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PETER MOST: A more PURDfect design

Since no one is making any more developable land here, let’s design thoughtfully and maximize use wisely. Let the experts be in charge.

If a camel is a horse designed by committee, what is the Alden project, the 7.25-acre, 20-home subdivision on North Plain Road in Housatonic? Well, from a modern planning perspective, not quite the horse it could have been, due largely to the fact that the Great Barrington Selectboard rather than the Planning Board was the Special Permit Granting Authority (SPGA) for the project. If one of the town’s goals is to increase housing availability and maximize use of the limited developable space the town has remaining while reducing planning and construction costs, amending Zoning Bylaw Section 10.4.1 to designate the Planning Board as the SPGA would be a leap in the right direction.

Great Barrington is fortunate that its Planning Board members are individuals that have dedicated their professional lives to matters of planning and development. Chair Brandee Nelson is a civil engineer; Vice Chair Pedro Pachano is an architect; and Jonathan Hankin is both a retired architect and real estate agent with over 25 years on the board. Add to that, Malcolm Fick has been on the board for over a decade, and Jeremy Higa somewhat less. All you need to do is watch a few minutes of any Planning Board meeting to know that these five individuals have thought deeply, and care deeply, about planning. The Planning Board is made up of people that will never work a day in their lives because they love what they do.

If the town were to engage a management consultant, think McKinsey & Company, the consultant would likely draw up an organization chart with the Selectboard at the top, akin to where a corporate board of directors sits. Corporate boards set policy based on their observations and input received from shareholders (think voters here). But most corporate boards seek members with varied rather than specialized backgrounds, and, for that reason, corporate boards typically delegate to others with specialized skills within the corporation the implementation of board policy. Why isn’t Great Barrington organized similarly?

In most respects, the town’s current workflow makes perfect sense. The Selectboard oversees the town manager. The town manager is charged with managing the departments responsible for implementing town programs. The town manager works with the Finance Committee to draft a proposed budget which then goes to the Selectboard for further refinement based on voter input before Town Meeting. And this makes perfect sense, as you wouldn’t expect Selectboard members to roll up their sleeves, pencils in hand, to take the first crack at the budget, but you would expect the Selectboard to have final input before the budget goes to Town Meeting.

Which brings us to the Planning Board’s role in the special-permit-granting process. The hypothetical consultant would likely advise that a board comprised of members with expertise in planning, zoning regulations, and land use should be the SPGA. Planning Board members likely have a deeper understanding of technical aspects of planning and are already tasked with site-plan review. So the consultant, following Amherst’s example, would likely rearrange a few lines on the town’s flow chart to have the Planning Board become the SPGA, which is not to say the Selectboard has no role in planning and development. The Selectboard remains the body that sets policies and goals. The Selectboard is a political body with a deeper understanding of the community’s interests and concern for the town’s land use needs. Policy set, the Planning Board is left with responsibility for the nuts and bolts of policy implementation while utilizing their specialized skill set to enhance projects.

Turning back to the Alden project, planning professionals tell me that the approved subdivision plan, while fine if you favor the latest in 1970s subdivisions, would have been improved through dialogue with the Planning Board on modern approaches to housing developments. The professionals believe that this 7.25-acre lot would have been a perfect site to utilize to a far greater degree Great Barrington’s Planned Unit Residential Development (PURD) zoning provisions. While a PURD, it is a subdivided PURD that ends up looking like a wheel with 20 spokes, each spoke being a driveway to a garage at the front of the house. This is exactly how it has been done for 70 years. Planning professional would suggest there is no reason to continue this design for another 70 years.

The developer never had a reason to meaningfully engage with the Planning Board regarding alternate design considerations, as the Planning Board was not the SPGA. And once the developer got to the special-permit-granting authority, the Selectboard, discussions focused on the number of houses rather than consideration of modern neighborhood design. After the Selectboard granted the permit, the Planning Board’s hands were tied. The developer returned to the Planning Board several times, but only to minimally revise the plan. Fair to ask, then, what is the point of having dedicated professionals on the Planning Board when their expertise is barely utilized?

Rather than a typical suburban subdivision, a modern housing PURD plan would likely have included rear-entry garages where cars access houses off a road at the back. (In a really modern neighborhood, there would be no cars, but we can save that discussion for another day.) The modern design has many positive attributes, chiefly a more pedestrian- and child-friendly front with the opportunity for large shared outdoor space. Every house, with a porch, opening to a park would have been lovely on the site. Fundamental to the design is the concept that people and play take priority over streets and automobiles. Rather than subdividing the property into 20 slivers, the design could have provided for shared open space in the front of the houses. Not that you necessarily would keep the U-shape design, but if you wanted to, all of the land inside the U-shape could have been shared community space for playgrounds, pedestrians, and nature. The homeowners would own their homes and an undivided interest in the remainder of the property.

Local professionals believe that of the approximately 2,400 acres of undeveloped land in Great Barrington, only about half is developable. Since no one is making any more developable land here, let’s design thoughtfully and maximize use wisely. Let the experts be in charge.

The future homeowners of the Alden project will no doubt be pleased with their homes, but they might have appreciated an abundance of open space out their front doors even more. The project’s current plan does have a green space, surrounded by road and encumbered with a catch basin. So, less than perfect. With our remaining 1,200 acres of developable land, the Planning Board can make sure we design better. The Alden project was a missed opportunity. To get planning right in the future, town voters should amend the Zoning Bylaws to give the Planning Board the laboring oar as the SPGA, while the Selectboard remains responsible for mapping out where it wants the Planning Board to go. Not to belabor the point, but that is what the corporate consultants would suggest as well.

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