The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences; Come to the November 8 Hearing

The Planning Board will hold a formal public hearing in collaboration with the Sustainable Northampton Steering Committee and City Council on the draft Sustainable Northampton Plan on Thursday, November 8, 2007 at 7:00pm in the Cafeteria at Bridge Street School. Cecil Group consultants will hold an informal Open House question and answer session on the draft plan from 6-7pm in the Bridge Street school cafeteria before the public hearing. We urge all concerned citizens to attend the Open House and hearing. Don’t wait until new laws come before the City Council–that’s too late.

If you can’t make the hearing, you may also submit written comments to the Planning Board until the close of business on Thursday, November 29, 2007. Written comments should be sent to Planning Board, Office of Planning & Development, City Hall, 210 Main Street, Northampton, MA 01060.

Comments may also be emailed by the close of business on Thursday, November 29, 2007 to:

Click on the links below for an electronic copy of the Plan and the proposed Land Use Map:
October 19 Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan (PDF)
Proposed Future Land Use Map (PDF)

The plan has the potential to transform the look and feel of the most built-up 15% of Northampton, roughly the same area affected by the newly implemented 10-foot wetlands buffer zones. It prioritizes compact growth. Homebuilders are to be encouraged to build within walking distance of existing urban centers, where substantial infrastructure already exists. This sounds reasonable, but it must be carefully managed to avoid harming the interests of existing residents.

Question: Do those who have crafted this Plan have model cities in mind that they would like Northampton to resemble? If so, knowing what these cities are will help citizens judge if this vision is appealing to them, and if the actions suggested in the Plan are likely to bring this vision about. Have the planners examined cities where Smart Growth ran into problems (e.g. political controversy, congestion)? How will Northampton avoid these problems?


Loss of urban greenspace
An objective of the Plan is to “implement ideas for maximizing density on small lots”. (p.16) It calls for the City to “consider amending zero lot line single family home to eliminate 30′ side yard setback”. (p.69) It suggests the zoning laws be changed to “encourage single family homes in Urban Residential zoning districts by significantly reducing minimum frontage/lot width, for projects meeting form-based coding”. (p. 71)

These changes have the potential to reduce or eliminate the yards that separate homes from each other and from streets. This loss of greenspace may well entail a loss of privacy, attractiveness, flood protection (through an increase in impervious surfaces), and an increase in the heat island effect, noise and congestion. If fewer trees are shading homes, cooling costs are likely to rise.


What is the proportion of impervious surface in Northampton now, both overall and in the 15% that is most built-up? How much additional impervious surface do planners feel comfortable adding in each ward? Would the planning department be willing to calculate the amount of impervious surface in each ward on an annual basis to monitor the situation?

Tax assessments may rise in the more built-up wards
The Plan calls for high and medium density housing in downtown and the “more densely developed areas”, 12-65 units per acre. (p.13) If zoning rules are changed to facilitate this, it could mean that a parcel of land that represented one buildable lot could come to represent two lots or more. When land can be developed more intensely, its assessed value might rise. If you want to sell, you might be thrilled. If you don’t, however, the main impact on you might be a larger real estate tax bill. As the Plan acknowledges, “increased property values are desirable but not the increased property tax and decreased affordability that comes with increased value.” (p.17)


What tax impacts are anticipated? How might they be mitigated? Will changes be phased in slowly so people can adjust? How have other cities addressed this problem?

Loss of urban trees
The Plan aims to “increase tree canopy in urbanized areas to maintain a higher quality environment in all areas” (p.25), yet this might prove to be a challenge as density increases and setbacks are reduced.

Questions: How will the extent of tree canopy be monitored? How many mature trees (over 20 years old) are currently in each ward? Would the planning department be willing to update these counts annually to make sure no ward is losing mature trees on a net basis?

Conflict with housing preferences of citizens
The best plans will fail if they don’t appeal to the people. A 1993 Fannie Mae poll showed that “86 percent of American households believed that owning a home was better than renting…and 73 percent preferred a single-family detached home with a yard” (cited in J. Terrence Farris, “The Barriers to Using Urban Infill Development to Achieve Smart Growth”, 2001, PDF). The Sustainable Northampton Plan acknowledges this could be an issue (p.14),  but provides no examples of where American citizens have been persuaded to embrace the denser housing modes it calls for.

