Current and Former Town Officials Comment
by John DiCocco
In our last issue, (BCF apage 1), we addressed the need for more housing in Greater Boston and the state legislature’s proposal of state-wide zoning requirements. If such a law passed, it would require more housing—and more affordable housing—in almost every community inside Route 495. What would that mean for Belmont?
We asked several town residents who have served or are still currently serving on various committees and boards to share some brief thoughts on the following question: “Can Belmont increase housing without altering our small town feeling?”
Judy Feins, co-chair, Belmont Housing Trust: I certainly think we can. We need to plan and act on rezoning judiciously to build new homes, especially for young people and older residents who want to stay in town.
Karl Haglund, member, Belmont Planning Board: It’s too early to tell what the legislature will pass, so it’s difficult to predict what the town’s options might be. It will be helpful to see how well Cushing Square works out, and then we’ll know better how to update the bylaw.
Has the town’s character changed? It’s certainly true that many of us who bought homes in Belmont in the early 80s couldn’t do it again. According to the town planning office, Belmont has a significant percentage of affordable rental housing, but the town gets no credit for that affordable housing because it is not affordable under the requirements of Section 40B.
Belmont has very little commercial property, compared to the towns around us. And we don’t have much buildable land left for either commercial or affordable housing. That’s a different situation from many towns inside 128 or 495. It would be helpful if the state zoning law could recognize the significant differences among the state’s cities and towns in writing statewide zoning.
Lauren G. Meier, chair, Historic District Commission: Theoretically, Belmont should be able to build some additional housing and still retain its small-town character, but how that additional residential development is designed and where it is located in the town is critical to ensuring that the qualities we identify as a “small town” are retained.
That means ensuring a diversity of housing types and scales representing Belmont’s entire history—from Colonial period to the present— as well as retaining the smaller scale, modest dwellings that are important for young families or older adults who are downsizing. In addition, we need open space, outdoor recreation, tree-lined streets, and viable small, local businesses that also are important to the character of Belmont. In the end, it’s about how you design it, to ensure that the scale is compatible with our individual neighborhoods and the town as a whole.
It would be a disaster for Belmont. -Angelo Firenze
Angelo Firenze, former Belmont selectman: It would be a disaster for Belmont. I’m totally opposed. It’s another example of the state trying to impose a policy on every town as if we were all the same. Belmont is densely populated, as are most of the towns where mass transit goes. We should not be required by the state to add more density. It would be worse than the affordable housing law which is poorly written.
Belmont has about 4,000 rental units and 2,000 of them rent for rates which are below the affordable cutoff, but we don’t get credit for them since there are no rent restrictions on them. Even so, landlords don’t raise the rents out of proportion, because their tenants won’t pay more than the market rate.
This state law proposal doesn’t make sense in Belmont.
Roger Colton, former chair, Belmont Housing Trust: Yes. Belmont needs to make a conscious choice to add housing in central commercial areas such as Belmont Center and Cushing Square, and that would not affect the small-town feeling. We need to look up, rather than out, meaning building vertically. With adequate setbacks in the right form and thoughtful design that fits into the surrounding buildings, we can add residences without affecting the look and feel of the town.
Yes. Belmont needs to make a conscious choice to add housing in central commercial areas such as Belmont Center. . .-Roger Colton
Sami Baghdady, selectman: Belmont is so developed that it would be difficult to significantly increase our market rate and affordable housing stock without altering our small-town feel. Indeed, the only way to add any appreciable housing stock is by building dense, multi-family apartment buildings like the Royal Belmont (i.e., the Uplands development) and Cushing Village. However, more major multifamily development projects will inevitably make Belmont feel more dense and less like a small town.
Belmont can add more affordable housing and still maintain a small-town feel through programs that convert our existing housing stock to affordable status, such as the Housing Trust’s First Time Homebuyers Program. Unfortunately, however, that program has not yielded appreciable results.
Mike Smith, member and former chair, Belmont Historic District Commission: The small town feel of Belmont is lost each time a property is developed at a large size and scale that doesn’t fit with neighboring properties. This can be the result of oversize additions or new housing. Generally, these oversize properties result in single family ownership at prices that are unaffordable for young and old homeowners.
With its close proximity to transit and large job markets in Cambridge and Boston, Belmont could provide expanded opportunities for small-scale housing by modifying its zoning bylaws and creating other useful measures that would:
1. Restrict out-of-scale, large single family homes in small-scale neighborhoods.
2. Enable homeowners to convert spaces in garages, barns, attics, and basements to accessory living units, e.g., in-law apartments.
3. Incentivize properties in commercial areas to permit expanded opportunities for small multi-family housing projects that can appeal to both young and old people.
4. Provide historic protections for properties with character-defining features of neighborhoods.
Small scale housing opportunities would help to add to the diversity of our population by providing opportunities for both young and old. Such measures could create additional tax revenue without adding substantially to the burden on our schools. In summary, such practices would be good socially, fiscally, and environmentally.