By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
While land planners and developers affiliated with Urban Land Institute continue to press for higher density communities – more housing units per acre of land – many local governments seem to resist taking density too far.
You see, it turns out their constituents are not in favor of cramming the maximum number of housing units onto available land.
But local Planning Commissions have their own seemingly arbitrary land use standards that result in clusters of homes surrounded by common land, creating the apparent “need” for an association-governed common interest community.
An article in MetroWest Daily News illustrates by example.
After 50 years in business, Millwood Farms golf course in Framingham, Massachusetts, has been sold to a developer. Plans are underway for new homes on the site of the former 14-hole golf course. Naturally, neighboring property owners are concerned about the future of the site, and any impacts it may have on their communities and property values.
The developer is primarily interested in building the maximum number of homes allowed per zoning requirements. The Planning Board seems to be more interested in preserving open space between buildings and meeting minimum parking requirements, but their primary objective is increasing tax revenue.
Framingham: Buildings reduced in Millwood Farms condo project
By Jim Haddadin
Daily News Staff
Posted Nov 6, 2017 at 9:32 PM
Updated at 9:40 AM
FRAMINGHAM — The latest design for a condominium development at Millwood Farms Golf Course reduces the number of buildings from 90 to 60, but the project may still be too dense to win over town officials.
Representatives from Capital Group Properties detailed their latest concept to redevelop the golf course into 135 units of age-restricted housing during a public hearing last week before the Planning Board.
While the number of units remains unchanged, the number of buildings has been reduced by a third to address concerns from the Planning Board and the public that the project is too compact.
Capital Group originally proposed constructing 64 single-family homes, seven duplex townhomes, and 19 three-unit “triplex” buildings. Each unit would have a two-car garage and driveway for two additional vehicles.
A new design eliminates all single-family buildings. Instead, it proposes 15 triples and 45 doubles, providing more room between each building and eliminating the need for Capital Group to seek a waiver related to spacing.
If the $66 million project moves forward, it promises to increase the town’s tax revenue from the site from about $27,000 currently to more than $1.1 million, a lawyer for the company said previously.
Did you notice what happened at the latest public hearing? Although the second proposal by Capital Properties Group reduces the number of buildings, it increases the number of housing units from 121 to 135!
And that’s because the developer is only allowed to build on 15% of the land parcel, with minimum setbacks required between each structure. The single family detached homes have disappeared, in favor of more duplex and triplex units.
And, as is typical with local development planning across the country, the plan creates a common interest community in the form of a condo association. In this case, it appears that each unit will be a townhome rather than apartment-style dwellings.
The latest version of the plan shifts the financial burden of maintaining roads to future homeowners, as well as the following common property:
The condominium trust will also regulate and manage the common areas, utilities, drainage and trash removal. Houses will be served by town water and sewer. The project will also offer a combined 34 parking spaces for visitors.
The design includes a separate building for amenities, such as a fitness center, club room and mail facility. Residents would also have access to an outdoor swimming pool and bocce court.
However, planning discussions are far from over. Local constituents and adjacent property owners will have an opportunity to voice their concerns, if they wish.
Why not build homes without HOAs?
From a housing consumer perspective, I wonder why so many local governments continue to burden new construction with a condo or homeowners’ association.
The industry continues to insist that homes in HOAs, and especially condominiums are more affordable to purchase. And while that might be true in some real estate markets, the fact is, the presence of a mandatory owners’ association generally increases the cost of home ownership.
After all, property owners must pay both local property taxes and association assessments and maintenance fees. To some extent, that results in double taxation for homeowners in association-governed communities.
Long term maintenance of private infrastructure such as roads, stormwater management systems (drainage), and private utilities tends to be quite expensive, since the costs are shared by a relatively small number of households. When a for-profit management company is hired to handle administrative operations, owners must pay those overhead costs, too. And then there are multiple insurance policies necessary to protect the corporate owners’ association from a variety of risks, from theft to fire to litigation against the association.
The true cost to own property in common is substantially higher than the real estate industry would have consumers believe. And long-term affordability is especially critical for older adults, whether approaching retirement or already retired and living on limited income. So active adult or 55+ communities are particularly vulnerable to shifting economic conditions or unforseen, underinsured risks.
Therefore, local planning boards should think twice before restricting new communities to older adults, particularly if the sole source of funding is HOA or condo assessments.
Townhouses do not always need an HOA
And why not build and sell each townhouse unit – whether attached duplex or triplex – separately (known as fee simple).
For more than a century most row homes and townhomes have been owned separately. As recently as the 1980s and early 1990s, a buyer could purchase a townhouse without the mandatory homeowners’ or condo association.
Each townhouse had its own exterior walls, rooflines, and utility supply lines, allowing residents to own and maintain their own homes without having to rely upon or obtain approval from the HOA in order to move forward with repairs or improvements.
Although some buyers may be initially sold on the concept of having their association take over all exterior maintenance, most owners soon discover that HOA and condo assessments continue to increase annually, and yet maintenance standards are not up to their personal expectations.
With an individually-owned property, a homeowner has the option of choosing their own landscapers and contractors, and making home improvement choices to fit their budget and personal taste.
Besides, common areas and amenities such as swimming pools, club houses, and bocce courts require costly ongoing maintenance. And unless a homeowner uses these amenities regularly, the extra mandatory fees may not be worth it.
Are the common amenities truly necessary and desirable? Or are they just a marketing “hook” to convince consumers to buy into the association-governed common interest community?
The real reason that Planning Boards lean toward creating association-governed common interest communities is to shift costs of infrastructure maintenance from municipalities or counties to private owners’ associations, and provide economic incentives for developers.
That fact is abundantly clear, especially when developers and local governments seem to go out of their way to create “commons” and mandatory property owners’ associations when they are not truly necessary.
Housing options that local governments could consider
Instead of a creating another condo association, nix the common areas and amenities, and create a publicly governed neighborhood.
Then allow duplex and triplex structures to be used for different living arrangements, according to market demand.
For example, an owner might choose to use a duplex home by living in one unit and renting the other unit to defray mortgage expenses. A large, extended family might also choose to purchase a duplex or triplex to remain close to grandparents to help with child care, or for adults to care for aging parents in their own homes.
Each duplex or triplex building is also an attractive investment option for small-scale real estate investors who may be interested in owning no more than three rental properties.
By thinking outside the HOA box, local governments can create a diverse array of housing choices for consumers, without all the unnecessary and burdensome costs of private, restricted, association-governed communities.