Note: The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect the opinion of any town board on which I serve.
The planning board held an informative discussion of senior residential development (SRD) on September 30, 2014 (recorded by WestCAT, viewable online here). The first 45 minutes features a discussion of why some recent developments have prompted significant opposition from residents. Planning Board member Steve Rafsky repeatedly pressed residents to explain their overall concerns and to avoid the specifics of developments such as the Harlequin Stables project at 215 High Street.
Senior Residential Development is authorized in any residentially-zoned part of Westwood but subject to special permitting requirements spelled out in Section 8.4 of the Zoning Bylaw and governed by these rules. The bylaw provides the "ground rules" and process by which a developer (on behalf of a property owner) can propose to build a senior housing development in Westwood.
A pattern of concerns emerged from resident comments at the hearing. Seniors are not the issue; no one is concerned that it would be somehow negative to have senior citizens living in a neighborhood. The fundamental issue is that of multifamily housing.
My interpretation of the concerns I heard from watching the video of the meeting is that residents are upset about how any development of multi-family units will disrupt the existing neighborhood. As a homeowner in a great neighborhood myself, I know that when people talk about the character of the neigborhood, this is what we mean. We know our neighbors. The idea of a big, ugly structure full of people we don't know, upsets our assumptions and is a change we did not bargain for when we bought our property.
I think many people are afraid to say what they really think and this leads to multiple hearings and many attempts to satisfy residents on the details of the specific development. It is inevitable that once the complaints have been addressed, residents will come up with new complaints because, bottom line, they don't want ANY development in their neighborhood.
I understand the feeling--why is it MY responsibility to bear the burden imposed by what somebody else thinks is a good idea? It doesn't matter to me that the apartments or condos will be occupied by seniors--the point is that I am afraid that what was once a quiet street of families we know...of kids riding bikes and running through yards..will be forever disrupted and changed by the imposition of a commercial structure in the middle of all of that. Whether it is the small lots and quiet capes of a back street in Islington or the big lots and sprawling estates off Summer Street, ANY multi-unit structure is an unwelcome disruption. There is no credible mitigation that can make it better. And so, with this absolutist position, we are left to contest and oppose development based on the details: The traffic will be bad. The aesthetics will not fit the neighborhood. The density will result in additional children being added to the school system which will result in larger classrooms and more expense.
It should not be baffling to the Planning Board why these developments engender urgent doomsday email campaigns to turn out the abutters for hearings. Just because the development will be for seniors or have lots of protections, etc., it does not change the fact that it is like dropping a community bomb on the neighborhood.
I started writing this post over a month ago, but I was hesitant to post it because it is easy to be critical of "NIMBYism," when you ask yourself--what if it were MY backyard?. Since then, I saw another public hearing...take a look about 35 minutes in to this video to see the map a resident prepared to illustrate the true impact of the senior housing as multiple buildings are spread out right up to the property lines on all sides.
Planning Board Meeting - December 2, 2014 from WestCAT on Vimeo.
Nobody wants an apartment building going up in their backyard. It's really that simple. The homes affected most directly are not great mansions with horse pastures that would suddenly be blighted; they are above average properties with families who will see what is now a treeline become the back windows of apartments.
OK, so then what? Personally, I want to see more options for seniors. I want to see more rental options and better quality affordable housing in Westwood. I believe this housing should be a part of the community, not built off in some place we find that doesn't abut anyone who cares. My view is probably more activist than many: I think we need to do more. But the process we have in place now seems to doom that to failure.
I think we could do two things:
1. Re-open the discussion on alternative housing in Westwood to really understand what we want as a community. Do we want to find a way to provide options for seniors or not? How important is it that we design these options so they only benefit current Westwood residents? What is the real market like--are there local seniors who would buy/rent units? Can they afford them? What role does affordable and low income housing play in this: can we continue, with a straight face, to say that we satisfy any responsibility to those who cannot afford to buy in Westwood, when we facilitate the development of $1900/month one-bedroom apartments isolated from the rest of the town?
2. Revisit the zoning bylaw. Is it really the best approach to set up a special permit process for every potential development and then consider the unique characteristics each time? As it stands now, there is no predictibility; any property owner has the right to start the ball rolling on a development; then residents have to show up at hearings and make sure it "doesn't go too far." Why not create overlay districts to identify potential priority sites for such development? And please, can we agree that 55+ is NOT senior housing? The average 55-year old in Westwood could easily have kids in middle school and be decades away from retirement.
If residents decide there is merit to allowing the development of multifamily housing to serve our seniors and perhaps some lower income families, then let's assess the zoning tools we have available and set up a predictable and manageable process that is based on some general principles around which we can develop a consensus. Let's exclude long-standingly rural neighborhoods, but map out some places in town where we agree that as long as developers follow the guidelines, we will welcome the development. Maybe it is naive to think a propsective discussion could head off problems five years from now when a developer actually shows up with a plan, but why not at least try to be proactive? If we don't want any of this, then let's be upfront about that and tell people to go live in Norwood or Dedham if they are unwilling or unable to buy a house in Westwood.