Mishandled campaigns for density can trigger an intense political backlash. In suburban Portland, voters recalled a mayor and two council members over dense development and a neighborhood light-rail alignment (Farris, p.23). Farris, an Associate Professor in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture at Clemson University, recommends a smarter Smart Growth approach that takes into account the facts on the ground and citizen preferences:

…smart growth advocates should be realistic about the amount of development that will occur in built-up areas versus outlying open land as various stakeholders consider future policies. The U.S. population is expected to double in this century. It is hard to imagine that a large percentage of that growth will occur in existing built-up areas.

Smart growth advocates should focus especially on encouraging higher-density quality development on open peripheral land. The discussion in this article suggests that this is where most development will occur. Perhaps up to 20 percent can be infill in cities and the older suburbs (this would be a big increase from present patterns). The density of most cities is 5 to 10 times that of their suburbs (Downs 1994)…

Perhaps Downs (1994) best describes the scale of infill development necessary to accommodate growth when he shows that

to raise overall density from 3,500 to 7,500 persons a square mile,[7] 47.1 percent of all housing land would have to be redeveloped with new housing at fifteen units per acre, 24.2 percent at twenty-five units an acre, or 14.0 percent at forty units an acre. Clearly, any substantial increase in the residential density of built-up areas that is to be achieved through redevelopment would require major clearance and rebuilding. This would be a major disruption to existing neighborhoods… It is hard to believe that residents where such upzoning is planned would permit it, considering the pressures they have exerted in the past…
Many suburbs today are built to accommodate between 1,000 and 3,000 people per square mile, typically based on markets and land cost (Downs 1994). While infill will continue in selected submarkets, smart growth advocates should aggressively pursue higher-density, quality development at the periphery rather than the typical low-density suburban sprawl of the past 50 years (Danielsen, Lang, and Fulton 1999). (p.26-27)
The Sustainable Northampton Plan calls for a minimum of 50% of all new housing developed in the city to be infill. (p.17) The Farris analysis suggests this goal may be aggressive, unrealistic, and likely to invite substantial resistance from current residents.


1) You own a home with 30-foot greenbelts on each side that separate you from your neighbors. These trees are handsome to look at, shade your home, absorb water, freshen the air, and give you privacy. A year later, developers buy the houses on either side of you, tear them down, and build four-story condos with eight units each. The condos have been permitted to come closer to your lot line, so the gap between you and your neighbors has been reduced to 15 feet on each side. Several mature trees had to be cut down. You find you now have clear views into your neighbors’ kitchens, and you need to draw your shades for privacy. The noise and heat in your immediate surroundings have increased noticeably. It’s much harder to find a parking space. The amount of impervious surface surrounding your home has increased, so your basement now floods during the larger rainstorms. To top it off, the assessed value of your property has increased by 30%, based on new valuations of the neighboring lots, and your property taxes have risen proportionately. You begin to think about selling out and moving to the suburbs to recapture the greenspace, peace and quiet you used to enjoy, along with property values you can afford.

2) Assume infill has proceeded with gusto in Northampton for 20 years. The proportion of impervious surface in the most urban 15% of the city increases substantially. In 2027, a tropical storm equivalent to Hurricane Diane strikes the city. It rains 20 inches over three days. The flooding dwarfs Floyd, which impacted 431 structures in 1999. Property damage runs into the tens of millions of dollars. Even as late as 2030, dozens of moldy properties still have not been torn down, blighting neighborhoods. Comparisons to New Orleans are made.

Taking a page from the Flood Mitigation Plan of 2004, Northampton’s City Council rushes to pass legislation that severely restricts new impervious surface within 100 feet of wetlands. The Council also restores setback requirements to what they were in 2007. It’s too late, however, for the hundreds of homeowners who have been flooded out.

There is concern that floods will recur if a good deal of the existing impervious surface isn’t removed. Such removal might cost millions of dollars by itself. City officials appeal to the federal government for aid to defray damage and remediation costs. Federal officials drag their feet, annoyed that Northampton ignored the principles in its own Flood Mitigation Plan (prepared in part to secure federal benefits) and EPA’s analysis of wetlands and flood protection.

It’s true that the cost of homes has outpaced incomes in Northampton in recent years. However, much of this is due to a nationwide credit bubble that is deflating as we speak. It would be a shame to irrevocably give up precious urban greenspace to address an unusual and transient economic condition.

