“Innovative Non-Zoning Approaches to Encourage Smart Growth and Protect Public Health” – Video with Wayne Feiden and Bruce Young

Wayne Feiden and Bruce Young from Northampton’s planning department were among the presenters at the Smart Growth – Smart Energy Conference 2008, a conference held on 12/12/08 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Feiden and Young presented in a session titled, “Innovative Non-Zoning Approaches to Encourage Smart Growth and Protect Public Health”. NSNA’s Adam Cohen attended this presentation and recorded it as a Google video, which is 1 hour and 20 minutes long.

Here is the program description of the session:

Session A-6

Innovative Non-Zoning Approaches to Encourage Smart Growth and Protect Public Health

session will focus on using regulations and other creative techniques
to achieve smart growth development outcomes. Incorporating public
health goals into Master Plans and into the review of development
proposals can help communities think more broadly about the health
impacts of the built environment. A range of regulatory solutions will
be presented including innovative septic, subdivision, adequate
facilities standards, and architectural design standards. Wetlands
ordinances can also be applied more creatively than they have been
typically. These tools can steer growth to appropriate areas, while
protecting sensitive natural resources and promoting healthy, walkable
and safe developments. Examples and best practices will be shared from
urban, suburban and rural communities.


  • Maria Evora-Rosa, Community Liaison, Department of Pubic Health


  • Wayne Feiden, FAICP, Director of Planning and Development, City of Northampton
  • Bruce Young, Land Use and Conservation Planner, City of Northampton
  • Cheryl Sbarra, JD, Senior Staff Attorney, Massachusetts Association of Health Boards

Feiden’s presentation took place from 0:28:23-0:46:25. Young’s presentation took place from 0:46:26-1:06:02.

At 0:46:55, Young presents Northampton’s new Wetlands Ordinance, enacted in 2007, which allows development in multiple districts to encroach as close as 10 feet to wetlands. In the interests of Smart Growth, Young appears to value the “wetland systems” in outlying areas more than the “isolated wetlands” in urban districts (0:57:00).

0:56:19… In what may be a shift of emphasis from 2007, Young stresses that the general encroachment limit in Northampton urban residential districts URB and URC should be 35 feet. “We still want to put that line in the sand to make it fair for developers and protect our resources… What we came up with [in URB and URC] was a 35-foot no-encroachment zone, or a line in the sand. So basically we would say to someone who came in front of us, ‘Now the [conservation] commission has discretion between 35 feet and 100 feet.’ So the developers knew, they now know when they come forward that they can go no closer [than] 35 feet. And there are some provisions in the actual ordinance that said, ‘with extraordinary measures’, we may allow you to go closer in this zone, up to 10 feet. And so that gave the commission a little more discretion, but it put the onus on the developer and it was pretty clear and straightforward and fair.”

1:03:00… Young: “We have some serious challenges ahead of us. And one is… ‘HIGs’, holes in the ground. And so, what we’re saying is, we want good infill development, but through our Wetlands Ordinance we didn’t really adopt stormwater standards that would improve the stormwater in these infill areas. So we have a challenge to come up with better design standards for stormwater instead of these giant holes in the ground, and to actually require or implement some, or incentivize some low-impact development type of stormwater systems. And then…the second thing that goes with stormwater systems is maintenance… We’re working with the Department of Public Works that now has a stormwater manager and we’re setting up maintenance for these systems, but some of these are older systems and some of these have been approved under a system that didn’t have basically [what’s modern] for these types of systems…

“And then finally, Wayne and I mentioned this earlier, design standards in architectural ordinances. We really need to think about how the infill happens. Because if we’re saying we want a house between two houses, and we can’t get the neighborhood to buy onto houses that are just not helping the neighborhood…”

At 1:13:30 during the Q&A session, Cohen asked Feiden and Young about the Meadowbrook Apartments. The experience of this development raises concerns about the hazards of building homes near wetlands. As  former City Councilor Mike Kirby wrote in June:

The developers built 255 units of affordable
apartments there. They crammed them in everywhere they could, pushing
them up into the bluffs, and close to the creek and wetlands. No
backyards to speak of. One third of the buildings were built within 50
feet of the wetlands, 63% of the buildings are within the customary 100
feet of wetlands.

