At a recent joint Select Board – Finance Committee meeting, the conversation veered toward a discussion about 'growth' as a means to increase tax revenue needed to meet our Town’s aspirations for new buildings, such as a library and a community center, and improved services. It’s a tricky topic and one that often creates a deep divide in Town discourse.
Some fear that limiting growth means we won’t be able to meet our town’s fiscal needs without overburdening our existing property tax payers. Others are concerned that too much development will harm our natural environment. There is a perception too, that Williamstown is not welcoming to developers and that our zoning bylaws, in fact, discourage developers from undertaking projects here.
Is there a way that we can promote the right type of development, that increases the Town’s coffers but preserves (perhaps even enhances) our valuable natural environment?
A study by Smart Growth America examined development patterns in 17 cities. Yes, cities not rural towns, but many of the same issues can be seen. The study found that smart growth development, such as mixed-use development, would “save about 38 percent on infrastructure costs like roads and sewers when serving compact development instead of large-lot subdivisions.” (Source: Smart Growth America, Building Better Budgets, May 2013)
When there is a decreased need to design, construct, and maintain infrastructure for roads, water and wastewater, electric, telecommunications, and other utilities, savings are realized.
Extensive research has found that compact development patterns, higher density, and mixed uses (retail and housing in the same zone, for example), can reduce the costs of providing public infrastructure and delivering services. Many communities with predominantly low-density, single-use development patterns (like Williamstown) are financially burdened by the cost of maintaining, and ultimately replacing, their existing infrastructure given the relatively low tax revenue this development generates.
A study in Fairfax County, Virginia, considered tax revenue per acre. When we look at the revenue generated per unit of land rather than per household or building as is typically done, we see that land devoted to single family development generates the least revenue compared to other building types and uses.
Property Tax Revenue per Acre for Selected Land Uses, Fairfax County, Virginia
Land Use Total Property Tax Revenue per Acre
High rise condo $1,307,753
Mid-rise condos $357,999
Low-rise condos $188,878
Hotel with commercial $110,884
High-rise apartments $60,798
Low-rise office $43,465
Drug stores $37,888
Motel with restaurant $36,040
Mid-rise apartments $29,771
Garden apartments $28,140
Convenience retail $26,395
Department store $26,197
Service station $25,692
Discount store $21,730
Retirement homes $16,131
Low-rise apartments $12,550
Source: Adapted from McKeeman (2012), Land Use, Municipal Revenue Impacts, and Land Consumption, Virginia Tech www.baconsrebellion.com/PDFs/2013/02/McKeeman.pdf
In recent years, the Planning Board has recommended, and Town Meeting has adopted, several zoning changes that encourage higher density (think - maximum tax revenue/unit of land) development. These changes include:
Allowing detached Accessory Dwelling Units by right in General Residence and Rural Residence 2.
Allowing single family homes to be converted to 2-family homes by right
Reducing the lot frontage in General Residence zone to encourage greater housing density in the central part of Williamstown
Allowing 3-unit housing by right in General Residence and reduced lot size required from 30,000 s.f to 10,000 s.f
Allowing 4-unit housing by right in General Residence and reduced lot size required from 40,000 s.f. to 10,000 s.f.
These changes allow for ‘infill’ type of development. Adding residential units to our existing streets and infrastructure is the one of the most cost effective ways to encourage growth in our community. Furthermore, allowing 'by right' development helps make our town more attractive (and less risky) to those considering building here. We, the residents, set the rules up front (in our bylaws) on the building parameters we deem appropriate so there are no surprises or unexpected costs or hurdles for potential builders.
Currently the Planning Board is working on a zoning bylaw that would allow for small lot residential subdivisions, typically called a cottage housing development. On minimum lot size of 14,000 sq.ft., the legislation would allow 4 small houses to be built, and on larger lots - up to 12 small houses clustered together. The minimum land area required per unit would be 3500 sq.ft. compared to the 10,000 sq.ft. required for a typical Williamstown residential subdivision. The Board is still working out the details. (A draft of the bylaw can be found here.)
Our work encouraging smart growth development isn’t complete; but Williamstown has made significant steps to encourage development of a variety of housing development types. Moving away from large lot single family development helps to:
diversify our housing stock,
provide housing that better meets the needs of our community,
protects are natural resources and
supports our fiscal responsibilities (higher tax revenue/acre with lower infrastructure costs).
For more insight into this topic, I recommend reading, Building Better Budgets: A National Examination of the Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth.