How Can Development Keep Acton's Character Intact?

Mon, 2010-02-15

(ACTON) Ask any Acton resident about development and you will get wide-ranging opinions. As financial pressures increase on towns throughout the state, many residents and town officials are casting a fresh look at development and the spider-web impact it has throughout the town.

In some cases, development is a blessing, bringing in much-needed tax revenue to fill coffers. At other times, residents want to halt development to ease infrastructure pressures and preserve open land.

Responsible development, whether residential or commercial, is key, said Bill Mullin, a Finance Committee member and partner and chief operating officer of Thorndike Development Corporation. “I think life is all about growing,” he said. “We would not be here enjoying Acton if our ancestors didn't develop Acton.” But, Mullin said, unchecked development does no good. “It needs to be done in a responsible way that fits the needs of the town.”

“There is no single tipping point, but lots of little ones,” said Doug Tindal, chairman of the Economic Development Committee. Even traffic patterns or the schools are challenged by more people and more business.

What the town needs, said Mullin, is a zoning plan that reflects the needs of the town. “It is the homes that get squeezed in that people go crazy about,” he said. Encouraging more commercial development in a town where residential taxes are high is a sound plan, said Mullin.

But that is not as easy for Acton as it is for other towns.

“Some towns have a lot of open space,” Tindal said, allowing them to choose where commercial development might go. Acton does not have that luxury, instead depending on smaller lots for commercial or industrial growth. “Most people are not aware of our limited space,” he said.

Small Lots Are Important

Tindal said the key is to look forward. What is done is done, he said. People who want to preserve open space, might be eying bigger lots and thinking they have more value to the Acton's character. In fact, said Tindal, the smaller lots are important. It is the half acre where a gas station could go that could change the feel of a neighborhood.

Acton could get more businesses in town, said Tindal, but at what cost? Residents must consider the long-term impact of more business. “It is difficult to develop a policy in town that will have a clear and visible majority. What I would like to see is rational development or redevelopment,” he said.

Some residents were recently surprised by a commercial plan they consider unwise. Mullin calls the the proposed Next Generation Childcare Center a “horrible plan.” The big building will have a negative impact on traffic flow and is upsetting to many residents, he said.

“We need to be supportive of commercial development in the proper places, and in areas we have designated for it,” said Mullin.

“Our first priority should be to continue to preserve open space,” Mullin said. Residential development should not be squeezed in to places that are not meant to support homes, he said.

“It is the small parcels that will get chopped up,” said Tindal. “You can focus on taxes and if you just want money, then you will want that. We have some reconciling to do in town. Is it about money only?”

Selectwoman Terra Friedrichs agrees with Tindal, noting that sustainability needs to be included in any discussion or vote about more homes, bigger schools, or higher taxes. “We don't do long-term planning,” she said. “You have to consider the long-term impacts when we willy nilly approve these projects.”

“You have to weigh all these different things,” she said. “How many more cars before there is gridlock on Route 27? How many more homes before the water is used up?” Approval of a new school, for instance, does not take into consideration how many teachers will be needed in 10 years to support Acton's education expectations.

Does Development Equal More Children?

The on-going debate about if development brings more children to town, therefore taxing the schools directly and residents through their wallets, is often unfounded, say many, but still a part of the puzzle. “People often get it wrong,” said Mullin, noting the changes in his own neighborhood as families age, children leave, and older parents stay.

“Having a family is a good thing,” said Mullin. “It sounds funny to have to defend it.”

But there is no getting around that more kids in the schools strain the system.

“We are experiencing an enrollment uptake in the system,” said Xuan Kong, chairman of the Acton Public Schools Committee. “Last year we were projected to have 270 new students in kindergarten, but ended up having 330.” Kong said the town is planning on having the same number this year, although projected enrollment is indicating slightly less.

See APS Enrollment File HERE

Although enrollment in other grades is going down, in some cases, the increase is notable. “The kindergarten is the driving force for our student population,” said Kong, as it is assumed those students will eventually graduate from the regional high school. What that breaks down to in numbers is needing more teachers to keep class sizes to approximately 23 students. But space is a vexing issue.

“On all fronts, this stresses the school system,” said Kong. “Obviously, we can hire a teacher, which is a big commitment, but one that is relatively easy to handle. The bigger challenge is a classroom.” The town cannot add a classroom to an existing building without updating to code throughout. So a modular classroom can be added, but it is not the best long-term solution.

“The school will roll out a welcome mat to any and all Acton families,” said Kong, “but we cannot handle this rate [of growth].”

Different Approaches to Assessing Development's Impact

Brandy Brandon is assembling an impact analysis of development for the town using both a “top-down and bottom-up” view. Speaking as a resident, not a FinCom member, Brandon remarked that there are a couple of ways of looking at development. One is to figure out how many more teachers or police officers might be needed in town as it grows. The other approach looks at demographics including the average household, its tax bill, and how new developments with more people might lessen the property value in town, burdening current residents.

There is, Brandon said, an infinite queue of projects in town waiting to absorb the town's cash, and if the main source of revenue is residential taxes, not commercial taxes, residents have to prioritize and agree. Who wants the sidewalks that will cost the town money? Should the town be required to pay for what possibly only a handful of residents want? As for the 40B units, Brandon said people should “live where they can afford. They are putting horrible distortions in the market,” he said of 40Bs. “We have gone overboard.”