None of the buildings have cellars under their
apartments. If they have cellars, there are people living in them. The
cellar floors in the basement apartments in Buildings #4 and #2 are
lower than the surrounding swamp. Some slabs have cracks in them.
People have been flooded out. No moisture-proof barriers between the
surrounding earth and the foundations. Moisture and mold percolate up
into people’s apartments via the chases that hold utilities. If you
wonder why low-income children are afflicted with a whole host of
respiratory diseases, you have to look no further than the children of
the floor level and basement apartments of Meadowbrook…

Feiden and Young were apparently unfamiliar with the problems at Meadowbrook, and the Q&A session moved on to other subjects.

Before the city authorizes more housing within 100 feet of wetlands, we urge the Planning Board or other appropriate body to investigate the Meadowbrook situation to determine if the proximity to wetlands, design issues, construction issues, maintenance issues, or other factors are at fault. Meadowbrook is not the only development in town with moisture problems. At a 12/11/08 Conservation Commission hearing, Alex Ghiselin, another former City Councilor, told the commissioners:

It’s not clear to me now that we have an effective system [for inspecting and maintaining stormwater systems] or that it’s
funded in any significant way, or that we’ve looked at the legal
problems involved in long-term enforcement and inspection–who will be
responsible over time. I have to tell you as somebody who represented a ward that has a
considerable amount of wetlands, and building in those wetlands, that
that was the knottiest, the most difficult problems that we dealt
with… Once the houses are built there’s really no good solution. I
think of on Winslow, on Nutting, on Elm Street, I think of a continual
problem that has bedeviled people who have owned those houses. The
developers are long gone. These are houses built 25-30 years ago. I
think of my friends John and Sue Norton on Winslow, who spent in excess
of $8,000 last year to move water around their house. Almost everybody
on the northeast side of Winslow has that problem. It’s built along a
series of wetlands and streams… I also think it’s also significant
that the City Councilor with by far the most experience in this city,
Jim Dostal, who worked for the DPW all those years, has personal
experience with buildings built near and in wetlands, and the problems
that they’ve produced for the city over time, was adamantly opposed to
moving to within 10 feet, and is still adamantly opposed, and I hope
that the City Council will revisit this. In the meantime, you should
really move very carefully into this new area.”

See also:

Gazette: “Council adopts wetlands ordinance”
City Councilor James M. Dostal proposed an amendment Thursday that
called for increasing the 10 feet no-encroachment zones in urban
residential districts to 50 feet because of serious concerns about
homes flooding, saying “We shouldn’t be building there…”

Video of December 11 Kohl Condo Hearing at Conservation Commission
Kohl proposed to place grading, walls, yards, patios, and certain components of the stormwater
management system as close as 12 feet to the wetland
on its parcel… The commission expressed discomfort with allowing much disturbance closer than 35 feet to the wetland…

…Commissioner Downey Meyer, “I’m…not inclined to go below 35
feet. I also wonder why those who have spoken so quickly got to 50,
since the state Wetland Protection Act and the city ordinance both
protect to 100. So I think you’re being rather unambitious arguing from
50 to 35… I’m also, as Alex said, a little bit skeptical of the
engineered solutions… Part of the reason why buffer zones have
received greater emphasis in wetlands protection is that they do seem
to work without anyone having to maintain them in terms of making the
whole wetlands system work effectively.

Kohl Construction Applies for Special Permit and Site Plan Review
[Kohl’s proposal calls for two large detention basins. These appear to be examples of HIGs as criticized by Bruce Young at his 12/12/08 presentation.]

Download this PDF to view these and related plans at maximum detail.

Photos Show: Man-Made Lakes and Stormwater Retention Systems
Are No Substitute for Natural Wetlands

3 min 0 sec from the end of the presentation

Duncan, a former wetlands expert for the Army Corps of Engineers, rests
amid the longleaf pines. Builders and the corps have given a lack of
consideration to isolated wetlands, he said. ‘We thought at one time
that we needed to permit out the small wetlands. Well, after permitting
them all away, they’ve become rare things.'”

1 min 9 sec from the end of the presentation

sheen of oil covers a portion of the stormwater retention system at
Towne Centre in Mount Pleasant. The system is designed to capture
leaking motor oil, antifreeze, brake dust, fertilizer and other urban
runoff from impervious surfaces such as pavement. Under federal
guidelines, this pond is considered a man-made wetland.”

