The smartgrowth movement meets its Waterloo in Kingston

KINGSTON–On windy days, commuters shield their eyes from the flecks of sand and dust blowing toward them as they step onto the commuter-rail platform in Kingston. Abutting the station is a desert-like expanse of 140 acres, and no one really knows when or how the land is going to be developed. Seven years ago, advocates of “smart growth”–an anti-sprawl concept that includes the creation of high-density housing near existing transportation resources–thought Kingston was an ideal laboratory for their ideas. So did town officials and civic leaders. But a large-enough minority of residents thought otherwise to kill the deal. Now smart growth is a no-go in this Plymouth County town of 11,800.

Kingston’s failure to approve cluster zoning (or to lift its current requirement of at least two acres for each new home) could be an ominous sign for the anti-sprawl movement in the Bay State. Mark Leff, senior vice-president of Salem Five Cents Savings Bank and chairman of the legislative committee of the Home Builders Association of Massachusetts, says that Kingston’s inaction “sends the message that smart growth proposals won’t work at the local level because people who live in the communities have no interest in it.”

Kingston Quick Facts

Founded: 1726
Population: 11,780
Town Meeting: Open

Facts:

  • Kingston covers 20 square miles of Plymouth County. It is located 32 miles from Boston and 65 miles from Providence.
  • According to the town Board of Assessors, the median price of a single-family home is $235,000.
  • Kingston is a residential community mostly consisting of commuters to Boston and cranberry growers. The largest employer is the Independence Mall. Other significant employers in this town of small businesses include R.S. Means, a publisher of construction industry materials; the Sullivan Brothers car dealership; and L. Knife & Son, a beer distributor.

One resident who voted against the 800-unit development known as the Village at Kingston says that townspeople are simply being cautious. “The concept of the town village has not been proven,” says Paul Tanous, who works as an MBTA bus driver. “Showing pictures to people of what the project is supposed to look like–ice cream, dry cleaners, clothing shops –is great, but there’s no guarantee that’s what’s going to happen there. There’s no guarantee at all, and that worried people.”

There have been a lot of worries in Kingston since the MBTA extended its Old Colony commuter-rail line here in 1997. From 1998 to 2002, average weekday boardings at Kingston Station doubled, to 1,558 people. Residents expected the train to draw even more newcomers to their already-booming town, and they were right. Kingston’s population has skyrocketed, rising nearly 30 percent in the past decade–one of the highest growth rates on the South Shore, according to the 2000 Census. And since the coming of the commuter-rail stop, the Board of Assessors reports, the average price of a Kingston home has increased by more than $50,000.

Not surprisingly, the land next to the train station–which is mere minutes from Route 3 and a neighbor to Kingston’s flourishing Independence Mall–has been seen as ripe for development. It’s currently zoned for industrial use, and Kingston Selectman Mark Beaton would like it to stay that way. Citing the successful 450-acre Plymouth Industrial Park, he wonders, “Why can’t we have what Plymouth has?” A warehouse or offices would bring revenue to the town, he explains, without the cost of new students flooding the schools.

But some residents and environmentalists from outside the town have long felt that the property has a higher calling: as a mixed-use development that would cluster new residents near the train station and preserve open space in other parts of the town. Bennet Heart, a senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation (who lives one-eighth of a mile from the commuter rail in Winchester) says that such transit-oriented development “protects basic environmental values like clean air and clean water.” At the same time, it can save towns money in infrastructure costs. Because development is concentrated in one compact area, he says, “you need fewer utility lines, sewer lines, new roads, wires to lay, telephone poles to hoist up, pavement and piping to put down.”

Even before the trains rolled into town, smart growth was catching on with town leaders in Kingston. In 1995, the Master Plan Implementation Committee–a 15-person group consisting of residents and town officials, as well as one representative each from the business and environmental communities–developed a proposal to harness growth and focus it near Independence Mall and the soon-to-open rail station. The master plan was adopted by town meeting in 1998; the vote tally wasn’t recorded, but according to the minutes, the committee was “graciously thanked with a warm round of applause by the town body.”

