, an important update to the 2008 Sustainable Northampton Plan. Faced with an imminent climate emergency, the climate plan describes pathways to move the city toward carbon neutrality by 2050.

Along with excitement generated by the plan, there’s equal excitement in city government concerning affordable housing. The city is considering three new ordinances to encourage more housing in general and increasing affordable rentals.

Meanwhile, Bay State Village is experiencing a zoning emergency. A developer has bought several older houses on big lots, which he is subdividing into as many minimum-sized parcels as possible, building the largest-sized home allowed on each micro lot. Only 10 feet apart, these 1980s-style, fossil-fuel-drenched “McMansions” are being sold for over half a million dollars. They fail to meet 21st century sustainability standards, and they are going up fast — exactly at the time our community is poised to embrace “Resilience and Regeneration.”

All our residential neighborhoods are at risk from this kind of over-building. Several current and former city officials I’ve spoken with say that the development is oversized and looks out of place. Others say that while the project doesn’t meet the legal definition of a subdivision, it looks like one.

More affordable housing is essential, yet the new climate plan makes it clear that we must also stop building the wrong kind of housing. Some important points it makes:

■The energy we use in private homes makes up 18% of our community emissions.

<sbull value="sbull"><text xmlns="urn:schemas-teradp-com:gn4tera"></text></sbull>Within the city’s footprint, increasing building energy efficiency is the most cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This will require a variety of actions, including right-sizing new construction to avoid over-building.

<sbull value="sbull"><text xmlns="urn:schemas-teradp-com:gn4tera"></text></sbull>Aggressive (net zero) requirements can go a long way toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions in our new and existing buildings sector.

■Buildings with greater “passive survivability” will help keep occupants safe. “Passive survivability” refers to the ability of a building to maintain critical conditions ... even during extended loss of power, heating fuel, or water.

■Apply a Resilience and Regeneration point system in site plan approvals

■Encourage housing diversity, smaller residential units that are efficient with resources.

■Equity cuts across all aspects of this plan.

The City Council could cap new single family houses at 1,100 or 1,200 square feet, a comfortable size for a family of four based on my own growing-up experience. Anyone who wants to build something larger can ask for an exemption and expect to receive a fair hearing. The critical feature of a cap would be to stop construction of more “McMansions.” They still come on the market for folks who really want one.

Smaller houses will obviously be less expensive because they use less materials. Lower cost is a move toward improving equity in home ownership. Habitat for Humanity has built a small solar house in Florence (Zillow value $120,000) that demonstrates a person of modest means has a chance at home ownership. “Tiny houses” are actually in vogue. I found net-zero pre-fab houses online for $100,000; that’s “affordable.” Northampton might become a place for a start-up green home industry. We’re that smart and spunky.

Newcomers may be driving demand and higher real estate prices, but new folks have always been welcome in our lovely New England college town. They just need to realize that this community is serious about climate adaptation and mitigation.

I challenge our City Council to show leadership in capping the size of new home construction.

I beg the city to put a hold on issuing new residential building permits for developers while we have a chance to analyze the impact of this rash of new development. Cap the size of new single-family homes for a couple years. If it fails to produce desired results, we can try something else. I bet $5 it will work.

Jackie Ballance lives in Florence.

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