Only half-joking, Brandon said Acton should be “zoning and doing everything to attract aging billionaires with no kids to build McMansions on 5-acre lots.”

Nancy Tavernier, chairwoman of the Acton Community Housing Corporation, which helps first-time home buyers purchase a private home, disagrees, saying affordable housing units help people who want to buy a home. Tavernier says there is always a need for places that people can afford.

Tavernier's group helps buyers purchase 40B affordable housing homes and assists developers who have chosen to designate some developed land for affordable housing units with the process. On average, the town gains two to six affordable units annually. “While people think we are overrun with 40Bs, we are not,” she said.

A town's goal is to have about 10 percent of available housing units as affordable, Tavernier said. Acton stands at almost 7 percent of affordable housing, but a significant portion of that is from including the 300 rental units in the Avalon complex in Nagog Park.

Tavernier said the ACHC has areas designated as better for growth, but it is strictly up to developers to choose if they include affordable housing. “One of the myths of affordable housing is that it brings in more children,” she said. The typical household in an affordable housing unit is three, she said, noting that existing houses that are sold to families also bring in more children.

Residents Can Feel Changes

Kong, speaking as a resident, said it is tough to tell if Acton's increasing traffic and higher demand on the infrastructure is different from what any other town is experiencing. What he does know is the national and local economic challenges are making things that much harder for residents. “I would prefer to see development at a pace that is more sustainable,” Kong said. “People come here for the schools and for the quality of life. I think the challenge for Acton is that the revenue base is primarily from residents not businesses.”

That balance is not likely to change. Anyone who expects commercial taxes to outweigh residential taxes is dreaming, said Tindal. “The situation is far more complicated and complex,” he said.

“Needs will change,” said Mullin, “but zoning should be properly planned for development. The whole notion that you are born in a house and you will live in that house until you die is no longer. We are a mobile society.”

A proper mix of residential, commercial, and industrial development is key to planning for a future, officials said, and the town is currently working on a master plan to address those issues. Town Planner Roland Bartl was unavailable for comment.

“In terms of development, we have to put the whole matrix together,” said Tindal. “And have a healthy respect for the ambiguity built into the situation.”

School Enrollment:

School Committee:


Affordable Housing Plan:

1998 Master Plan:

APSEnrollment.pdf60.21 KB


Viablity of the Villages & Design

Thank you, Julia...for such a timely and insightful article.

I believe that there are two key decisions for voters to make in the short term.

1. Do they want Acton to be:

- more urban
- less urban

Do they want to make money, or just spend money? Do they want to be proactive or reactive? Do they want to invest in "the country look and feel" or do they want to spend our fortunes building more infrastructure for development that doesn't pay for itself?

2. Do they want the government to "assist" in creating additional low cost housing for purchase and/or for rent? or "fight it"? and what is the cost/benefit for each choice?

In the upcoming Community Planning initiative (the new Master Plan), residents will be presented with housing "inventory" and "demographic" information about current residents. The demographic information will provide insite into "who we are" from a statistical perspective...# of people, levels of income, ages, etc.

I encourage residents to compare what Acton has already done for low-income folks, in terms of housing, and what the rest of the region has done. And I encourage residents to think about where we spend our "discretionary income"...whether we spend it on basic needs, or whether we spend it on things we don't need.

Please think about whether we are doing a good job at taking care of the people that we already have? If not, do we want more people to come, so that we can fail with more people? Or do we wnat to focus on the basics and take care of the folks we have first, before we start trying to solve the world's problems.

I don't have the answers yet, but I wonder if we have already done our share in terms of housing, and whether we need to turn to other things that our local government does not do for folks that most affluent towns do. We don't have a local medical clinic, for example. I heard one person ask another..."where's your homeless shelter". The response, "the jail". The other person said, "oh my poverty a crime in Acton?" I had to shrug and walk away. What could I say?

We can't focus on the basics, if we are spending our tax dollars in areas where they aren't "needed", or where they serve the very few.

My early calculations are that Acton has between 15-23% "affordable housing units" already, when you count the "market rate" affordables (not counted in 40B's very restrictive definition). Have other towns done so well? Do we want to use local resources to solve regional problems? or push back on the region to solve its own problems?

Also, I encourage folks to read up on "macro-economics" and learn a bit about how "constricting the supply" of housing in a desirable town can help housing values rebound (all other things equal, of course), and consider how much you'd make if we all collectively bought the land instead of suffering development that "costs us". When we are making money "personally", it's easier to think in terms of investing in the community.

Tindal hit is right on the head. Buy strategically. What's more strategic than land in Acton? Oh in the villages.

Not only could we "make" money...we could save even more in the long run by avoiding stratigically costly we can do more of what we want...affordably.

Let's ween ourselves off of "new growth cash" and be more strategic.

First step...let's finish that impact analysis. Oh, and ask the residents what they can afford. Only then, when we know what the budget is...what people can afford, then we can use the impact analysis to make strategic decisions.

Mullin said..."We need to be supportive of commercial development in the proper places"...proper places. If we buy it, then we decide. We decide where "proper places" are.

How about a riverfront park? How about village lots where the Town can decide where to put stores...what kinds of stores... what kind of housing?

How about it? Make money? Have more control over design? Stop chasing our tails and spend our resources more wisely...?

Sounds good to me! If I'm missing something, please let me sounds like we're on the verge of something very exciting...if we play our cards right...

Terra Friedrichs
+1 978 808 7173