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Why Upzoning Is Downright Wrong.

This is a very tenuous time for Nantucket. In the 20 years I have been going to town meeting, I have never seen so many articles sponsored by the Planning Board that involve the active upzoning of various areas of the island.

For those people who don’t eat, breathe and sleep the zoning code, upzoning is the process of changing the zoning of a given area to make it more dense, to allow people to subdivide their property, and to build more houses. It requires a vote at town meeting.

One reason that this is a problem: despite the pains associated with too many people on the island, the Planning Board apparently thinks that upzoning and increased density is the solution. Huh?

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Just as the solution to having a big, old, ugly wart on your face is not to add more warts. The solution to overcrowding is not to add more people.

Still, at town meeting, you are going to hear a lot of people stand up and say they want to subdivide so their kids can live on the island, or they need to subdivide in order to afford to stay, or they want to match the density of other areas of the island. But the truth of the matter is this: Upzoning only serves to enrich a handful of people at the expense of the rest of us. And the expense is getting rather high. Let’s look into that more carefully.

We all pay.

You may think that the taxes a new homeowner pays actually pays for the financial load that home places on the island, but in many cases, the entire tax base carries some of the burden. Take sewers for example. If you add a few dozen homes to the sewer system, they all pay a connection fee. But this only pays for the cost of the additional infrastructure and labor to connect them. It does not take into consideration the effect more homes have on the expected life cycle of our new sewer plant — a plant that cost over $100 million to implement and which we have only begun to pay for. In addition, every new home on the island sparks the need for an incremental increase in town services. Fire, police, teachers, sanitation, roads, and more. To date, no one has done a comprehensive study to show how much of a financial load a singe family dwelling places on the town, likely because they don’t really want to know the answer. It’s simply easier to increase fees and cut services than to do the necessary planning.

Our quality of life suffers.

Some people, like my wife and her siblings, have lived here all their lives and have always known what a special place Nantucket is. And some of us moved here later in life, because we fell in love with the simplicity and beauty here. But life on Nantucket has gradually gotten far less simple and beautiful. We’ve seen a massive amount of development, a doubling of the number of banks here, more rotaries, a larger supermarket, a larger police station, more traffic and now, the need for a larger school. But the quality of life issues go far beyond the longer lines and overcrowding: we’ve seen a marked increase in violent crime as well.

If you were to ask our police chief, Bill Pittman, what the single biggest factor leading to crime is, he’ll tell you: it’s population density. More people equals more crime. More rapes, beatings and murders. And less safety for all of us. All you have to do is read a copy of the I&M or log into Facebook to see that we are living that nightmare scenario right now. How can adding more homes to Nantucket help this situation? The fact is, it can only make it worse.

Bad for the environment.

Want to know the environmental impact a home has on the island? Ask a scallop. As the number of homes has risen on the island, the number of bushels of scallops our fisherman are able to catch has plummeted because of a marked decline in water quality. In the 70s, it was not uncommon to see a 40,000-80,000 bushel season. These days, we are fortunate to see a fraction of that. In addition, new homes with septic systems place our sole-source aquifer in jeopardy, and contribute to a devastating decline in water quality in the island’s ponds. On top of that, more homes will push us closer and closer to a third electric cable to the island. And new homes (and the 2+ cars that comes with each one) contribute to increases in noise, light and air pollution.

The problem is clear. What’s the solution?

Obviously, the island has “issues.” So how do we solve the problem of affordability and quality of life without upzoning? Unfortunately, there are no instant cures. But there are some incremental things we can do. Including the following:

• Encourage the town to use some of its land within the sewer districts and on public transportation for affordable housing to make it possible to attract and keep great teachers, police, fire and other town-service professionals.
• Provide tax incentives to the private commercial sector for every unit of housing they provide for their own employees.
• Provide tax incentives and benefits for individuals who rent their second dwellings at affordable rates to year-round residents to reduce the incentive to rent seasonably and contribute to the Nantucket shuffle.
• Strictly enforce the health codes to keep the occupancy of each home within the law and reduce the number of under-the-table cash rentals.
• Develop a workable plan for alternative temporary housing like tiny homes that are not permanent structures and have a minimal impact on the environment.
• Run public transportation year-round and provide incentives for families to reduce the number of vehicles they have on island, or for those who use alternative transport like bicycles or mopeds.
• Encourage the town to stop facilitating growth and start providing incentives and plans for zero growth.
• Encourage the town to offer early retirement to anyone over 50 in order to hire more police, fire and other services people, and offer more services for the same amount of tax money. This will improve public safety and quality of life with little change in cost.
• Encourage the town to create a technology infrastructure to allow for the growth of high paying, white-collar service jobs instead of the building trades, such as technology, financial services, consulting and other service providers.
• Introduce legislature at the state level to expand the current Land Bank Act and create the Nantucket Land and Housing Bank, in order to maintain open space while growing the available stock of forever-affordable housing on the island by 20+ units each year.
• Take dramatic and decisive steps to improve quality of life for everyone here.

Nantucket, we just can’t build our way out of our problems. There are only so many times we can slice this pie before all we have is a big, crumbly mess. Let’s not go there. Please vote “no” on upzoning articles 48, 53, 54, 55, 56, and 62 at Annual Town Meeting, April 6-8. Share a link to this page if you agree.