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It’s not that simple: Low density development, an idea whose time may have passed?

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By Sunday, Jul 21, 2019 News 3

Every other week we host a show in Great Barrington, Mass., on WSBS-AM called “It’s Not That Simple” where we focus on issues being talked about in Great Barrington. All of us wonder sometimes, “why don’t they just fix the problem, the solution is obvious.” But if the solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems.

In each show we explore the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information that explains why, It’s Not That Simple.

Although we both serve on elected town boards, we are not speaking for those boards or for the town in any capacity. We are only representing ourselves on the radio show and in this column.

Click here to listen to this week’s show.

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On our last show we definitely bit off more than we could chew. We wanted to explain our land use patterns and speak to changes that we can make to increase efficiency and economy. As it turns out, low density development is a dense subject. How we use our limited land has an impact on our economic development potential, the cost of housing, tourism, and even climate change.

Where to begin? Let’s start with understanding land use patterns since that is what defines cities and towns. In Great Barrington, our land use is decidedly low density. We house 160 people per square mile. Compare that to Hudson, N.Y., which has a similar population but 18 times as many people per square mile. We also know much of our open space is protected: state and federal land, parks, privately owned protected land, and agricultural land.  

Having open space is great but people have to live somewhere, so not all of GB can be open space. Some of that land has to be developed into housing and business uses so that we can live and work here. That may not seem like a problem for a town of fewer than 7,000 people that sits on 45.8 square miles of land, but because of the restrictions just mentioned, land already developed, conservation restrictions, and topographical limitations, GB has only 4.4 square miles of developable land left. We are getting close to our development limit so we need to consider and plan how we are going to use the land that is left. 

If developable land is scarce, we must be using it carefully, right? Maybe not.

More and more we are choosing to live in houses on large lots. According to the Great Barrington Master Plan, in the 20 years between 1985 and 2005 the average size of a lot used for development increased from just over 4 acres to 7 acres. At the same time, the average number of people living in each home is decreasing. But when you look at our oldest neighborhoods, downtown GB and Housatonic, you can see that it hasn’t always been that way.

How did we get here? Typically, before cars were common, agricultural communities were spread out. When industry provides most of the jobs, development is denser so that people can live near jobs and shop near home. This was the case in Great Barrington’s downtown residential districts along Church, Dresser and Pleasant Streets and into the East Mountain neighborhood along East Street. Housatonic is also a great example of the dense land use pattern created during the town’s industrial heyday. In these locations one would find mostly small lots with one and sometimes two residences. 

That began to change in the 1930’s, nationally and here in GB, as development patterns turned to a suburban model. This trend was heavily influenced by the Federal Housing Administration, established in 1934, which encouraged single family housing and guaranteed mortgages, a first in the United States. Great Barrington’s first zoning laws were approved at this same time and were continually changing and encouraging the creation of neighborhoods with increased lot size requirements. From 1932, where lots sizes were required to be 1/4 acre, zoning changes increased lot size minimums to 2 acres by 1974. An example of the resulting suburban development pattern can be seen along Route 41 between GB and Housatonic.

By 1997 the town seems to have noticed a problem with the low density development it had been promoting for some 60 years. We start to see the introduction of more dense uses into the zoning bylaw such as Mixed Use (which allows residential and business uses on the same lot), Multi-Family Housing (3 or more units on a lot), Accessory Dwelling Units and Flag Lots (development on land with no or limited road frontage).

What is wrong with low density development? The first problem most of us think of is sprawl. Farmland and other open space gets gobbled up to create houses. Food is no longer local or, when it is, it’s expensive. Scenic views, enjoyed not just by those of us who live here, but by visitors who support our tourist economy, are threatened.

But there are other drawbacks. Scarce land is more expensive, making housing or commercial development more expensive. Squeezing out commercial development means fewer jobs. Increasing land costs, and dividing the cost of land by one family rather than two or more, makes housing expensive. We have seen here in Great Barrington that many people who work here can no longer afford to live here. Single family housing is also a strain on natural resources when building and heating homes. Transportation needs of a spread-out community put additional demands on fossil fuels. 

By allowing more uses on fewer acres of land we can support more people on the same limited footprint while lowering housing costs and business start-up costs. Recently we have seen this happen in our downtown area where over one hundred million dollars has been or is about to be invested to create at least 90 units of housing walkable to downtown, jobs, and a dozen or more retail spaces. All of this on land that had already been developed, without using any of our open spaces.

Please tell us your thoughts on the development patterns of Great Barrington: historical, current and future. Should we do more to preserve our cherished open spaces? Should we attempt to introduce more people to the downtown and enhance its economic and cultural vitality? Or is the town fine just the way its?

Please write us at NotThatSimple528@gmail.com and let us know.

Our next show on WSBS-AM will be on Friday, Aug. 2, at 9:05 a.m.

3 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Steve Farina says:

    We could annex Sheffield and Egremont. That would give us more land and solve the school district consolidation question.
    Seriously? Didn’t we just vote to eliminate half the potential housing units on a corner of South Main St by amending the zoning bylaws just to save a tree (as if it is the last tree on earth – after we have decimated thousands to create our current “development” condition).
    Maybe a lititle less “planning” (government intervention and regulation) would allow the market to dictate better solutions.

    1. Ed Abrahams says:

      The zoning change you are referring to was not in response to the potential loss of the elm tree on Mahaiwe Street and it’s implementation won’t save the tree. However, you are correct that it reduces allowable density there.

      As stated in our column, more density has many benefits. But as with almost everything else, there are costs that go with benefits. In this case, higher density may mean people who bought homes in quiet neighborhoods feel like they are living in cities.

      Does the benefit outweigh the cost? What is the right amount of density? There’s no one answer that will please everyone. What is the best way to decide? You suggest letting the free market decide. That’s one way. Planning is another. I’m not saying which way is best but I suspect our town would look very different without zoning.

      I do take issue with one point you make, that planning is the result of “government intervention.” Government in New England is every individual voter who attends Town Meeting. No board or elected official can make laws here. Zoning bylaws require a 2/3 majority. So your argument is not with some group of bureaucrats or elected officials but with a super-majority of your fellow GB citizens.

  2. Richard Allen says:

    Thanks, Ed and Pedro for an intelligent discussion of a nagging problem.

    Steve Farina makes a good point. Free of regulation, land use develops in response to citizen demand. Developers – despised by a certain element of the citizenry – don’t force anything down people’s throats. They build what people want to buy. Regulation invariably limits choice, usually to enforce other property owners’ selfishness, disguised as protecting the environment or controlling traffic or some other abstract goal.

    So taking a more rational and more flexible approach to density restrictions would be great. Ed and Petro have started a discussion that I hope will bear fruit.

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