Housing Advisory Board: “smart growth,” $35,000 consultant

A meeting of Brookline’s Housing Advisory Board on Wednesday, June 24, started at 7:30 pm in the first-floor south meeting room at Town Hall. All the current members except Kathy Spiegelman were on hand. Board members heard a presentation on Chapter 40R “smart growth” development and joined with Planning Board members in a continued review of Chapter 40B regulations, as asked at the town meeting in May. They are considering a consultant study estimated to cost $35,000.

Smart growth: Chapter 40R of Massachusetts General Laws and companion Chapter 40S are legacies from waning years of the Romney administration, trying to promote so-called “smart growth.” The catch-phrase mainly means development near public transit, reducing needs for automobiles. In the classic Massachusetts traditions, our hydra of state government grew a new tendril. It is currently headed by William E. “Bill” Reyelt, who is a Precinct 5 town meeting member in Brookline.

Mr. Reyelt illustrated his description of Chapter 40R to the housing board with computerized slides. The state is offering tiny incentives to communities that set up special “smart growth” zoning districts and approve housing development permits. They mainly amount to one-time payments of $1,000 to $3,000 per housing unit for each unit built beyond standard zoning.

Sergio Modigliani, a Planning Board member, observed that the cost of educating a student in Brookline schools averages around $18,000 a year. At that rate, state payments would be eaten up in at most a few months, while Brookline taxpayers would be exposed to uncompensated costs for at least a century. Maybe not so “smart.”

All Mr. Reyelt could offer was that Brookline might become “eligible” for partial compensation under a Chapter 40S program, but there is “no guarantee” of state funding. All the communities participating in Chapter 40R turned out to be smaller cities, far suburbs and rural towns. None are among the towns Brookline typically regards as peers, including Arlington, Belmont, Lexington and Winchester.

Chapter 40B regulations: As proposed by the Advisory Committee, last May’s annual town meeting referred a proposal to change Chapter 40B law and regulations to the Housing Advisory Board and the Planning Board, asking for a “plan for Brookline to work with other mature, built-out communities…to achieve a temporary ‘safe harbor’ status” from disruptive development, such as one proposed at Hancock Village. As the Advisory Committee wrote in its recommendation, that will take changes to state regulations.

Despite town meeting’s directions, the Housing Advisory Board looks to have taken off on a tangent. Instead of working on changing state regulations, members are considering a consultant study for a “housing production plan” to counter 40B development under current regulations.

Brookline already has such a plan, produced in 2005. Little of significance has changed since then. To satisfy current regulations, Brookline would have to develop more than 250 housing units a year that are subsidized to Chapter 40B levels. For the past 15 years, Brookline has averaged less than 10 such units a year.

Housing Advisory Board members estimated spending about $35,000 on a consultant study for a new housing production plan. However, they had not contacted any potential consultants. Instead, board member Karen Kepler, a lawyer, noted that a contract under $35,000 would be exempt from state public bidding requirements.

Virginia Bullock, one of the town’s housing project planners, said Brookline had a good chance of getting $15,000 from a new state grant called “planning assistance toward housing.” Board members speculated about how to wheedle money out of the Advisory Committee or how to bleed Housing Trust funds. Those are set aside to support subsidized housing units, not to stuff the pockets of consultants.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, June 25, 2015


Matthew J. Lawlor, Chapter 40R: a good law made better finally starts showing results, Congress of the New Urbanism, October, 2006

Planning assistance toward housing (PATH), Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, 2015

Craig Bolon, Hancock Village: development pressures, Brookline Beacon, February 22, 2015

Zoning Board of Appeals: Hancock Village 40B conditions, Brookline Beacon, January 6, 2015

Zoning Board of Appeals: Hancock Village 40B, getting to Yes, Brookline Beacon, November 4, 2014

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