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What can history tell us about land use and planning? A lot if you believe a recent report from the Harvard Kennedy School Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. The report uses the suburb of Acton as a case study to take an in-depth and historical look at the evolution of land use and its economic development implications.
The takeaway, according to the report's author Alexander von Hoffman, is that Acton, like many Massachusetts communities, has built a regulatory environment that inhibits development.
"We need to make the process more efficient and responsive to the larger community interests rather than the parochial concerns that often dominate the process," von Hoffman said. "Builders and developers would like to see the process streamlined."
Easing regulatory hurdles and giving developers ideas of what growth a community is looking for are good ways to encourage growth, he said.
"If you don't, they will go build somewhere else," he said.
Acton is not unlike many other communities around the state, said von Hoffman, who works for the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard.
In the 1950s and 60s the town experienced a massive growth and population boom. The aftermath of that growth resulted in the stringent regulatory environment in place today. Between 1950 and 1970, for example, the town's population grew four-fold from about 3,500 to more than 14,770.
While von Hoffman's report points out the convoluted nature of local town zoning rules, Acton officials say they are in the difficult position having to balance the interests of the greater community, the developers and a sometimes vocal minority citizen group.
The best way to do that, according to Acton Board of Selectman Lauren Rosenzweig, is to bring people together and have them work toward a common goal.
Acton, she said, developed a master plan in the early 1990s that called for preserving open space, encouraging development in the town's urban village centers and preventing sprawl. It's been successful, she said, particularly in building higher-density apartment complexes.
If everyone sees the same end goal, Rosenzweig said, there could be a more cooperative permitting process.
A community with a plan is a good thing for developers, said Mathias Rosenfeld, a project manager for New Habitat Partners, an organization that is attempting to redevelop a mixed-use housing and commercial property in Acton.
"It's very helpful to have that vision laid down," he said. "It's part of this holistic approach of making a development that's good for the investor, the town and the neighbors."