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Better Not Bigger Challenges Chapter 40B

Chelmsford group drew up petition to put repeal on November ballot.

Chapter 40B is the regional planning law of the Massachusetts General Laws, and has been on the books for over 40 years. But a Chelmsford group is seeking to repeal the affordable housing law at the ballot box in November.

40B's purpose is "to permit a...town to plan jointly with...(other) towns to promote the...orderly development of the areas within their jurisdiction," or informally to allow a developer to build housing at higher density than a town requires if the development includes affordable housing units.

However its repeal may soon be put to voters thanks to the efforts of Better Not Bigger, a local advocacy group from Chelmsford.

Better Not Bigger describes itself as "a statewide program dedicated to...promoting sustainable policies that ultimately lead to a better quality of life for all Massachusetts residents."

But their message and their tactics have created a controversy among public officials in Chelmsford.

Their opinion paper on chapter 40B, "Failed Strategies, New Directions," can be found here. It describes in 24 pages their issues with the current application of the law, and implies in other sections that the existing system is corrupt, saying, "Under 40B, developers are allowed to bypass local zoning, substantially increasing their profits due to their ability to overdevelop parcels of land. 40B has, in the name of promoting affordable housing, allowed developers to violate sound land-use policy and to extract more profit from the land they invest in, regardless of whether or not developers are increasing the proportion of affordable housing in a community."

Their publicity has also run afoul of Chelmsford town manager Paul Cohen, who published a response letter dated July 26, 2010. In it he answers the claims, which Better Not Bigger has made against Chelmsford planning officials.

Cohen wrote, "Last week, Chelmsford residents received a mailing entitled 'Better Not Bigger' signed by Roland Van Liew. The letter reads that, 'It's time to hold accountable officials who are corrupt, incompetent, and repeatedly commit malfeasance in defiance of our town charter and Master Plan.'"

The letter contains recall affidavits against Planning Board members George Zaharoolis and Susan Carter. It also raises serious charges against me as Town Manager," Cohen wrote.

Neither Cohen nor van Liew could be reached for comment.

Real estate survey company, Trulia, reports that Massachusetts ranks sixth for average prices, and eighth for median prices. The US Census Bureau independently ranks Massachusetts sixth for its 2009 report on median income.

Holly August 13, 2010 at 07:24 PM
Why does this article ignore the other side of the debate? Almost half of the affordable housing developments built using this law have been built by nonprofit organizations and local housing groups. That includes Habitat for Humanity, the Archdiosese, Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly, local Community Development Corporations, and local Housing Authorities. Private developers are not the only users of this law and repealing the affordable housing law would stop many nonprofits from building affordable housing as well.
Jeff Levine August 13, 2010 at 08:38 PM
It would be good journalism to outline the reasons why many people support 40B. 40B is the only thing that keeps communities from essentially outlawing less affluent residents. The article also repeats unchallenged a statement that developers can increase their profits simply by developing a 40B. While there have been some problems in the audits for 40B, profits are actually capped under 40B, while in a traditional market rate development the sky is the limit - and you get no affordable housing...
Housing reform advocate August 16, 2010 at 10:30 PM
In actuality, virtually every other state uses a mandate approach to building affordable housing while also not creating incentive programs for for-profit developers. Contrary to Holly's posting, the reverse would be true in Massachusetts. If 40B were repealed, several existing MGL statutes would resume primacy for building affordable housing and the huge amounts of money that private banking systems and tax-credit shelters for for-profit housing development corporations could be funneled back to the non-profit groups that do a much better and more efficient job. At the very least, with our budgets spread so thin, Massachusetts should be investing in redevelopment. It is less costly, lessens the negative environmental impact that new development creates and is more in keeping with community atmospheres. When I think of 40B, I am reminded of the saying "It is only failure when you keep trying the same method and expect a different result." 40B was passed in 1969 to help affordable housing. We were unaffordable then and we're even less affordable now. It is time for fresh thinking and to move Massachusetts forward.

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