Helm and Bolotin Lead Discussion of Planning Issues
Wide-ranging and collegial conversation on Ch. 40B; the MBTA Communities Law; Demographic & Economic Issues; Preserving the Aquifer; a Land Bank
[ Readers, this is a complicated area of evolving law, and I am not a lawyer; any errors below are my own. If you would like to access this publication as a website, this and previous stories can be accessed at plymouthcountyobserver.substack.com. ]
(PLYMOUTH) — A wide-ranging and collegial discussion on the issue of planning in Plymouth, led by Harry Helm and Steven Bolotin, was held on Saturday, March 4th, at Plimoth Patuxet. The event was hosted in part by The South Shore Realtors.
Mr. Helm, who is a Selectman in Plymouth, and Mr. Bolotin, who is Vice Chair of the Plymouth Planning Board, were careful to note from the outset that the opinions expressed in the discussion were their own, in their capacity as private citizens, and that neither represented in any way the Boards on which they respectively serve.
A Collegial Conversation on an Inclement Morning
The well-attended conversation, held on a blustery morning that alternated between sleet, snow, and rain, was similar to other conversations Mr. Helm and Mr. Bolotin have held across the Town of Plymouth on the topic, including one at the Center for Active Living in December, and one at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Cedarville in January.
Helm and Bolotin both emphasized that planning is a complex and intricate subject, with multiple — and sometimes competing — goals and needs that must be harmonized. Plymouth does have a Master Plan, but has not tended to stick very closely to it over the years (the current Master Plan dates from 2006; prior to that, the previous one was issued around 1980, said Mr. Bolotin). The Town provided an interim update last year.
Both Mr. Bolotin and Mr. Helm noted that simple diagnoses and solutions were in short supply when it came to the planning process. Social media frequently encourages a mono-causal, and at times less than accurate, appreciation for the situation on all sides of complicated questions, and planning is no different. A focus on personalities often obscures structural issues.1
Likewise, Plymouth faces a number of singular issues, including its vast size (134 square miles) and its large population — approximately 62,131 in 2021, according to the US Census, making it the largest Town by both area and population in Massachusetts. If Plymouth’s land area alone (96.5 square miles) is considered, then the Town has a population density of approximately 644 people per square mile. If the sizable amounts of water, including the Town’s 450 or so freshwater ponds, are included, the population density becomes closer to 464 people per square mile. 500 people per square mile is often used as the demarcation of a rural community.
State Mandates, Part I: Chapter 40B of the Mass. General Laws
There were three essential factors to consider in Plymouth’s planning situation, said Mr. Bolotin: state mandates, demographic factors, and economic factors.
All Towns and Cities in the Commonwealth are bound by certain Massachusetts statutes with respect to housing, he noted.
Among the most important of these is M.G.L. Chapter 40B, a complicated law designed to produce housing. Under 40 B, in communities with less than 10% affordable housing stock, a developer may circumvent local zoning bylaws so long as between 20-25% of the developers’ units are classified as affordable, using a formula that takes into account housing prices across metropolitan Boston.
( Via the Town of Dover — Communities that have reached 10% affordable housing stock under 40B; photo credit — Town of Dover, Town of Dover GIS, MA GIS, DHCD.)
Unfortunately, 40B tends to not produce a huge amount of housing that is actually affordable by real individuals. Averages that take into account both extremely affluent and economically struggling communities can skew the definition of affordable (this is a problem even within individual Towns in terms of statistical averages). According to Mr. Bolotin, the state-mandated rent for the most “affordable” units for rent in 2022 was, including utilities, is $1,850 per month. The rough cost of living for a single person in Plymouth is about $40,000, said Bolotin, citing the MIT Living Wage Calculator.