Zoning changes don’t go far enough to stop extra-wide houses

This Thursday the Northampton City Council is scheduled to discuss a proposed zoning change that addresses a question vital to the future...

This Thursday the Northampton City Council is scheduled to discuss a proposed zoning change that addresses a question vital to the future character of Northampton’s downtown and nearby neighborhoods. How wide can houses be built and with how much space between them?

If you’ve been around Northampton for a while, you might ask “wasn’t that all settled with the infill zoning changes of 2013?”

Welcome to “Infill 2021.” The council will consider a proposal put forth by the city’s Planning Department to revise a little-known provision of the zoning code called “zero lot line (ZLL) developments,” which would be renamed “reduced lot line (RLL) developments.”

In its current form, the ZLL provision allows anyone who owns two side-by-side lots special privileges. They can build a house as close as zero feet from the edge of the property line those lots share. In contrast, anyone who just owns one lot has to keep their house a certain number of feet away from their side property lines by an amount specified for their zoning district — for example, 10 feet downtown or 15 feet in Florence.

Recently developer Nu-Way Homes has been using the ZLL provision to build houses in the Bay State neighborhood that are 10 feet wider and 19 feet closer to each other than is possible without ZLL. That may not sound like much, but Nu-Way’s lots are only 50-feet wide. So these houses at their width of 30 feet are extra-wide — 50% wider than normally possible — and they stand only 11 feet apart as opposed to the normally required 30 feet. The space between the houses looks like an alleyway. These houses are also very expensive — the first two such houses built both sold for close to $600,000, making them unaffordable for many people in Northampton.

The RLL amendment slightly improves the alleyway-houses-too-close-together problem allowed by the ZLL provision, but doesn’t address adequately the problem of extra-wide and extra-expensive houses being built.

The ZLL provision gives developers and others a choice of how to build houses on two lots next to each other. One, build them both right on the property line so the two houses share a wall. Two, build them both wherever you like — including both right up to the property line as long as they aren’t directly across from each other. In all cases, you have to have 5-feet along either side of the shared property line available for maintenance.

The suggested RLL proposal slightly improves upon the ZLL provision because it offers a more limited second choice — build the two houses wherever you like as long as you maintain a minimum distance sideways across the property line between them. Houses would have to be built at least 10 feet apart in the downtown URC zoning district and 20 feet apart in the URB zoning district, which includes neighborhoods like Bay State that ring downtown.

The RLL proposal, however, is only a slight improvement over the ZLL provision because it still allows for many situations where developers can build extra-wide houses on small lots. It still allows for 10 feet less space between houses than is standard in both the URB and URC districts. And in situations where developers are trying maximize profits by building the biggest houses they can on the smallest lots they can, house sizes and the spacing between them become interdependent. If you allow for less spacing than is standard in these districts, as the RLL does, you’ll get wider houses.

With these wider houses from the road pedestrians will see more house and less unoccupied space, and the streetscape will obviously be more densely built. Such wider houses will seem extra-wide when the lots involved are the smallest allowed. In certain circumstances with RLL a 40-foot wide house could be built on a 50-foot wide lot in the downtown URC district and a 30- or even 35-foot wide house on such a lot in the URB neighborhoods.

If passed in its current form, the RLL proposal will encourage developers to use RLL developments throughout neighborhoods in and surrounding downtown. Because RLL developments are designed to maximize profit for developers, smaller and more affordable types of housing will not be able to compete with these developments, and available land will be snapped up by the developers, as is happening now in Bay State. Over the next 20 years or so, RLL developments gradually will spread throughout and densify and gentrify our neighborhoods near downtown in a way few imagined in 2013 when the infill amendments were passed.

The results? As is happening now in Bay State, houses affordable for many are being replaced by houses affordable for few; a loss of historic homes; a loss of established trees; and streetscapes that are much more densely packed than most people anticipated when the 2013 infill changes were passed.

To try to limit these losses, I and others involved with Save Bay State Village (www.savebaystatevillage.org) have proposed to city councilors that they change the RLL proposal to limit the size of houses in RLL developments to be no wider than 5 feet more than is possible without RLL. We call it the “No Extra-Wide Houses Amendment.”

If you disagree with the direction the RLL proposal is taking Northampton, please email or call your city councilor for your ward and city councilors at-large Gina-Louise Sciarra and Bill Dwight. You can find their email addresses and phone numbers on the city website. Urge them to support the “No Extra-Wide Houses Amendment.” Also, urge your councilors to ensure that a comprehensive review of the Infill Zoning Ordinances from 2013 onward be conducted to determine successes and failures to date and the best path forward to balance development with neighborhood preservation.

Bill Ryan lives in Bay State Village in Northampton. He holds a master’s degree in technology and policy from M.I.T.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Zoning changes don’t go far enough to stop extra-wide houses
Zoning changes don’t go far enough to stop extra-wide houses
Newsrust - US Top News
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