See also:

New York Times City Room Blog: “Time for Some Jane Jacobs Revisionism?” (11/1/07)
Jacobs was not opposed to change and growth, but believed change was most destructive when it occurred in cataclysmic bursts.

Northampton Redoubt: Urban Ecology, Planting Trees, and the Long-Term View
If we remove all of our in-town forested areas and wetlands they will likely be gone forever or at least a very long time. We would do well for posterity to err on the side of caution. For example the cost estimate to restore part of the downtown historic Mill River channel runs into the millions of dollars. Had the river’s diversion in the 1940s been handled differently, perhaps with a sharper eye towards the future, maybe today we wouldn’t be searching for dollars to make its restoration a reality.

Northampton’s Flood and Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan: Floyd Flood Damage Reported Behind View Avenue; Avoid Building on Filled Wetlands (emphasis added)
…adoption of this plan will help eventually make the city eligible for a 15% flood plain insurance discount, make the city eligible for additional FEMA funds for flood hazard mitigation measures, including physical improvements, and set the stage for the land planning community involvement… (p.2)

Northampton can experience flooding in any part of the City. One great misunderstanding is the belief that floods only happen in the floodplain. With sufficient rain, almost any area will experience at least pockets of surface flooding or overland flooding. Overland flooding in rural areas can result in erosion, washouts, road damage, loss of crops and septic system back-ups. Heavy rain in the more urbanized parts of the City with extensive paved and impervious surfaces can easily overwhelm stormwater facilities resulting in localized flooding and basement damage. Stormwater flooding also contributes to water pollution by carrying silt, oil, fertilizers, pesticides and waste into streams, rivers and lakes. As the intensity of development continues to increase, Northampton will see a corresponding increase in serious stormwater problems. It is therefore important that the City as a whole, not just residents of the identified floodplain, address the need for mitigation. Flood and hazard mitigation is any preventive actions a community can take to reduce risks to people and property and minimize damage to structures, infrastructure and other resources from flood or other hazardous events. Hazard mitigation and loss prevention is not the same thing as emergency response. Some flood loss reduction can be achieved by components of response plans and preparedness plans, such as a flood warning system or a plan to evacuate flood prone areas. However, warning and evacuation deal only with the immediate needs during and following a flood event. Hazard mitigation is much more effective when it is directed toward reducing the need to respond to emergencies, by lessening the impact of the hazard ahead of time. (Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management 1997, 3)

Flooding from stormwater runoff is a growing problem in every urbanized area and is caused by large amounts of impervious surfaces and by undersized or poorly maintained stormwater drainage infrastructure, including culverts and detention basins. Development not only creates more impervious surfaces, but it also changes natural drainage patterns by altering existing contours by grading and filling, sometimes creating unexpected stormwater flooding during heavy rains. Recently, the City of Northampton has seen flooding on Elm Street, along Church and Stoddard Streets, Bliss Street and Austin Circle due to undersized pipes and catch basins and lack of upstream detention that caused streams to jump their banks and flood roadways and properties.

Stormwater contributes to water pollution by carrying silt, oil, fertilizers, pesticides and waste into streams, rivers and lakes. Stormwater flood
ing also has the potential to cause considerable property damage because it occurs in areas of concentrated development…

Graphic depicting a typical rise in temperature from rural areas to an urban center.EPA: Urban Heat Islands
The term “heat island” refers to urban air and surface temperatures that are higher than nearby rural areas. Many U.S. cities and suburbs have air temperatures up to 10°F (5.6°C) warmer than the surrounding natural land cover.

The heat island sketch pictured here shows a city’s heat island profile. It demonstrates how urban temperatures are typically lower at the urban-rural border than in dense downtown areas. The graphic also show how parks, open land, and bodies of water can create cooler areas.

City Council Enacts New Wetlands Ordinance, Including 10-Foot Buffers
The new ordinance contains provisions for 10-foot wetlands buffer zones in the 15% of Northampton that is most built-up (see Table 1). The North Street Neighborhood Association opposes this as contrary to sound practice in flood mitigation and pollution control. We are also anxious about the loss of urban greenspace that is likely to come with such narrow buffers. At a time when cities like Boston are trying to nurture their in-town greenspace, Northampton is turning the other way…