ChurchWoods in the Context of the State Affordable Housing Law

On Wednesday, June 22, the Charlestown Planning Commission gave Preliminary Approval to ChurchWoods, the affordable, senior housing proposed for commercial land next to the Episcopal church in Cross’ Mills.

New members of the Planning Commission and members of the public were likely surprised that the town would approve and even provide funding to an application that did not abide by local zoning. Thirteen years ago I would have agreed with that sentiment, but we are now in a different position as a result of years of new state laws. Towns have lost some of their local control. The legislature has put us in a difficult position and it was within that context that we reviewed ChurchWoods.

In the early 1990’s the legislature passed the Comprehensive Planning Act that gave towns nearly full local control over planning and zoning as long as it was consistent with each towns’ State approved Comprehensive Plan and the legislature’s established time tables for decision making and vesting of approvals. We had a deal. That deal held for about 10 years and then the legislature started bit-by-bit taking away local control.

Originally the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act allowed for the override of local zoning only when the application was from a non-profit or a government application for 100% affordable, rental units for low income elderly or disabled.

In 2003 the law was changed to allow private developers to override local zoning if 20% of the units were affordable to families earning up to 100% of median income. The new law allowed for home ownership, not just rentals. The remaining 80% of the houses could be as expensive as the market would bear. The total number of houses was dictated by the number the developer could squeeze onto the property, without regard to local zoning. This had a devastating effect on towns with thousands of units proposed statewide in a matter of weeks after the law passed. In Charlestown we had a proposal for 200 houses where our zoning allowed no more than 30 houses, only 40 of the 200 were affordable, and those “affordable” houses were proposed to be more expensive than most year round houses in Charlestown. Another proposed 84 houses where 11 had been approved under zoning – and there were others. High density housing proposals threatened the coastal ponds and inland wildlife areas. All of this increased density was possible because of the affordable housing law. There were exceptions, but most of these proposed developments offered few subsidized houses and even fewer were truly affordable.

To become exempt from high density comprehensive permits, towns are required to have 10% affordable housing. Charlestown has about 30% affordable housing, but it doesn’t count under the law, because it is not government subsidized.

In 2005, the law changed to require that 25% of houses in the development be subsidized, but owners of these houses could earn 120% of median income. This meant our zoning could be overturned to provide housing for people who earned more than what 75% of the people in town earn. The majority would subsidize a more affluent minority.

If a town turned down one of these comprehensive permits, the law allowed the town’s decision to be appealed to the State Housing Appeals Board, known as SHAB. SHAB sided with the developer in every case, no matter the environmental impacts, the ridiculously high price of the so-called affordable housing, or any other concern a town might raise.

The only defense a town had was to have 10% subsidized housing. Charlestown wrote an affordable housing plan, and proposed a $1 million affordable housing bond that the Charlestown voters passed in the 2006 general election.

Things began to change in about 2008. The state, through the Department of Administration, decided not to fund an application in Charlestown because we are outside the Urban Services Boundary. Now the policy seems to be that state funding can only be used in the villages of Carolina, Shannock, and in the Cross Mills/ Old Post Rd. Area.

During his administration, Governor Chafee appointed new people to SHAB who turned down an application in Hopkinton largely because of the negative environmental impact of a high-density development near important wildlife management areas.

In 2010 to 2012 Charlestown spearheaded a legislative study commission to take another look at the law. The town argued strongly for going back to the idea of 100% affordable units for people earning no more than 80% of median income, and for rental units. Basically to go back to the law as it was before 2003 when the changes were added to allow a windfall for developers and really devastating effects to Charlestown’s environment. The study commission hasn’t yet resulted in a change to state law, but it did help Charlestown better define the problems with the law and its own definition of an acceptable affordable housing application.

That brings us to the ChurchWoods application, it is 100% affordable, it is for people who earn less than most in town, and they are rental units. If this were an adversarial comprehensive permit we would not have any case before SHAB, as the application meets all of our objections to previous applications. ChurchWoods in fact goes beyond overcoming our objections to past applications. It is senior housing and is not anticipated to have a negative fiscal impact. All 24 units are one bedroom and will result in a small population with fewer impacts on neighbors. The commercial zoning for this parcel requires both residential and commercial uses in equal footprint. The proposed use of exclusively residential varies from zoning, but in this case it reduces the possible intensity of use.

Considering the position the legislature has put us in and the context of the state affordable housing law, ChurchWoods is as good as it gets. We still had to review this with an eye towards neighborhood and environmental impacts and make sure that promises are kept, but the legislature has tied our hands on the issue overall. I hope neighbors and others in Charlestown will consider that the Planning Commission and Town Council do not have full autonomy under the state affordable housing law, but that we have worked hard to protect the town and work out the best deal possible.

*The banner image in this post is a perspective view of ChurchWoods, but when built the development will have screening along Old Post Road, and most of the view will be trees rather than the buildings depicted in the drawing.

Ruth Platner

Ruth is the current Chair of the Charlestown Planning Commission and has been involved in land use issues in Charlestown for over 20 years.