The plan declared that “now is the time to seize the opportunity to upgrade and streamline the Town’s land use regulations to ensure that Kingston experiences the kind of growth its residents desire in the areas that they prefer.” Explains town planner Tom Bott, “The whole idea was to take the people who were going to move to Kingston and put them by the T instead of other parts of the town.”

Simultaneously, the committee proposed that open space–particularly the cranberry bogs that have characterized the town for generations–be preserved by a “transferable development rights” clause. Developers would be allowed to purchase bog owners’ rights to build on their land –and then transfer those rights to a pre-approved location near the commuter rail. Such an arrangement would provide much-needed cash to farmers, direct development to the appropriate part of town, and give developers the right to build.

This smart-growth planning process reached fruition in December 2001, a few years after the commuter-rail station opened, when the Master Plan Implementation Committee presented a proposal at town meeting to change the adjacent parcel’s zoning from commercial-industrial to mixed-use. Advocates said the plan, known as the Village at Kingston, would not only control sprawl but also bring $1.8 million in additional tax revenue to the town’s coffers.

“The whole purpose of the Village at Kingston was to create a village in the true New England sense of the word,” says Selectman Richard Cretinon, who backed the proposal. Up to 800 new units of housing could have been created, he says, all in the kind of homes-and-shops mixture that marks traditional town centers. “There’s a shop at the bottom [floor], someone living on top of it, a day care, a grocery store–its own village in the town of Kingston.”

But the enthusiasm for smart growth apparently did not extend to the citizenry of Kingston–or at least not deeply enough into it. All zoning changes in Kingston (and, by state law, any community with a town meeting form of government) require a two-thirds vote at town meeting. But despite the enthusiastic response to the committee’s work just three years earlier, the Village proposal couldn’t even muster a simple majority, failing by a 172-151 margin.

The CLF’s Heart wasn’t completely surprised. “A new development is always next to somebody,” he notes. “There’s always going to be that ‘Not In My Backyard’ element. Connecting transit and land use is terribly important, but it’s difficult simply because it’s not commonly done.”

Advocates of the Village redoubled their efforts, with mixed results. “We tried public education forums, but they weren’t very well attended,” says Ralph Calderaro, former chair of the Master Plan Implementation Committee and, by day, general counsel for the state’s Disabled Persons Protection Commission. “We attempted to convince political poobahs in town that it was a good idea,” he recalls, and even produced “a plain English version” of the bylaw.

When the Master Plan committee brought the proposal back to town meeting last October, the pro-Village forces managed a stunning reversal of the previous year’s vote, winning 182-147. But that tally was still far short of the two-thirds needed to approve the measure.

The opposition had been reduced to a minority, but a minority large enough to wield veto power. For those who worried about growth of any sort, it seemed, smart growth was no solution. “There was enormous resistance because people saw it as changing the character of the town rather than preserving the character of the town,” says Calderaro. “In my mind, it was voted down because of fear more than anything else.”

Tanous, who lives near the parcel in question on Copper Beach Road, might agree. He says he voted against the proposal because several questions hadn’t been answered. For instance, he wonders how the town would handle the increased traffic, plus the demands on the schools, water, and sewer systems that would come with an influx of new residents.

Bott, the town planner, says those questions are premature. He notes that any developers seeking to create the Village at Kingston would have to submit detailed plans to the town planning board, water board, and conservation commission, among others. “All those issues would have to be addressed before anything was approved,” says Bott. The measure before town meeting, he says, “wasn’t a proposal for development, it was a proposal for a zoning change.”

But Selectman Beaton, who spoke against the proposal at Town Meeting, is skeptical. “I’ve seen the planning board make some horrendous decisions recently,” he says. “Who knows what the planning board is going to let them have or not have?”

In any case, the Master Plan Implementation Committee has given up the fight. There are no plans to bring the Village at Kingston proposal up for another vote.

All sides in the Kingston controversy say they have the same goal: to control the housing boom that threatens to overtake the town. The question is, which way to control growth is really the smart one?