1 min 1 sec from the end of the presentation

“A stormwater pond is filled with algae at Towne Center at Mount Pleasant.”

0 min 53 sec from the end of the presentation

stands at the edge of a murky stormwater retention pond in Ivy Hall
that Everett said was once a forest-lined isolated wetland. While the
low grass held carnivorous sundew plants, the stump-filled water was
largely devoid of visible aquatic life. ‘This looks awful,’ she said.”

0 min 45 sec from the end of the presentation

points to a patch of algae growing along the banks of a stormwater
retention pond at Belle Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant. Though the
pond is aerated by a fountain, heavy flows of fertilizers can
contribute to the algae’s growth…”

0 min 37 sec from the end of the presentation

band of white pollutants and algae float at the top of a stormwater
retention pond at Belle Hall Plantation. Though created to handle
pollution and often full of mosquito larvae, this type of pond is
considered a functioning wetland under definitions by the U.S.
Department of the Interior.”

City Council Enacts New Wetlands Ordinance, Including 10-Foot Buffers
During the discussion of the ordinance, Conservation and Land Use
Planner Bruce Young asserted that wetlands buffer zones were less
important in Northampton’s more built-up areas, as opposed to those on
the outskirts. This seems plausible with respect to wildlife and
natural habitats. The wetlands in-town tend to be hemmed in, surrounded
by disruptive human activities, and more fragmented. Some are degraded
with invasive species and man-made materials such as masonry.

We believe, however, that our in-town buffers are more important than average when it comes to flood mitigation and water pollution. A disproportionate percentage
of the people and property of the city are found in the areas now
subject to 10-foot wetlands buffers. Our drainage systems there are
already under stress. Flood damage reports from Tropical Storm Floyd show clusters of red flags in our urban areas, even under the previous, more restrictive buffer zone regime.

also stands to reason that stormwater runoff, with its chemicals, oils,
sand, silt, and other contaminants, is a more serious issue in our more
urban areas, with their large concentrations of human activity, cars
and impervious surfaces. Narrow wetlands buffers will enable that
pollution to enter our streams and rivers more quickly, with less
processing, and in higher volumes. This runs contrary to the spirit of
the Connecticut River Strategic Plan
(2003), which “proposes the removal of impervious surfaces within 50
feet of streams…” As former Councilor Alex Ghiselin observed during
the public comment period, cleaning up the Connecticut River has been
one of the region’s signal achievements during the past generation.
It’s a shame to imperil this work.

When illustrating how the new
ordinance might be applied, Bruce Young dwelt on the hypothetical
example of a homeowner who wants to build an accessory apartment on
their property, and how relaxed buffer zone requirements could
facilitate that. While this came across as innocuous and benign, there
was no discussion of the cumulative impact of many landowners
encroaching on wetlands. It’s easy to see how the Conservation
Commission, by giving away our flood protection piecemeal over time,
could materially impact the city’s experience during the next major

Also glossed over was the impact of major projects, such as Kohl
Construction’s 26 condo units proposed for the woods behind North
Besides the units themselves, this project calls for new roads and
numerous parking spaces–a considerable amount of new impervious
surface. It would result in major disturbance of a large zone within 50
feet of wetlands, a far cry from the impact of one accessory apartment.

Flood and Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan: Floyd Flood Damage Reported
Behind View Avenue; Avoid Building on Filled Wetlands

The Background of the plan states (2004, emphasis added):

Natural hazards can be exacerbated by societal behavior and
practice, such as building in a floodplain and increasing the amount of
paving in a watershed.

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… (p.5-6)

Priority Actions
Based on the above
prioritization criteria, as well as an analysis of the current social,
technical, administrative, political, legal economic and environmental
feasibility, the following shall be considered priority strategies for
flood hazard mitigation:

…Consistently enforce the Wetlands Protection Act to
maintain the integrity of the 200’ riverfront area, wetlands and
wetland buffer areas…


Analysis of Flood Hazards in Northampton

…Major floods, such as those caused by heavy rains from
hurricanes, and localized spot flooding can exceed the 100- and
500-year flood levels. In addition, many small streams are not mapped
for their flood hazard… (p.18)

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.

