Home Depot is back to square one after a Superior Court judge this week overturned a special permit granted in the city of Somerville, Massachusetts. A citizens group, the Mystic View Task Force, reacted to Superior Court Judge Steven Neel’s Order for Judgment in the matter of Louana H. Evarts v Planning Board of Somerville, et. al. The Order reverses the December 20, 2000 Somerville Planning Board approval of a Special Permit for a proposed Home Depot at Assembly Square. Mystic View, which had supported Evarts’ appeal of the Planning Board’s illegal award of a special permit to developers to construct a Home Depot in Assembly Square, issued the following statement: “Three years ago, the Mystic View Task Force delivered a document to every household in Somerville, advising that “The imbalance between declining commercial property taxes and increasing costs of residential services has brought us to the verge of a fiscal crisis.” We pointed out that state aid, which constituted a greater portion of the city budget than did property taxes, would be threatened in the near future. We explained that full development of Assembly Square as an office-based, transit-related, mixed-use urban district offered the only real hope to overcome our structural fiscal crisis. In response, City officials co-opted Mystic View’s language while authorizing a developer-driven redevelopment plan that would commit three of Assembly Square’s four quadrants to big-box development. Such a plan would, over the long term, result in a net loss of revenues to the city for any of the following reasons: With only one quadrant of Assembly Square developed as high-density mixed use, property taxes would be insufficient to amortize the infrastructure and operating costs required by the redevelopment plan; Massive traffic generated by big box retail uses would absorb the road capacity needed to support higher value development and completely squander the value of the Orange Line and commuter rail lines already passing through the site; Values of, and tax revenues derived from, neighborhoods and properties surrounding congestion-prone big box developments would, over time, decline by amounts greater than new revenues generated by those big-box developments. Nevertheless, over the last three years, Somerville’s city administration has offered no solution for the city’s long-term fiscal crisis, other than to blame citizens for opposing big-box development. Instead, it has abdicated its zoning and permitting function to big-box development. As the Court ruled, the Planning Board used the “circumstances of ASLP’s [Taurus and Gravestar’s] petition to drive its interpretation of the Ordinance, rather than using its interpretation of the Ordinance to drive its consideration of the Petition. That is an analytical approach which will mold the Ordinance to whatever petition is before the Board.” Judge Neel placed emphasis upon a community’s right to expect full adherence to the intent of its zoning code and the narrowness of a developer’s rights to change or expand nonconforming uses and structures, ??e…nonconforming uses and structures are to be strictly regulated, and…in the light most favorable to limiting the continuation and/or expansion of nonconforming uses and structures.” Home Depot’s developers remain free to apply for a Special Permit with Site Plan Review, the same process that is applied to all other large developments at Assembly Square. In so doing, they will have to comply with the same open space, mixed use, appealing street frontage and other uniform provisions of the Somerville Zoning Ordinance rather than relying on a special dispensation created though back-room deals. Mystic View Task Force president Bill Shelton said, “This is a hollow victory for us. Our mission has always been to gain the greatest possible benefit for Somerville residents from Assembly Square’s development for Somerville residents, not oppose destructive real estate projects. City officials ignored both our early warnings of dire fiscal consequences and the Court’s later interlocutory guidance. We wonder what it will take for them to adopt solutions that benefit Somerville rather than bending the law in favor of unethical developers. Now is the time when blaming citizens to avoid responsibility must come to an end. The Court’s decision comes as Somerville’s dire fiscal position is increasingly evident. The Mystic View Task Force sincerely hopes that city officials will use this opportunity to adopt policies that will realize Assembly Square??s potential to create $30 million in net new tax revenues, 30,000 new jobs, and 30 acres of new open space. We are prepared to cooperate in anyway that we can to achieve this outcome.” Activists in Somerville told Sprawl-Busters that around Somerville, the continual message being put out by City Hall is that big boxes are desperately needed for local economic development, and in particular to relieve homeowners of their tax burden. Meanwhile, over the last two years the appraised value of Somerville residential property has risen by $700 million. The proposed Home Depot application stated its value as $12 million. Thus, for big box development to have merely held its own with residential appreciation would have required the development of 60 Home Depots here over the last two years. City-wide, Somerville spends over $100,000 per taxable acre per year on modest municipal services, largely because we have about 19,000 residents per square mile.. The breakeven at Assembly Square, where capital intensive regional infrastructure connections are needed, is likely to be $200,000 per taxable acre per year and big boxes come nowhere close to that, to say nothing of the fact that they certainly would not generate a robust surplus.
Home Depot is now free to appeal within 30 days or to re-configure its project and go through the Special Permit with Site Plan Review process that is available to all project proponents. However, this subjects them to the full zoning code and the provisions of an interim planning district ordinance as well. Adherence to these regulations, that Home Depot had earlier hoped to skirt, will require more stringent traffic and environmental review, more public open space, considerable amounts of mixed use and real building fronts on adjacent main streets (rather than truck docks), among other things. For more information on Home Depot’s problems in Somerville, go to www.mysticview.org. and search this Newsflash page by “Somerville”.