Opponents of the Village at Kingston, like Tanous, believe that the town’s current law, which sets a two-acre minimum lot size for new homes, is the best antidote to overdevelopment. In addition, Kingston caps the building of new houses at 70 per year. By Beaton’s calculations, it would take the town at least 31 years to use up the developable land in Kingston. (The town has already purchased a number of parcels to preserve as open space.) That’s a slower growth rate than would be allowed under the Village at Kingston plan–though the village scheme would preserve more open space, thanks to the transferable development rights.

Other critics say that smart growth is not so smart if Kingston does it by itself. Lorrie Hall of the Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform, based in neighboring Duxbury, predicts that, because of population pressures on the increasingly popular South Shore, sprawl is inevitable–and that the Village at Kingston, potentially squeezing in more than 1,000 people, would make the problem worse. “The smart growth idea was rejected by Kingston voters because they know unless you stop growth all around the edges, which they hadn’t, any big development by the train station would just add to all the people on their roads, schools, and facilities,” she says.

Advocates of transit-oriented development say Hall is missing the point. The goal, they say, should be limiting dependency on cars that clog streets as people have to drive miles to the grocery store and then miles in the opposite direction to enjoy a meal out. Rather than concentrate development in compact areas, regulations such as Kingston’s two-acre minimum for new housing “use up land at an alarming rate,” says Leff of the Home Builders Association of Massachusetts. “In the guise of community character, they create neighborhoods that are very unattractive and not very welcoming.”

Without zoning changes, however, more such neighborhoods will be coming, especially as cranberry growers are inspired by rising land prices to cash in. “We’re seeing more and more bogs being sold for [residential] development in the town of Kingston,” says Bott. He speculates that the Sisters of Divine Providence, an order that owns 597 acres of land, may also want to sell. Much of the bog land and the Sisters’ property is already zoned for residential use.

Other means of constraining development are limited. Beaton notes that Kingston has a history of snapping up significant properties, such as the 277-acre Cranberry Watershed Preserve and the 80-acre Silver Lake Sanctuary, both of which were purchased in 1998. But, as Calderaro points out, “That’s going to get harder and harder. Right now, there’s significant constraints on our budget, especially in light of the state budget problem, and there’s only so much you can tax.”

In 2001, Kingston voters rejected the Community Preservation Act by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. The ballot question would have allowed town officials to impose up to a 3 percent surcharge on property taxes. The funds, matched by the state, could have been used, in part, to purchase open space.

Right now, anti-sprawl activists are concerned about what’s going to happen to the 140-acre parcel next to the train stop. The Village at Kingston could get another chance if a developer takes up the mantle and requests another town meeting vote. Even Tanous admits that his mind could be changed. “If somebody could come up with concrete answers” to questions about traffic and infrastructure, he says, “then maybe the people would be more interested.”

Others say it’s more likely that a different sort of development will use up the land first. “Let’s face it,” says Selectman Cretinon. “It’s adjacent to the T station. More than 100 acres of available property. Without the controls the Master Plan Implementation Committee tried to put on it, it could be a free-for-all.”

That could mean a new industrial development, bringing with it tax revenue and jobs. Or, as Cretinon believes is more likely, it could mean affordable housing proposed under the state’s Chapter 40-B regulation, which allows developers to supersede local zoning laws and build larger developments.

Beaton dismisses talk of Chapter 40-B as a “scare tactic,” and notes the uncertainty of the law’s fate under Gov. Mitt Romney. But if a 40-B development did come in, the impact could be enormous, says Cretinon. “There’s enough property there to require one new school, if not two.”

Meet the Author
Leff says that the failure of the Village at Kingston is proof that the smart-growth idea hasn’t connected with voters. “They say they’re interested,” he laments, “and they talk about planning, but they don’t really want it.” So for now, despite majority support in town meeting, Kingston doesn’t have it. Says Bott: “The market is going to dictate what happens now.”

Dorie Clark is a freelance writer living in Somerville.