A buildout analysis presented to the Mashpee Planning Board to help guide discussions about a proposed expansion of the Mashpee Commons found that existing zoning has little ability to expand housing options in town.
Mashpee Town Planner Evan R. Lehrer, who compiled the analysis, told the planning board during its meeting last Wednesday, September 1, that existing zoning does not address the demand issue central to the region’s housing crisis and could result in commercial development antithetical to the character of the town.
“Mashpee must recognize the severe limitations of its current zoning,” Mr. Lehrer said in a memo that laid out his analysis. “Mashpee’s growth potential lies in its already developed commercial districts, with the majority of that potential located in and around the rotary area on property owned and controlled by the Mashpee Commons.”
The analysis comes as the Mashpee Commons has proposed a zoning overlay district that would allow construction of as many as 1,600 new dwelling units and 700,000 square feet of commercial space on 187 acres of land that includes and surrounds their existing development.
As the planning board has begun to discuss the terms of the proposed expansion—which will be codified in a development agreement to be negotiated between the Commons, the Town of Mashpee and the Cape Cod Commission—what development existing zoning would allow has been a central question.
“This has been a question from the beginning: What would current zoning allow?” said John F. Fulone, the chairman of the planning board. “This clearly answers that.”
“My two takeaways were [that] the current zoning clearly is inadequate to address the housing issue, as it is written today, and, not as importantly, the current zoning provides for commercial development which...would not be appealing,” Mr. Fulone said.
In a “best-case scenario” for increasing housing supply under the town’s current zoning, parcels zoned for residential use could be subdivided to create a maximum of 294 new building lots on which single-family homes could be constructed, Mr. Lehrer said.
He cautioned planning board members that his estimate is likely inflated since several of the properties in his analysis, such as Camp Farley, have existing uses or have access issues that could make development challenging. His analysis found only seven properties remaining in Mashpee that could be subdivided to produce at least 10 building lots.
Moreover, with most housing in Mashpee being single-family homes, further construction of detached single-family homes—which is what current residential zoning allows—would not produce the type of housing needed to address the housing crisis on Cape Cod, Mr. Lehrer said.
“The opportunities are limited for additional housing development in town due to the nature of available land area and subdivided parcels,” Mr. Lehrer said. “We want to incentivize the construction of units that are not a detached single-family house.”
While the population of Mashpee in the 2020 census increased by more than 1,000 people from the decade before, “there has been little to no production of any product other than detached single-family homes and age-restricted retirement housing,” Mr. Lehrer said in his memo.
Meanwhile, between 2013 and 2018 Cape Cod lost 3,000 year-round homes and gained 6,000 seasonal homes, “putting artificial pressures on the housing market,” which likely grew even worse due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
Further construction of single-family homes would not meet the demand for more diverse housing typologies, could result in seasonal units rather than year-round units and would not result in housing that is affordable, Mr. Lehrer said.
He also noted that without municipal sewer systems in place, new single-family homes would likely rely on septic systems that would further exacerbate nitrogen pollution in the town’s waterways.
“The best pathway forward in regards to housing is to encourage mixed-use development in our commercial districts,” he said. “The manner with which we get there is what I think we’re here to discuss tonight and what we’re going to be doing by way of the [Mashpee Commons] development agreement process if we get to a point of success.”
Mr. Lehrer also noted that Mashpee has a bylaw known as the open space incentive development bylaw.
The bylaw incentivizes density by allowing developers to restrict a piece of property as open space to transfer the development rights of that property to build mixed-use, multifamily housing styles elsewhere.
Mashpee Commons is the only applicable property in town that could benefit from the open space development bylaw, Mr. Lehrer said. An analysis by former Mashpee Town Planner F. Thomas Fudala concluded that the Commons could develop around 400 housing units around the rotary area by restricting other properties they own in town as conservation land.
At present, the area near the Mashpee Rotary where the Commons has proposed its expansion is zoned as a commercial district.
“I think it is to our benefit here that this property that we are discussing has remained undeveloped for many many years,” Mr. Lehrer said. “It didn’t have to be that way; it could have been developed and it has development rights.”
He laid out three avenues by which the Common’s property could be developed under existing zoning: first, the property could be carved up into 40,000-square-foot commercial lots, each with separate buildings and parking and facilities; second, the area could be developed as a commercial center, like South Cape Village; and, third, it could be developed under the open space incentive development bylaw.
“We frequently hear that residents do not wish for Mashpee’s commercial center to be reflective of the aesthetic that is prevalent along Yarmouth’s Route 28,” Mr. Lehrer said in his memo. “The planning board and community must recognize that, without action and real consideration for placemaking and urban design, that typology is exactly what Mashpee’s zoning bylaw allows today: isolated commercial uses, large setbacks and parking to the front and side of buildings with no housing, affordable or market rate.”
Planning board member Mary E. Waygan also noted that the property could be developed under the state’s Chapter 40B regulations, which is how the Commons has thus far incorporated housing into their development.
“The commercial buildout in the center of town, if we’re taking into consideration community character and the housing issue, is not ideal,” Mr. Lehrer said. “The zoning bylaw as it sits today really is inadequate to address those needs and I don’t think produce a typology, a building typology, whereas community character can really be preserved.”
Community Activity Center
Recognizing that Cape Cod, like Mashpee, is nearing buildout, with most land area either already developed or protected as conservation land, the Cape Cod Commission in its 2018 regional policy plan designated 13 areas across the Cape as “community activity centers.”
The regional policy plan envisions concentrating additional growth in these community activity centers, which provide services and community aspects and are equipped with existing infrastructure to handle denser development.
The Mashpee Commons has pitched its expansion as a response to the Commission’s regional policy plan and called its proposed bylaw for the expansion a Community Activity Center Overlay District.
“If a compact, mixed-use, walkable neighborhood is what we are interested in pursuing, then the dimensional criteria proposed in the [Community Activity Center Overlay District] would achieve that,” Mr. Lehrer said.
Responding to concern from some planning board members about the proposed height of buildings, Mr. Lehrer recommended a change in language to the zoning bylaw that would limit building height in the overlay district to three-and-a-half stories. Buildings for special uses, such as a hotel, could be allowed by special permit from the planning board, he said
Mr. Lehrer further recommended that the planning board seek input from the affordable housing committee to ensure that the proposed Community Activity Center Overlay District maximizes the potential to diversify housing and addresses affordability.