Monday, February 06, 2006

Selectmen Issue DPW RFP

The Board of Selectmen this evening voted to issue an RFP for the possible development of the DPW Yard. The action comes some 10 months after a Milton resident presented the Board with a conceptual proposal for a commercial project. The proposal was responsive to the Community Development Plan’s recommendation to rezone the DPW Yard from residential to commercial in an effort to diversify the town’s tax base.

The RFP solicits a variety of ideas, from commercial and residential to mixed use. This leaves for the evaluation stage the consideration of what type of development, if any, best serves the needs of Milton. The upcoming budget season, culminating in the Annual Town Meeting, will likely highlight the Town’s serious need for additional revenue and our almost total reliance on the residential homeowner for such new revenue.

We’ve long known that the lack of a commercial tax base places an extra burden on the homeowner. In the not too distant future, this community will face the choice between substantial increases in single-family tax bills or substantial reductions in services. While commercial development cannot aid us in completely averting this hard choice, the Town’s decades long aversion to commercial development has made it a more stark one. The question now is will we once again ignore the opportunity for some mitigation just as our opportunities to do so are dwindling, absent a whole scale rezoning of the town, and just as the problem is reaching serious proportions?

For the year 2005, the last year with full statewide data, only 9 communities in the state had a lower percent of their total real estate valuation from commercial, industrial and personal property (CIP). Those communities were Alford, Boxford, Carlisle, Chilmark, Dover, Aquinnah, Gosnold, Shutesbury, and West Newbury. All of these communities had less than Milton’s 3% from CIP (For 2006 Milton’s percentage has slipped to 2.9%) In 1982 Milton’s CIP percentage was 8.6%. Much of the decrease in this number is the result of the phenomenal rise in home values across the state during the past two decades. But the statewide decrease during that period has been 48% while Milton’s CIP has declined 86%. The difference is a worsening situation with respect to the diversification of our tax base.

The revenue we derive from CIP taxes is slightly less bleak due largely to the fact that we have a split tax rate with a significantly higher rate for commercial, industrial and personal property. In this fiscal year, 5.6% of our tax levy revenue came from CIP. In 1986 it was 6.2%. This 11% decline in the last 20 years is despite the fact that we went to a split rate for taxes in 1988, otherwise the reduction would have been even more pronounced.

Given this reality, it is difficult to understand some of the discussion with regard to Town Planning. At the January 9th meeting of the Board of Selectmen, one of the Selectmen stated that a residential development for the DPW Yard for residents 55+ would diversify the tax base. Such age restricted residential housing is preferable to single family homes because the lack of children normally associated with it means a net gain in taxes because there are no school costs associated with the residents who move in. But this is not a diversification of the tax base. It is residential development. It increases our dependence on the residential tax base. During the same period when we’ve done little to foster commercial development we’ve continued to build a couple of dozen single family homes a year; we’ve constructed Fuller I and recently Fuller II; and we allowed by special permit the construction of the Wharf Street development on commercially zoned land. Of course we called it mixed use because it was planned to have a restaurant. We’re still waiting for the restaurant.

Recently, at an unusual morning meeting of the Planning Board, owners of property in the Central Avenue business district shared some initial plans for the Hendries Plant, the Fallon Ambulance site, and the Central Avenue parking lot. The Planning Board has been working on a Zoning article to encourage mixed use development at these sites, including a substantial component of commercial businesses. In every case the proposals contained a minimal commercial component and requests for a larger number of residential units than was contemplated by the planning board. The Hendries site is a good example. The concept is for an approximately 44,000 square foot project with 3000 square feet of commercial space, well below the 25% the Planning Board hoped to encourage. At these low levels, the projects will contribute substantially to increasing our dependence on the residential property owner. I hope the Planning Board will not hastily capitulate to what may be the most profitable alternative for the owners, but not the best solution for the Town.

There seems to be this notion that as long as we can bring in more people to share the tax burden, provided they are childless, we can enjoy more revenue and somehow not worry about the diversification of our tax base. But there is a day of reckoning with that shortsighted thinking. Soon our Town will be essentially built out. At that point the mix of tax sources will be set, and more or less must be lived with far into the future. Do you want the residential burden to be 96%, 97%, or more? Or would it be better for the town to work to get the residential share down to the low 90’s or lower? The development of the Central Avenue business district needs to be mixed use to make development viable. But there is no current plan to make the residential portion age restricted, which means it will be a net loss in terms of revenue even with a substantial commercial presence. To use the DPW Yard, perhaps the largest remaining piece of land in the town suitable for commercial development, for even more residential development, strikes me as sticking our heads in the sand.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Tom Callahan said...

Phil,
You make a persuasive argument and I agree that we should aggressively pursue a significant commercial component for development at the DPW yard, the Hendries building, Fallon ambulance, and the Mass Highway site near the expressway.

However, I must point out that we need to also pursue housing opportunities for moderate income first time homebuyers in town. You now need an income of much more than $100,000 to buy a home in Milton and it is costing us dearly. Many of our teachers, for instance, cannot even dream of being able to live in our town. Many children of long-time residents are priced out.

I believe we can, and must, do both. We need a supermarket, restaurants, and other commercial development but we can make sure those commercial developments are successful by bringing in moderate income homebuyers who will add vitality to our commercial districts. Just think of the Central Ave district with a couple of restaurants and other businesses and dozens of new homeowners who can patronize the local businesses - new and old.

Thank you for your thoughtful and timely commentary on town politics.

8:43 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Tom,

Thank you for your comments.

I couldn't agree with you more and I appreciate you reminding me of an issue I forgot to comment on.

One of the targets the Planning Board will include in an Overlay Zoning article for Central Avenue will be a minimum target for affordable housing. My understanding is that the targets currently under consideration are 10% or less. I think we should shoot for more.

Additional affordable housing should be encouraged in any re-development of the Milton Village area.

But other than that, I believe the need for commercial development is so dire that the DPW Yard should be devoted to that, at least substantially.

8:54 PM  

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