chris gittins for selectman

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My Final Candidate Statement to The Bedford Citizen

Many of you know Stacy and I and our kids. If you do, please tell your friends and neighbors that I'm running for Planning Board! If we don't know each other, I hope we get to. In the meantime, I know it's important to you to know who you're voting for when you vote in Town Election. With that in mind, here's my "Final Candidate Statement" for The Bedford Citizen. It'll appear soon but here's an early look. I'm satisfied that it captures what I believe and what you can expect from me as a member of the Planning Board. Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions. Thank you for your support!
 
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My name is Chris Gittins. I’m asking for your vote for a seat on the Planning Board. I’ve been a Bedford resident for twenty years. I've seen the dramatic transformation that Bedford has undergone in recent decades. The decisions we did and didn’t make as a community twenty and thirty years ago are central to shaping what our community is today – our housing, our commercial space and our public spaces. I know that we must be pro-active in our long-term planning as well as responsive to current proposed development in order to shape the future that we want. The decisions that we make now affect us not just our immediate future, but will set the stage for how Bedford evolves in the decades to come.
 
As a member of Bedford’s Conservation Commission, I have experience participating in hearings and meetings where we must balance laws and regulations with community goals, Town policies and resident concerns. I understand how facts, opinions, and the law must be harmonized in order to make good decisions. Similarly, the decisions that the Planning Board faces involve trade-offs: between property rights and town interests, between development that addresses the wishes of current neighbors and that which is more oriented towards achieving broader long-term community goals.
 
Here’s where I stand and what you can expect of me:
 
Bedford's Comprehensive Plan is excellent.
 
I will work to continue to fulfill the vision our Comprehensive Plan describes for transportation, economic development, community services, land use, natural & cultural resources, and housing. Our current Comprehensive Plan, from 2013, was the result of a year-long participatory process involving town boards, committees, departments and public workshops. I’m pleased to have contributed to one of those public workshops. I look forward to contributing again when we update it in a couple years.
 
Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)
 
I support the proposed bylaw amendments to make it easier for residents to build ADUs. Lowering the barriers to building ADUs on owner-occupied property will make it easier for seniors to downsize on their own property or for homeowners to provide a housing option for a parent or adult child otherwise priced out of the Bedford housing market. In other circumstances, an ADU can provide rental income that some homeowners need in order just to stay in their homes. Looking at Bedford’s history with accessory apartments as well as other town's experiences with ADUs, the number of units built is negligible on the town development scale, with per year averages in the single digits, but for the people who choose to build them it makes a big difference.
 
Open Space
 
I favor preserving open space as much as we can. I will work to draft an Open Space Residential Development zoning bylaw amendment, as called out in our Comprehensive Plan, so that we have better options for preserving open space when a developer chooses to build housing on their property.
 
Mixed-Use Zoning
 
Mixed-use zoning benefits our community. It allows more people to live closer to where they shop and eat, adds to our supply of middle-income-affordable housing, and helps local business – putting high-quality retail space and potential customers next to each other. It also reduces traffic congestion. To date, Bedford’s mixed-used zoning has been community-driven but a new state law requires by-right mixed-use along MBTA transit routes. We need to carefully adopt such zoning to ensure that it works with the existing neighborhood where it’s implemented. Further, by concentrating multi-unit housing options along our business and transportation corridors, we stabilize our many unique neighbors.
 
The Great Road Center District, from Whole Foods Plaza to Town Common, offers a great opportunity to create vibrant, inviting public space. Let’s work with residents and property owners to help create it.
 
Climate Change Mitigation and Resilience
 
Our zoning bylaws need to motivate developers to build for climate resilience and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction. Energy-efficient (“net zero”) buildings are climate-resilient, reduce GHG emissions and save a lot of money overall, but businesses worry about potential upfront construction costs. We need to achieve carbon-neutrality as soon as possible. Doing so requires addressing the practical challenges of building net zero buildings, including using our regulatory authority to lower financial barriers as well as bureaucratic ones. Don’t compromise on goals. Lower the barriers to achieving them. Towards that end, the Planning Board needs to have the option to permit developers expanded development rights in exchange for meeting strong energy efficiency standards and solarizing buildings and parking lots.
 
In conclusion, I am deeply committed to addressing Bedford’s current and long-term planning challenges. I would welcome the opportunity to serve on the Planning Board to achieve our vision for Bedford’s future together. I ask for your vote in this year’s Town Election on March 13.

My closing statement at the League of Women Voters candidate forum

Thank you for taking the time to listen this afternoon.
 
Much of what the Planning Board does involves trade-offs: between property rights and town interests, between development that addresses the wishes of current neighbors and that which is more oriented towards broader long-term community goals. Through my experience on the Conservation Commission, I understand how facts, opinions, and the law must be harmonized in order to make good decisions that will hold up well over time.
 
