Tuesday, March 30, 2010

City School Northampton: Week 6 - Planning and Development

Yin and yang. Long term, short term. Planning and zoning. Development and preservation. Building and economic development. Keep, take, and give.

This week in City School we hear from the town planner and the head of economic development. This class was our most relaxed one yet, because we only heard from two people and only two departments, and because this class was more like a discussion. Whew!

City School is a program here in Northampton where a lowly citizen like me can get a regular glimpse into the very guts of municipal government in the form of a class. Last time, we heard about City Finance. Together with 16 other people, I am meeting for ten weeks with representatives of different City of Northampton departments to hear how sausage is made. We gaze into the headlights of mighty powers and ask the most humbling of questions.

OK, by now you've got the point. Northampton, Massachusetts has a population of about 29,000. This has not changed for 60 years, but many other things have changed as we will learn during today's class. It's a city, a county seat, the home of courts, homeless shelters, regional social services, a VA. It has a well known college, the oldest county fair, farms, a major highway, a lively downtown, and a 350 year history. Something has to keep this together and a big aspect has to do with planning and development. Planning keeps development from getting out of control and development maintains our tax base. Oh, I wish it were so simple.

Planning and Development

Wayne Feiden is the director of Planning and Development. Just like the bird watchers who can tell an American Woodcock by its plumage, call, and habitat, he can tell you who owns which property, what considerations must be taken when developing property, and when to act to appropriate land. He makes maps and plans and bides his time, giving sage advice on his vision on how to arrange the pieces of our toy train set of a town.

Feiden has been working for Northampton for 21 years. Northampton develops an open space plan every seven years, so many recent developments have his fingerprints on them. He works with the 6 boards that issue permits including the Planning Board and is often seen at town meetings (on our public access TV.) Feiden is grateful that unlike some municipalities our boards get along well. Most recently, Planning was in the spot light regarding the city acquisition of Bean Farm. A little more on that later.

By state law Northampton must take a census once a year (I just received my form last week) just as the country must do it every ten (I received this too, be sure to send yours in.) It turns out that people generally tend to stay in Northampton, but younger people do leave. Apparently there is a cohort from age 22 to 35 which is missing from town (Now, this is not scientific, but this happens to be the age of all my neighbor's children who no longer live here.) Then after age 35, people move in again (this happens to be my age group.)

Northampton now has 2.14 people per house. Back in 1950, there were fewer houses and about the same number of people. At the time there were also two mental institutions housing 3,000 people. Now Northampton has protected 2,000 acres of land, but has less open space. Life expectancy is up. Family size is about half what it once was, so the number of kids is down. Houses are larger, but not nearly as large as the national average, and there are more of them, but fewer people in them. You see, the population is about the same, main street too, but not much else.

Most cities make most money (in taxes) off industrial, commercial, and office development. Houses generally cost the city money. Chiefly this is because of the services (schools, police, fire, water, sewage, etc.) that the city must provide to people. It might do OK (think tax revenue) when expensive houses are built, and people have no children (no school expenses). It might make sense for the City to purchase land that would cost more if it was developed (think of a new development for familes with school age children on a far edge of town requiring utilities and services.) All of this is in balance and probably would not matter as much if the city was flush with cash, but unfortunately it's not.

Cities can make plans, but the way they can do their will over land is through zoning, regulations, and buying land or development rights. They can also use eminent domain to appropriate (or take) land against the will of the owner (while compensating them). For instance, eminent domain was used to create the industrial park some 30 years ago. Zoning now prevents new development near wetlands, but regulations allow expansion of existing buildings. This is the case of development in the Meadows near the Oxbow and in the industrial park. This is all a trade-off which is one of the themes of planning, if you have not guessed by now.

Oh, in case you were wondering, the city does not just go out and buy land. It uses Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to do so. They are collected based on a 3% surcharge on property tax.The CPA has different missions and committees which make these decisions: Preservation, Affordable housing, Recreation, and Agricultural. They recently decided to purchase the Bean and Allard farms in Florence for $990K. Eventually 24 acres of the Bean farm will be used for recreation. The farmland will be preserved for farming purposes, and there will probably be some community gardens.

Community and Economic development

We also heard from Teri Anderson who is director of community and economic development. CED is funded mostly by federal grants. It gets $750K per year from HUD. $360K goes to debt on the Northampton Senior Center and $150K to development. There are many other, usually project-based, grants which must be applied for and administrated.

Chiefly, CED provides support to and participates in city committees. They provide support to city staff. They work on regional projects and with regional groups like Next Step Collaborative, the Chamber of Commerce, or the Passenger Rail Advisory Committee (which as you should know recently received $70M in stimulus bank bailout funding to get Amtrak running through town and shaving 45 minutes off my trip to New York (look for this to actually happen within the next two years.) CED also works on housing and economic development projects including the Fairgrounds and building at the old State Hospital.

James House Learning Center

As an example of development, Anderson told us about the James House. Originally a Bank, then Juvenile court on Gothic Street, the James House Learning Center would be a long term educational space mostly aimed at adults. The city council said it should self-sustainable (not subsidized). Including the Center for New Americans, classroom with Child care. For renovations, unions have provided volunteer labor and local businesses have provided discounted materials. Unfortunately, due to the war budget cuts, the actual staff to run programming (i.e. classes) has been laid off. In the works for James House: provide transitional assistance through the regional Welfare office which currently is located in Holyoke.

Next Week

Whew! Pat yourself on the back. You made it through another week.

Next week, we'll be visiting the Police Department. Cops, robbers. That should be easy. As usual, please tell me what you think by leaving a comment.


  1. Nce! explains a lot.

  2. Thank goodness someone is reading this. I'm glad it helped!