By: David A. Smith
It might seem, to judge by the statement of Milton’s leaders, that the town’s shortage of affordable housing is due to forces beyond Milton’s control:
Practice the phrase; “It’s beyond my control”
However, as we saw yesterday, the town has at every stage adopted land-use and development rules to thwart affordable housing, density, rental housing, and indeed almost any kind of change.
Sources used in this post
Karen Sunnarborg housing study of Milton (February, 2006, pdf; green font)
Boston Globe (June 21, 2012; deep purple font)
Massachusetts subsidized housing inventory (April, 2013; caramel font)
Boston Globe (March 22, 2013; powder-blue font)
MyTownMatters blog post (April 15, 2013; midnight blue font)
Canton Citizen (June 27, 2013; mumble font)
Boston Globe (August 21, 2013; olive font)
Boston Globe (October 31, 2013; pink font)
Canton Citizen, (November 14, 2013; red font)
Boston Globe (April 27, 2014; buff blue font)
Boston Globe (July 24, 2014; robin’s-egg-blue font)
Town of Milton draft housing production plan, September 25, 2014; pdf, orange font)
Many and varied are these obstacles to change, including an all-purpose builder-repellent.
They’re attracted by the land
4.C. Wetlands and ‘the environment’
If one cannot stop a development with traffic, where the problem is too little infrastructure, stop the development with wetlands, where the problem is too much infrastructure:
A volunteer beetle rancher releases purple loosestrife biocontrol beetles into Fowl Meadow
But what happens if the ambulances are forced to run over loosestrife beetles?
Southwest to Northeast, ending in Boston Harbor
In terms of greenery, Milton is incredibly well favored by both the Neponset River and the Blue Hills Reservation.
6,000 acres – 10 square miles – most of it in Milton
The Blue Hills represent a wonderful hiking/ walking recreational area for a score of towns around Boston’s South Shore, culminating in Great Blue Hill.
Great Blue Hill from the air
The Boston skyline, from the top of Great Blue Hill
At Milton’s north is the Neponset, a wide stream with largely granite banks that for a portion of its course forms the border between Boston and Milton, including Boston’s Baker Chocolate Factory, a wonderful complicated historic-rehab affordable housing property developed by none other than ursine urban architect Bob Kuehn, about whom I wrote an obituary when he suddenly died in 2006.
The Neponset at Dorchester Lower Mills: Baker Chocolate on the left, Milton on the right
NepRWA had hoped to persuade MassHousing to deny the project eligibility application, and while ultimately unsuccessful, the association “remains committed to opposing the project through the many steps of the permitting process which remain,” including the comprehensive permit review by the Milton ZBA and wetlands permitting before the Milton Conservation Commission.
Boston at left and up; Milton at right and below
The contrast between Boston and Milton is starkly illustrated by the Neponset River boundary; in the photo above, the large intersection is Mattapan Square, which is also the terminus of the Red Line’s Mattapan Extension line, and the leafy green below is Milton.
And even if it isn‘t green, maybe it’s scenic:
Canton Town Meeting next month will vote on whether to designate Hemenway Drive a scenic way, an eleventh-hour attempt by residents to slow or stop a large housing development just over the border in Milton.
Denise Swenson and her Hemenway Drive neighbors are seeking the new classification, which, if approved, would require Planning Board approval for certain changes to the street.
Denise Swenson, checking her yard for Lyme disease ticks
Thomas Farmer, a spokesman for MassHousing, said that a scenic way designation is a matter for the local government, and would not affect the eligibility letter unless the developer made major changes to its proposal.
Thus Milton has well more than its share of free public amenities (paid with state funds, one should not, not local) – but if one starts from the premise that every bit of currently green space must be green forever, then nothing can ever be built except in places where it has already been built – and that leads to the next objection one can raise.
If one can’t stop a development on traffic, try the environment; if not the environment, try history.
Ms. Swenson has submitted an application to the US Department of the Interior to add Hemenway Drive to the National Register of Historic Places.
The mile-long private road, which connects to Brush Hill Road, has changed little since it was constructed as part of Blue Hill Farm, owned by Augustus and Harriet Hemenway dating back to 1882, according to the application.
The entrance to 70 Hemenway Drive in Canton
Mill Creek spokeswoman Margaret Murphy said the company had no comment.
The warrant article originated from the neighbors themselves, who began meeting weekly after the development was proposed more than one year ago, according to Swenson.
“As this proposed development came forward, all the neighbors came out with their treasure trove of information,” she said.
Funny how the road’s scenic or historic nature was unimportant until it could be used to argue against an affordable housing development.
4.E. Novelty objections
Residents in both Milton and Canton have objected to the density of the proposed development, which would be built under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable-housing law, and have said it would change the area’s rural character.
Once a group of people have decided they want to stop a development, there is seemingly no end to the reasons they can identify why everything must remain exactly as it is:
According to Comeau, state law enables a town to designate any road within its borders as a scenic way as long as it is not a state or federal numbered route. If the Town Meeting article is approved, any attempt to cut or remove trees or stone walls adjacent to the street would need Planning Board approval, he said.
The United Kingdom shows the consequences of letting anti-development preservation run amok – minimal building:
Skyrocketing home prices, housing unaffordability, labor immobility, and a stultifying economy.
Increases in housing prices per year
Avril Elkort, vice chairwoman of Canton’s Board of Selectmen, who lives on a scenic way herself, said she believes that giving this designation to Hemenway Drive would make it more difficult to widen the road, which could be required for the development.
So these residents don’t want to ease traffic congestion; if the development were to go forward, they would want traffic to increase.
Ms. Elkort receiving a Canton Spirit Award Recipient
All these neighbors want to control the use of property that they don’t own, in order to protect their lifestyle and the value of the property they do own. Never once do they suggest using their own money to buy the property in question, nor do they offer any alternative solution to Milton’s affordable housing shortage. They are content to oppose, not to propose.
Because the state agency that oversees implementation of the law has cleared Milton Mews to proceed, opponents face long odds in derailing it.
That doesn’t stop them from trying.
4.F. The death of a thousand cuts
As by now will not be surprising, not only had Milton opposed every single affordable housing development that I could find in the record, Milton also have been unable to develop a Housing Production Plan of its own.
Somehow, the devil was always in the details.
Hiding in plain sight
“It was little terms, little things, that seemed to make this thing somehow go off track,” said Alexander Whiteside, chairman of the Planning Board. “So it’s very frustrating seeing this 40B application go ahead, because it didn’t have to be like this.”
Mr. Whiteside, if my Googling is correct, lives in a house built in 1870 on a 15-acre lot.
As Alexander Whiteside didn’t say to Milton:
“The developers could just never satisfy our infinite list of little things …”
Once a town kills as-of-right zoning, then the process has no mandatory resolution, which means it is infinitely protractible:
Two years is “on the high side” for a project to get through a municipal permitting process, according to Kingston’s planner, Thomas Bott , the regional representative in the state’s chapter of the American Planning Association.
But “there isn’t an average time,” Bott said. “We have had instances where somebody was in and out in two meetings, and we’ve had some that have dragged on for a year or more. It’s dependent on the project, the applicant, and, to some extent, the board. There are some boards who are more friendly to growth” than others. “As we say in parenting and in government, it all depends,” he added.
“It all depends.”
For a developer, it all depends is a death knell, because it all depends means spending money, spending time, and never reaching action.
In Milton, it’s four years plus and counting.
[Continued tomorrow in Part 5.]