Letter to the Editor: Why City Council Special Permit Granting Authority (SPGA) is a Bad Idea

Note: This letter was written for submission to the Cambridge Chronicle by ABC member Seth Zeren, a City Planner with experience working in a town where Special Permit Granting Authority was administered by elected officials. We reprint it here to help you become better informed about this complicated proposal. Click here to take action against designating the City Council as the exclusive special permit granting authority for Project Review Special Permits.

Dear Editor:

The City Council is discussing a zoning petition filed by Councilor Dennis Carlone that would take the authority to grant special permits from the Planning Board and give it to the City Council. I understand that some are frustrated with recent decisions made by the Planning Board; with 90 years of hindsight, few in the planning profession would suggest that the typical Planning Board process is perfect. There are many ways that we could improve it—for example, requiring early community meetings before a developer spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on a complete design, or making better use of online forums to expand the number of voices who can weigh in on projects.

I have worked for a municipality where the legislative branch had taken on the power of granting special permits. The system was so problematic that there were active attempts to move away from it. The underlying problems were:

  • It increased the politicization of development. Project approval become even more about appeasing the loudest neighbor on the block, rather than meeting the boarder interests of the City. Developers call on each Councilor, one by one, asking “can we make a deal.” Political insiders have more power to control development, backroom deals will shape projects, and approvals will be more piecemeal—Instead of comprehensive, as advocated by the new Master Plan initiative.
  • City Councilors are not experts in development, zoning, or planning, making them less able to review the fine points of a proposal or to evaluate the tradeoffs in the design. Project review can take up an incredible amount of time—time that could be better spent on improving the zoning ordinance or championing a new master plan. The membership of the Planning Board should have the skills to more effectively review projects, facilitate meetings, and hold all parties responsible to their agreements—where that is not the case, by all means, let’s adjust the membership of the Board.
  • The overall process of development becomes less certain, for neighbors as well as developers. Uncertainty weeds out many small developers and pushes projects to be ever larger because only a large project can cover the overhead of years of wrangling over permits.
  • Once you’ve got the power to control development, and please the most passionate neighbors (and voters), it’s really hard to give it up—even if it has negative effects on the City as a whole.

The City Council already has the ability of to guide development by amending the Zoning Ordinance and setting the City’s policy vision. Rather than approving this proposal, the Council should take steps to improve our existing process and focus on studying how we can slow the rising cost of housing to retain low and middle income families. There are many ways that changes can be made to the planning process without turning every major development into a political football that will be subject to political pressure of special interests groups—whether those groups are developers or residents.

Seth Zeren