Here’s where I stand and what you can expect of me:
  • Bedford's 2013 Comprehensive Plan is excellent. I will work to continue to fulfill the vision it describes for transportation, economic development, community services, land use, natural & cultural resources, and housing.
  • I support the proposed bylaw amendments to make it easier for residents to build Accessory Dwelling Units.
  • I favor preserving open space as much as we can. I will work to draft an Open Space Residential Development zoning bylaw amendment, as called out in our Comprehensive Plan, so that we have better options for preserving open space when a developer chooses to build housing on their property.
  • Mixed-use zoning allows more people to live closer to where they shop and eat, and also reduces traffic congestion. A new state law requires by-right mixed use along MBTA transit routes. We need to carefully adopt such zoning to ensure that it works with the existing neighborhood.
  • The Great Road Center District, from Whole Foods Plaza to Town Common, offers a great opportunity to create vibrant, inviting public space. Let’s work with residents and property owners to help create it.
  • Finally, our zoning bylaws need to motivate developers to build for climate resilience. We need to have the option to permit developers expanded development rights in exchange for meeting strong energy efficiency standards and solarizing buildings and parking lots.
In conclusion, I am deeply committed to addressing Bedford’s current and long-term planning challenges. I would welcome the opportunity to serve on the Planning Board to achieve our vision for Bedford’s future together. I ask for your vote in this year’s Town Election on March 13.

My opening statement at the League of Women Voters candidate forum

Thank you to the League of Women Voters for organizing this forum and for the opportunity to participate.
My name is Chris Gittins. I’m asking for your vote for a seat on the Planning Board.
 
I’ve been a Bedford resident for twenty years. I've seen the dramatic transformation that Bedford has undergone in recent decades. I know that we must be pro-active in our long-term planning as well as responsive to current proposed development in order to shape the future that we want.
 
As a member of Bedford’s Conservation Commission, I have experience participating in hearings and meetings where we must balance laws and regulations with community goals, policies and resident concerns. I understand how facts, opinions, and the law must be harmonized in order to make good decisions. Similarly, the decisions that the Planning Board faces involve trade-offs: between property rights and town interests, between development that addresses the wishes of current neighbors and that which is more oriented towards achieving broader long-term community goals.
 
The Planning Board recommends the rules that everyone must follow as the Town develops – housing, commercial space and public spaces. As a member of the Planning Board, I will look to Bedford’s Comprehensive Plan to guide my decisions. The Comprehensive Plan was the result of a year-long participatory process involving town boards, committees, departments and public workshops. I’m pleased to have contributed to one of those public workshops.
 
My vision for Bedford is aligned with the vision the Comprehensive Plan presents. We need to plan our town for people, not just cars and shopping centers. We need to recognize the importance of lively neighborhoods and inviting public spaces.
 
Our zoning bylaws need to support creating housing options for people of all ages, family and socio-economic status.
We’d like to be able to walk or bike to where we shop and eat out, to not feel like getting there by car is the only practical option.
 
We want new buildings in town to be energy-efficient not just because they’re more cost-effective but because they are more resilient to climate change.
 
In conclusion, I am deeply committed to addressing Bedford’s current and long-term planning challenges. I would welcome the opportunity to serve on the Planning Board to achieve our vision for Bedford’s future together.

You still have time to request a mail-in ballot.

Town Election is two weeks from today!
You can still request a mail-in ballot if you prefer mail-in over voting in person.  The Town Clerk needs to receive your application by 12:00 PM on Friday, March 12, the day before Town Election.  Details are provided on the Town website here.

Redevelopment of Papa Gino's site on Great Road

Last night's (February 23) Planning Board meeting included a site review for proposed mixed-use development at the former Papa Gino's site on Great Rd. I was favorably impressed with the plan presented. I think it fits with the neighborhood and associated traffic volume is predicted to be less than what it was with Papa Gino's. (Timing of vehicle trips would be different but total volume is predicted to be lower.)  There was also discussion of a bus shelter and putting solar panels on the roof.  The design is evolving.  The review will continue at the March Planning Board meeting.  Meetings are recorded by Bedford TV.  You can watch last night's here

ADDITIONAL COMMENT 3/3/2021:   We need to see front elevation drawings.  What will the building look like in the context of what's on either side, Dunkin' and the DPW?  Related, the renderings presented show quite a bit of greenery on the Dunkin' side of the building but, when you look at the notional plot plan, there isn't space for any.  The parking spaces bump right up against the Dunkin' drivethrough.  That gives me pause.  Having some trees between structures makes space more pleasant.  Trees and greenery are both visually appealing keep the pavement from baking.  We want both.  Also, the renderings don't give you perspective on the DPW side of the building.  What's that going to look like?  (What's the height of the DPW building?)  I still think that the building itself looks pretty good but I want to get a better sense of what it would look like in context.

