Thursday, November 10, 2005

The CAC Decision on the DPW RFP

“Consideration has been given to the possible advantages of encouraging industrial development of a restricted character in certain sections of the community. It is recognized that increased costs in the operation of the Town, together with the improvement of highway and transit connections to the center of Boston, may bring about pressure for the expansion of areas available for commercial or industrial development. The argument that such changes would result in a net increase in municipal revenues is not borne out by studies of the ratio of potential tax income to the increased costs that would probably be required of the community.”

This quote is taken from the summary report of Milton’s original Master Plan of 1958. It exemplifies the attitudes and prejudices toward commercial development that have characterized this community for many years. It is hard to imagine how the blanket statement that commercial and industrial development produce no net revenue could even find its way into such a document. Apparently residential development was seen as completely self-sustaining. In the four decades since this Master Plan was written the Town of Milton has added 1861 units of housing, the majority single family detached housing. No serious planning professional would fail to recognize that this type of development returns the lowest net revenue, in fact often represents negative net revenue to a community, while many forms of commercial and industrial development produce positive net revenue. In 1957, 4.4% of the towns total real estate assessment was commercial or industrial. In FY 2005, these two categories of assessment represent 2.3% of the total. Less than 1% of Milton’s land today is zoned for business development.

Last Thursday evening the Citizens Advisory Committee, appointed by the Board of Selectmen to help draft an RFP, went beyond their appointed task and voted to recommend that no RFP be issued. Having attended the meetings it is clear to me that anti-development sentiment figured heavily in the decision. Two events that provide bookends to the process are illustrative. At the very first meeting, during the very first discussion following the Chairman’s opening remarks, a committee member stated that the RFP should be thrown out and completely re-written. He noted that he had speed read the document in the minutes leading up to the start of the meeting. And at last Thursday’s meeting, when the Chairman proposed that the committee forward its specific concerns about the RFP along with its overall recommendation, one committee member objected, saying that the Selectmen might address the concerns and think it was OK to issue the RFP. Does it sound like the objective was to improve the RFP, or roadblock its issuance?

Now it is true that some members of the Committee voiced concerns and they need to be addressed in some sensible way. Since some of these have been picked up by opponents as well, let’s look at them one at a time.

Community Development Plan

Shortly after Milton LLC made it’s conceptual proposal to develop the DPW Yard, the organized opposition cited the Community Development Plan, cherry picking its contents, in support of not developing the yard. Then some people actually read the plan, and pointed out that it specifically called for increasing tax base diversity, making as one of its main recommendations the re-zoning of the Reedsdale Rd/Randolph Ave area, including the DPW Yard, for commercial development. So the strategy changed and now the opponents are trying to minimize or distort the Community Development Plan. One abutter claimed it wasn’t “official”. The plan was developed under the guidelines proposed, in conjunction with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and with the participation of the Milton Planning Board. The Planning Board has embraced the plan and the state has accepted it as Milton’s official Community Development Plan.

Other abutters in letters to the Milton Times claim the CDP is about housing and cannot be used to justify commercial development, selectively quoting from the Governor’s Executive Order. Here’s what they didn’t quote from the Executive Order: “A "community development plan" is a comprehensive, strategic plan for the future development of a city or town, and shall include, among other things, plans for:

. where the community will create new housing opportunities;

. where it will target commercial or industrial economic development (if any);

. how it will improve its transportation infrastructure (or how its existing
infrastructure will handle any growth); and

. where and how it will preserve open space.”

The booklet put out by the state to assist communities in completing this plan is called: “Building Vibrant Communities: Linking Housing, Economic Development,Transportation and the Environment.” These four elements form a large part of the elements found in a Master Plan, as set out in Massachusetts law. Many of the communities in the state have completed CDPs and they can be found on the website of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. They all deal with economic development. Each community will have a different balance between the various elements of the plan. In Milton, it was clearly recognized that one of the “links” in building this vibrant community was a lack of commercial development, and specific remedies were suggested, including the re-zoning of the DPW Yard for commercial development. Similar kinds of recommendations can be found in other CDP’s, clearly rebutting claims that its purpose is only for Housing development. Milton’s CDP goes a long way toward what the Governor described it as being: “a comprehensive, strategic plan for the future development.” Some people wish to ignore it because they don’t like its conclusions, instead advocating more planning. But if we’re going to ignore planning once we’ve done it, what’s the sense of doing more? Any RFP for the DPW Yard should reflect the recommendations of this plan.

Feasibility Study

This study was suggested by a committee member who works for an employer that requires these as part of ongoing development of land owned by a state authority. While it may prove helpful to them, it is not a necessary part of community development. A feasibility study answers the question, “If I build it, will they come”. The most interested party to this question is the developer, who is obviously not interested in a failed project. Developers do feasibility studies before making proposals. There is no reason we cannot request an overview of the feasibility studies for any developer who responds to the RFP. These would be studies based on specific proposals that someone is actually prepared to build.

Highest and Best Use Study

This is also not a planning tool, but a real estate term. Such an analysis is done as part of a real estate appraisal. The first of two recommended appraisals has been done. The second appraisal will contain this type of analysis.

Impact Study

The proposer of this study noted that this would primarily involve traffic impact. This could be addressed through a traffic study that could either be requested with all initial proposals or of the winning proposal. In any event, nothing would be built without a comprehensive traffic study.

Land Use Study/Master Plan

As I pointed out before, the four elements of the Community Development Plan are also found in Master Plans. A Land Use Plan is one of the components not covered. But Milton is a nearly built out community. We’re talking about the disposition of a single location in conformity with an existing CDP Plan. If the town feels there is a need for comprehensive, town-wide planning then we can do that. The last time we updated our Master Plan in the 1970’s it took 4 years. And it is very expensive. We don’t need to complete such a plan to decide how to proceed at the DPW yard. After all, no one insisted on a Master Plan when we changed the zoning on Wharf street from commercial to residential to permit the building of a condominium complex. The office building at 2 Granite Avenue was done without such a request. No call for an updated Master Plan greeted the most recent additions to Fuller Village, or Curry College, or Milton Hospital. Most certainly no request for a Master Plan was heard when the residential development on Highland Street was announced. Forgive me for suspecting that the call for a Master Plan update has less to do with a yearning for planning, and more to do with tactics to prevent the development of the DPW Yard.

I don’t see how any of these issues individually or collectively can justify a recommendation to not seek proposals for the town yard. The process itself will address most of these as it goes forward. We can now only wait to see how the Board of Selectmen will react to whatever the final report of the CAC says. Perhaps we should let them know how we feel about the process and the issuance of an RFP. So far it seems those who scream loudest are those who are heard.


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