October 27, 2021

A Call to Action

Posted

Between 1971 and 1991, the population in eastern Massachusetts increased 15%, yet the area of developed land increased 35%. By 2020, the population is projected to increase by 8%, but another 23% of land is expected to be consumed by development. According to the Rehoboth Housing Production Plan completed in 2015, “From 1990 to 2010, Rehoboth grew at a rate of 34%, from approximately 8,700 residents to approximately 11,600 residents. This growth rate is approximately four (4) times higher than that of both Bristol County and the Commonwealth during the same period. Rehoboth also grew faster than all neighboring communities during these 20 years.”

As new residents are drawn to the character and beauty of our Rehoboth community, more homes and subdivisions are being built to accommodate them, and more open space is being lost. Local regulations requiring new homes to be built on lots of one acre or more were originally intended to discourage development but are now actually contributing to sprawl by consuming large tracts of land with each new subdivision.

Through collaboration, we can work together as town residents to proactively manage growth in a manner that protects open spaces, local property values while also being equitable to developers. There are many strategies that we can look to from surrounding towns and municipalities to create a thoughtful and intentional planning process while we still have an opportunity to preserve what open spaces remain.

One example is Open Space Residential Design (OSD), a technique to maximize the amount of open space preserved in subdivisions without reducing the number of homes built. With OSD, at least as many houses as a conventional subdivision are located on approximately half of the property, while the remaining land is conserved as open space for the community to enjoy. Priority for open space protection are identified ahead of time by community residents and the planning board based on community and environmental values. Homes are then carefully situated to maximize their views, protect land and water resources, and provide common spaces. The result is a subdivision that protects and connects the most important conservation interests rather than just setting aside an arbitrary percentage of land.

Open Space Residential Design is a sensible approach that helps to protect the value of real estate property, our community water supplies, and streamlines site plan review process for developers- reducing time and costs and decreasing site development costs by designing with the terrain. Since OSD can provide both economic and environmental benefits (a study in Amherst, Massachusetts showed homes in an open space development appreciated 12.7% faster over 20 years than homes in a conventional subdivision of the same overall density; additionally Seekonk and Westport have utilized this model successfully), the question is-why aren’t we offering this type of development when it will preserve natural landscape and natural watershed?

Many local bylaws and regulations are not set up for developers to easily pursue this option without associated high costs and lengthy reviews. For this reason, it is necessary for our town to take intentional regulatory steps if we want to incorporate an OSD subdivision bylaw and special permit process into our planning board review policies. This will require collective action on our part to educate about the benefits and build support for this policy to petition on town council to put the initiative before town residents for a vote.

Another policy approach is to increase the Community Preservation Fund. The fund was established through the Community Preservation Act (CPA) adopted by Rehoboth in the 90’s. This fund is supported through a real estate tax surcharge of 1.5% and can only to be used for affordable housing, parks and open space, and historic preservation. The Community Preservation Committee reviews proposals for expenditure through Town Meeting and funds can only be appropriated based on our votes as tax payers (recently used to save Frances Farm). The CPA surcharge does not raise the tax rate for the adopting community; it assesses a surcharge on property tax bills after they have been calculated based on the community’s current tax rate. Additionally, a community can adopt low and moderate-income exemptions for eligible residents.

The maximum appropriation set forth by this act is 3%, so we are only at half of maximum allotment. It is important to know that our town receives annual matching of these funds, from a statewide CPA Trust Fund created by the Act. Only communities that have adopted CPA are eligible to receive these matching funds each year. Last year Rehoboth received, a total of $55,902, with $23,034 in matched funds coming from the state.

Several cities and towns in Massachusetts are seeking to raise conservation trust funds by assessing a onetime real estate transfer fee of up to 2% on investors and developers for projects over a certain dollar amount. The revenue generated is paid into a trust fund and dedicated to support affordable housing and improving the quality of life for the community. This type of innovation would require collective action on our part to advance state and local policies and to develop by laws modeled after other local municipalities such as Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Sommerville, and Arlington, just to name a few.

These are just some of the policy ideas that Rehoboth residents are sharing and discussing. I’m writing this letter as a call to action for those among us who are feeling frustrated by increased development in our town and are not sure how to get involved. I’m reaching out to gather our collective knowledge and ideas towards creating a thoughtful plan and shared approaches to addressing this issue.
If you are interested in participating in a discussion, or want to share your thoughts- please email me, lkrsirois@gmail.com.  I will take note of all feedback that I receive and coordinate a meeting for those interested in attending.

Thank you in advance for your interest!
Lisa Sirois

https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2016/08/ws/green-neighborhoods-brochure.pdf 

https://www.rehobothma.gov/sites/g/files/vyhlif4911/f/uploads/final-rehoboth-housing-production-plan091515_1.pdf 

https://www.communitypreservation.org/ 

https://www.realestatetransferfee.org/in-the-news 

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