Dear Town of Manchester,

If you could turn back the hands of time and do things differently with regards to the 40B housing development being proposed in town, would you have done things differently?  I ask you to dig down deep inside and be very honest with yourselves, “Would you have allowed the equivalent of four 30-unit apartment buildings to be built scattered around town on different sites so as to dispel the need for this 40B project?

That is exactly what is required to create the equivalent number of affordable housing units to make Manchester immune to such a proposal. 

Having spent many years in the zoning and planning world of town, I believe the answer to this question is a resounding “No”.  When people try to build just one extra dwelling on their land where it is legally allowed, they get fought tooth-and-claw by neighbors to resist it.

So why does the state have a law forcing our hand if we don’t have enough affordable housing in town? They do so because our town, like most other towns, has resisted development in general, and has turned a blind eye toward developing varied forms of housing for varied income levels.  Even if we didn’t have our quota of affordable housing, if we had actually facilitated new housing or if we had changed our zoning to encourage them, we could be dealt with differently by the state.  As it is, we have a plan but have not realized new affordable housing in town.  To a certain degree, it is human nature to resist change, but that attitude is one which ignores a greater public responsibility.  We are a “Commonwealth” after all and are obliged to do our fair share to tackle problems throughout the state as they exist.  As our Town’s attorney recently said, “The 40B process punishes towns” for not providing their share of the housing the state sees that we need.

Instead of working in a nuanced manner, encouraging innovative zoning and planning tools, bylaws and regulations, we shun them.  We have used zoning as a tool to deter development that could have benefited us. But wise zoning and planning is the very key to satisfying our housing needs and being a responsible team player within the state.  Let’s face it, most of us are quite happy in our own little houses on our own little streets and don’t want to go out of our way to allow for new types of housing anywhere, even when we have insightful planners in our town government and a very recent, well developed, Master Plan to guide our path.  If push comes to shove, some people might be quite happy to see elderly housing developed, possibly because most of us are headed that way ourselves, but I would suggest very few of us would welcome small dispersed multifamily buildings, or even two-family buildings, scattered throughout town to provide housing for our own kids, our parents, our policemen, school teachers and our town employees.  Very few of us would welcome even one small apartment building in their neighborhood even if a large site existed.  That has been our history.

Where is our sense of regional responsibility, our own sense of morals and ethics? How many of you have reflected on the immense wealth we enjoy by having a heavy-rail rapid transit line in town?  The state went to enormous expense to build the commuter rail line here and the towns along the path of the MBTA share a certain degree of regional responsibility to allow for greater housing density to be built in relation to the rapid transit line.  This is probably the most powerful tool we have to counteract the destructive effects of urban sprawl.  Urban sprawl is why a large percentage of commuters spend two to three hours a day in their cars going to work.  I doubt I need remind you that this means we pollute the air that much more, we spend that much more money on expensive daycare, we see our spouses and families that much less, and we get that much less done in our own personal lives.  Urban sprawl is a very destructive reality for us and for society.  If all of the towns and cities in Boston’s greater metropolitan area were successful in resisting growth of any kind no matter how well designed and nuanced, this destructive NIMBYism would create even greater, out of control, urban sprawl.  Our green lands, forests and watersheds would be even more decimated and threatened everywhere in the state.

Why are our woods so incredibly more precious than any others?  I do love and cherish our green spaces and woodlands, as we all do.  Of this there is no doubt, and it is a justified sentiment.  But why can’t we see the bigger picture as to the land development role and responsibility our town has as being a member of the “common wealth” in order to help other towns not see their own forests decimated, their own wetlands threatened?

What has all our ardent protectionism done for us?  We have a “Limited Commercial District” who’s name itself tells a story in contradictions.  Hardly any towns have a ‘limited’ commercial district, they just have a regular one. Ours was created to restrict development so much that hardly anything can be built there and what has been built is extremely unfortunate. 1 Beaver Dam Road, the big beefy buildings just to the north of the MAC, are an immensely missed opportunity.  The big boxy structures occupy twice the amount of land than the office building does in Beverly on the north side of Rte. 128 just west of Rte. #1A with a big sign on it saying, “Wells Fargo Investors”.  Perhaps you’ve noticed it?  That simple four-story building produces fully one third of a million dollars in tax revenue annually.  We could have had twice that revenue coming in, almost $700,000 in revenue, if we were a bit wiser instead of blindly protectionist. Unfortunately, our buildings on Beaver Dam Rd. generate only $28,000 annually. The uses within these contractor depot buildings are also much more questionable with regard to pollution threats to our watershed than a couple of office buildings would have been. They are also so deeply hidden in the woods that few people would have even know they existed.

So, what does all this mean with regard to the 40B project confronting us?  The jury is out on that one, but we do need to rethink our attitudes towards a more nuanced approach to zoning and planning.  We need to allow incremental housing growth and revenue-producing land uses to be developed with care and minimal impact on the environment.  We have opportunities to encourage housing above our retail spaces downtown, to allow in-law apartments to be dispersed throughout town, to establish design guidelines allowing two-family buildings to be created in some neighborhoods and maybe even some apartment buildings here or there.  

We have the resources and expertise in our town government now.  Now is the time to put it to use.  Attend the upcoming public forums on bylaw changes as well as the new 40R zoning overlay district and encourage wise growth.  Someone once told me, “Hey, we’re an expensive town on the coast of Massachusetts.  That’s the way it is.  What are you gonna do about it?”  Well, our response should be “Plenty!”

Gary Gilbert, Manchester