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

Benefits of Urban Wetlands and Their Buffer Areas

The proposed ordinance is not consistent with past practice, and favors substantial new
encroachments on Northampton’s wetlands

Is the Proposed Wetlands Ordinance Similar to Current
Buffer Zone Policy? Judge for Yourself

Alex Ghiselin, Letter to Gazette: “Don’t let development encroach on our wetlands”
failure of the storm water system built as a part of the Northampton
High School renovation six years ago illustrates why protecting
wetlands is so important. Silt has filled the retention pond so there
is no capacity to slow a storm surge which now flows unimpeded into the
Mill River and contributes to flooding downstream. This accumulated
silt also raised the water table and spills ground water into nearby

Without maintenance, these [storm water mitigation] systems are part of the problem, not the solution…

Wetlands do not need to be maintained; they just need to be protected.

Carlon Drive: Compensatory Wetland Not Working
Mike Kirby writes:
Carlon Drive, they simply scooped out a hole in the swamp-bottom, and
called it a detention structure. Today it is just a pond, and a
stagnant smelly one. It was designed to have a dry forebay, and a
shallow main chamber was supposed to have only about 6 inches of water
in it. This was supposed to be a compensatory wetland, full of cattails
and wildflowers. A rock check dam was supposed to hold back the “first
flush” off the parking lots and trap pollutants, and outflow from it
was supposed to feed the wet part of the detention pond. Here rain
water pouring off the new parking areas and street was supposed to be
stored, and discharged safely.

That was the plan. Today if you
stand by the pond and look down into it, you’ll see the check dam is
now about two feet underwater. You can’t even see where they planted
the marshgrass and flowers. The area is under water. Even in a fairly
dry summer, the detention pond is only about a foot and a half from the
top of the bank. There’s no storage to speak of, no discharge, no
filtering. As it is constructed now, grey water from the parking lots
and the access street goes directly into the swamp and the Connecticut

Just Released: Planner’s Guide to Wetland Buffers for Local Governments (emphasis added)
Most striking is that some locales desire wider buffers in areas
of intense land use to address the higher levels of pollution and
runoff. By contrast, Northampton has its narrowest buffers in these areas.

Planner’s Guide to Wetland Buffers for Local Governments
Environmental Law Institute, March 2008

…Depending on site conditions, much of the sediment
and nutrient removal may occur within the first
15-30 feet of the buffer, but buffers of 30-100 feet or
more will remove pollutants more consistently. Buffer
distances should be greater in areas of steep slope and
high intensity land use.
Larger buffers will be more effective
over the long run because buffers can become
saturated with sediments and nutrients, gradually
reducing their effectiveness, and because it is much
harder to maintain the long term integrity of small buffers.
In an assessment of 21 established buffers in two
Washington counties, Cooke (1992) found that 76%
of the buffers were negatively altered over time. Buffers
of less than 50 feet were more susceptible to degradation
by human disturbance. In fact, no buffers of
25 feet or less were functioning to reduce disturbance
to the adjacent wetland
. The buffers greater than 50
feet showed fewer signs of human disturbance…

Enacted local government buffer ordinances show
a wide range of wetland buffer dimensions. The lowest
we found was 15 feet measured horizontally from the
border of the wetland
, with the highest approximately
350 feet. Several ordinances set 500 feet as a distance
for greater regulatory review of proposed activities, but
do not require nondisturbance at this distance. Often
the ordinances provide a range of protections, with
nondisturbance requirements nearest the wetland and
various prohibitions and limitations as the distance
from the wetland increases. Among the ordinances we
examined, the largest number of ordinances clustered
around nondisturbance or minimal disturbance buffers
of 50 feet or 100 feet
, with variations (usually upward
variations) beyond these based on particular wetland
characteristics, species of concern, and to account for
areas with steeper slopes.

Smart Growth: When Polls and Reality Diverge
It is common knowledge among pollsters that what people say may differ
from what they do. This is particularly the case when a question has a
“politically correct” answer (see “spiral of silence”).

In the case of Smart Growth, survey results might lead planners to misperceive how people want to live and commute. Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren at the Cato Institute provide an example:

Consider the survey results published by the Milwaukee
Journal-Sentinel. Wisconsinites were asked where they would like to
live. Only six percent said in a major city. The largest group, 44
percent, said in rural areas; the second largest group, 27 percent,
preferred the suburbs. At first glance, one might think the
Clinton/Gore campaign to promote “livable communities” (densely
developed communities) would be resisted by a majority.