The Basics of By-Right Permitting

I've been getting questions about what Planning Board can and can't do. Roughly speaking, the common theme is, "Can the Planning Board put the kibosh on a project that no likes?" That's a good question. The answer is "It depends." I know, not a very satisfying answer, but here's a useful explainer from mass.gov on what it depends upon, The Basics of By-Right Permitting:
"The term "by-right" or "as-of-right", which is often used in planning and zoning terminology, refers to land uses that are allowed in a particular district without discretionary review. While these developments must abide by other local and state regulations such as environmental regulations, and building codes, they cannot be prohibited. The greatest benefit of by-right permitting is that it is the most predictable and easiest permitting method. Therefore, towns may want to permit the types of land uses that they would like to encourage as "by-right" uses, as well as uses that are not likely to have significant impacts on the town or neighborhood. For example, single-family residential homes are typically permitted by-right in multiple districts in most communities.
By-right development is regulated by a city's or town's zoning enforcement agent. In Massachusetts, these responsibilities are commonly administered by the Building Inspector, who may issue building permits based on basic applications to his or her office. If applications are deemed to be in non-compliance with zoning, or if a type of development is typically subject to a higher level of review, the zoning enforcement agent will refer the applicant to the proper authority. For example, if a development requires a variance or a Special Permit, the Building Inspector will refer the applicant to the appropriate permit granting authority."
In short, if a project is compliant with local zoning, then it can proceed without review. The applicant gets their building permit and they proceed. (By analogy, you probably don't need a ZBA hearing to get a permit to renovate your bathroom. So long as your plan is compliant with zoning regs, you just go to Code Enforcement and get a building permit. There are rules you need to comply with to get your permit, but it doesn't require external review.) If a proposed development project isn't compliant with local zoning that's when it becomes subject to Planning Board review.

Massachusetts Makes Broad Changes to the Zoning Act

Some fairly substantial changes to MA zoning law went into effect last month.  From The National Law Review, 1/16/2021, Massachusetts Makes Broad Changes to the Zoning Act:

Year after year, the Massachusetts Legislature considers bills to change General Laws Chapter 40A, or the Massachusetts Zoning Act. Many prior changes were fairly minor, but on January 14, 2021, Governor Charlie Baker signed an act making some major changes to the Zoning Act. Several of the changes were taken from Governor Baker’s often-touted Housing Choice bill. Click here for the new legislation. Zoning Act changes start on page 35.

Some of the broadest changes are in the definitions section of the Zoning Act. For example, the term “as of right” is now a defined term identifying activity that does not need discretionary zoning approval. These changes are helpful both to avoid litigation about what terms such as “multi-family housing” and “accessory dwelling unit” mean, and because municipalities often adopt defined terms and other language from the Zoning Act into their zoning codes to assure compliance with the law. Such common language can be helpful to businesses operating in multiple municipalities.

There's more information in the rest of the NLR post.  It's important to remember that while the Planning Board can guide local development and housing options through changes to local zoning, certain requirements as well as the realm of the possible are defined by MA General Laws

Thought for the Day

Much of what the Planning Board does involves trade-offs, between property rights and town interests, between development being attentive to current neighbors and setting good precedents for meeting long-term community goals, between bringing in new businesses and ensuring that new businesses fit well within our current environment. One of the challenges for Planning Board members is to assess the trade-offs associated with specific development proposals, identify how project-specific trade-offs relate to The Big Picture of Bedford's evolution as town, and then to make decisions which will hold up well over time.

Yard signs and Dear Friend cards are here!

Yard signs* and Dear Friend cards are here! (*More like snowbank signs.) Please send me a note and I'll deliver - chrisgittinsforbedford@gmail.com.  The Planning Board will have a lot on its plate in the near future as well as longer-term - matters which affect housing options, traffic, the success of our local economy and businesses, and our resilience to climate change. I'm running because I know that those issues are important to so many of us. Like you, I'm committed to sustaining our community and building a better future. I appreciate your support.

Zoning to support local business

A couple years ago at a Chamber of Commerce event I was talking with a local business owner.  At one point I asked, "If the Select Board could wave a magic wand and solve a problem for you, what would it be?"  The answer - my memory is imperfect and I'm paraphrasing here - "I'm getting eaten alive by franchises.  Some relief would be welcome."  The event was ending so we didn't get into specifics of what might help, but I still think about that conversation.

A couple years ago Concord tried to do something along those lines.  They had a warrant article to add a bylaw which would limit the number of franchises ("formula businesses") in the Concord Center Business District. Interesting idea.  There were 10 franchises in the district at the time.  The proposed amendment was to cap the number at 12.  What do you think?  If you're a small business owner, do think a zoning bylaw which constrained the number of franchises in your area would help you out?