But the
survey went on to ask, “where would you prefer development to occur?”
The most popular response (34 percent) was “in a major city.” Another
question: “Do you favor zoning laws that would encourage communities to
have smaller houses on smaller lots within walking distance of shopping
and work?” Yes, said 76 percent. But when asked, “Would you be
interested in living in such a development?” 65 percent said no…

In Oregon,
a bastion of smart growth planning, durable consumer demand for
conventional homes with yards is evident, despite planners’ best
efforts to encourage high-density development near mass transit and
within Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary. The unfortunate result of
these mismatched desires has been increased suburbanization, as families seek affordable homes in areas outside Metro Portland’s authority. Traffic congestion has surged
as Metro Portland emphasized investment in mass transit over
road-building, even as cars remained a popular mode of travel. Despite
the establishment of a light rail line, the 2000 Census shows that transit’s work trip market share remains 20 percent below the 1980 Census rate.

The Sustainable Northampton initiative
conducted its own survey in 2006. It found that 54% agreed that “New
Homes Should Be Built in Walking Distance of Commercial Areas”. It also
found that 89% agreed that “Development Should Be Encouraged At
Densities And Locations That Can Support Transit”. In light of the
foregoing, it would be wise not to infer that most people will actually
buy homes based on these criteria.

It is also entirely possible
that many respondents were not fully aware of the tradeoffs involved in
densification, in particular, the potential loss of urban greenspace. In the same Northampton survey, 90% agreed that “We Should Protect More Open Space & Wildlife Corridors”.

must take into account how people will actually act when they make
major life decisions for themselves as individuals. It is risky to rely
on mere words and abstract propositions, especially when the “correct”
answer is well known.

Photo Essay: 10 Reasons People Like Trees Around Them; Will the Sustainable Northampton Plan
Put Urban Trees at Risk?

“Planning for Trees” by Henry Arnold, Planning Commissioners Journal, January/February 1992
recent survey by the American Forestry Association of twenty American
cities found that, on average, only one tree is planted for every four

Our urban centers need to become more attractive to
help counter the continuation of a sprawl pattern of development. If
the appeal of low density, widely scattered development is derived from
the need to be closer to nature, then making trees an integral part of
the urban habitat will help make our town and city centers more
desirable places to live and work. It is profoundly important to see
this linkage between making cities and towns more “liveable” and
stemming the continued spread of scattered development across the

Springfield Works on Infill Housing Design Guidelines; Residential Design Presentation by Dietz & Company
The City of Springfield conducted a housing design forum on June 26 to gather public input. Noting this the day before in The Springfield Intruder, Bill Dusty writes,

Let’s hope the City acts on some of the recommendations. I’ve visited
many neighborhoods where oddly-fitting housing designs have made a
street look disconnected – duplexes next to historical houses, for
example, on Eastern Avenue. Too often, it seems, design takes a back
seat to rapid construction because of the City’s apparently eager
desire to rake in real estate tax dollars as soon as possible.

[Here] is a Residential Design Presentation prepared for Springfield by
Dietz & Company. It touches on some of the issues we’ve raised
before, notably infill developments that don’t mesh well with their surrounding neighborhoods. The presentation may also be downloaded as a PDF.

More Detail on the Zero Lot Line Proposed Changes; Evaluating Infill Impacts
The planning department contends these changes are minor and they may
well be. However, citizens need more information before they can
confirm this judgment. In particular, there appears to be some debate
over whether the number of lots affected will be close to 50 or a much
larger number.

Portland: A Photo Tour of Spiraling Densification
What we see happening is
that planners are never satisfied — let them densify you a little
bit, and they keep coming back for higher and higher densities.
Portland has zoned many formerly single-family neighborhoods for

In neighborhoods that are still zoned for single family, Portland has
reduced the minimum lot size. One result is the “skinny house.” This
is not a row house but a 15-foot-wide single-family detached home on
a 25-foot-wide lot. Portland held a competition to design innovative
skinny houses, but in actual practice they all look almost exactly

76th before

76th after

In 76th before and 76th after you see a skinny house build in the
empty space between two other houses…

Portland, Oregon Voters Sour on Densification Over Time