By-Right Multifamily Zoning

From the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (MAPC):

"The recently-passed Economic Development Bond Bill included a number of provisions relating to Housing Choices. One topic that has been the subject of a number of questions relates to a change to Chapter 40A, which requires that all "MBTA communities" have a zoning district that allows by-right multifamily housing."  

Bedford is an "MBTA Community" so this will be on Planning Board's plate in the near future.  There are areas in town where multifamily housing is allowed by special permit but none where it's allowed by-right, i.e., not subject to special review and approval by a local government.  We (Bedford residents) will need to figure out where that makes sense.  The Planning Board will be central to the process.  Full disclosure:  I don't have an opinion yet on potential locations for by-right multifamily housing.  My purpose here is identifying it as an important issue that you should be aware.  The Planning Board will eventually need to make a recommendation at a future Town Meeting.  The sooner we start engaging the issue, the better. 

Difficult conversations

I think that these are words to live by if you're planning to hold public office or hold a leadership position:
 
"Avoiding or delaying a difficult conversation can hurt your relationships and create other negative outcomes. It may not feel natural at first, especially if you dread discord, but you can learn to dive into these tough talks by reframing your thoughts.
Begin from a place of curiosity and respect, and stop worrying about being liked. Conflict avoiders are often worried about their likability. While it’s natural to want to be liked, that’s not always the most important thing. Lean into the conversation with an open attitude and a genuine desire to learn. Start from a place of curiosity and respect — for both yourself and the other person. Genuine respect and vulnerability typically produce more of the same: mutual respect and shared vulnerability. Even when the subject matter is difficult, conversations can remain mutually supportive. Respect the other person’s point of view, and expect them to respect yours."
 

Three Cheers for Accessory Dwelling Units

The Planning Board just finalized its proposed Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) zoning bylaw amendments.  We'll be able to vote on them at Annual Town Meeting this May.  I support the proposed amendments 100%.  The proposed amendments are modest changes to existing bylaws - see Section 4.2.9., Accessory Apartments, for what's currently on the books.  In summary, if the main amendment passes homeowners will be allowed to construct an ADU up to 900 sq.ft. (two bedrooms max and 25 ft height limit) subject to Planning Board approval.  Loosening restrictions on ADUs will help address Bedford's shortage of moderately sized, moderately priced housing. They provide downsizing options for seniors and expand housing options young adults, who don't currently have a lot to choose from in town. I will do all that I can to help the proposed amendments pass at Town Meeting this spring. The proposed changes are modest but they're a step in a good direction.

Two simple rules for healthy neighborhood change

Bedford has grown and changed considerably in recent decades. The Planning Board is central to guiding and managing change. One of the websites that I read for thoughtful commentary on planning-related issues is Strong Towns. Their focus is more urban than suburban but the ideas they share are almost always thought provoking. I usually come away thinking, "I hadn't considered that before." or "Would that work for us here?" or, better yet, "I think that would work for us here." With that in mind, when it comes to planning, Daniel Herriges' two-part rule seems solid:

  1. No neighborhood can be exempt from change.
  2. No neighborhood should experience sudden, radical change. 

You can read his whole essay here

Net Zero Stretch Energy Code

Leaders from over 50 communities in Massachusetts have co-signed a letter calling on Governor Baker to ensure that the municipal opt-in net zero stretch energy code in climate bill S.9, An Act creating a next-generation roadmap for Massachusetts climate policy, is signed into law. I support municipal opt-in too. You can read the letter here. It's informative and worth a few minutes of your time.

Some background information:

Making Bedford More Walkable and Bikable

One of my favorite blogs is Strong Towns. I come away from almost every post thinking "How could we apply that here?" about at least a couple ideas the author presents. Their recent post, How the Modest Walk Can Connect You To Your Community, and the associated podcast remind me of our Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan. (I think it was my wife who clued me in to the Bike and Ped Master Plan when she was a member of the Transportation Advisory Committee.) I'll be an advocate for implementing its infrastructure recommendations. Making town more walkable and bikable will improve our quality of life by improving connections between neighbors and, hopefully, reducing local traffic. That and it's just nice talk with the people you run into and to appreciate nature when you're out on foot or on bike.

Over-Parking Lot Solar Panels Produce Clean Electricity for Town Buildings

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building resiliency to climate change, and improving energy efficiency are core issues for me.  Town has a lot of opportunities increase the use of renewable energy and reduce GHG emissions. For example, Wayland installed solar panels above parking lots above their High School, Middle School, and Town Building a few years ago. I think installing solar panels above Bedford's town-owned parking lots is an excellent idea. What do you think?

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