MBTA Zoning Analysis Getting Underway
By Gregory T. Federspiel
The state legislators enacted a new section to the state’s zoning laws, MGL Chapter 40, Section 3a, which seeks to establish by-right multi-family housing within a half mile of MBTA transit stations. The goals of the new law are to promote the use of public transportation, improve air quality and address the need for increased housing. The challenge for Manchester is to see if we can comply with the new law while maintaining the character of the community.
Municipalities must have in place local zoning that complies with this new law by December 2024 or risk losing the opportunity to secure certain state grants. Thus, Manchester has about two years to decide if we will comply. At a joint meeting of the Planning Board and Select Board on Monday, January 9, the Boards reviewed a timeline for fully vetting whether we should comply or not. Both options are on the table and ultimately the voters will need to approve zoning changes at a Town Meeting if we are to comply. The two boards agreed to the timeline and to create a special task force to oversee the vetting process.
The Task Force will be jointly led by the Planning Board and the Select Board with representation from numerous town boards and committees along with other “at large” members from the community. The goal is to have the Task Force in place by mid-February. Staff support will be led by interim Town Planner Betsy Ware. Additional technical support (mapping, modeling scenarios) will be provided by outside consultants.
The timeline includes a series of steps from data collection on existing development and an analysis of how close are we to compliance currently to projections of the impact of potential new development on the character and capacity of our municipal services. Also to be undertaken is a study of the impact of foregoing the state grants we would not be able to receive should we decide to not comply. What alternative funding might be possible to replace these grant funds? And what savings might we see if we do not have to expand municipal services to accommodate more housing?
The initial guidelines and requirements that the state promulgated have been modified based on the significant amount of comments communities sent in. The revised final guidelines provide greater flexibility in how a community can respond to the new law. For example, for Manchester, our total acreage that must be included in districts that allow multi-family housing by right has been reduced from 50 to 37. 15 acres of the 37 must be within a half mile of the commuter rail station with the remaining allowed outside this area. The minimum density required for multi-housing units is 15 units per acre. We currently allow by right the conversion of existing dwellings to multi-housing up to 21 units per acre in our general district and there are examples of even higher density in our village that have been approved by Special Permits. The state has also clarified that a community can still require a public process for site plan review even for by-right uses. The site plan review process can require various conditions though it cannot deny a project.
At this early stage there still remain more questions than answers. We need to use the coming months to delve into the details, assemble the facts, educate ourselves as to the pros and cons of different options and come to a community wide conclusion. To do this we will need an in-depth engagement process that provides amble opportunities for residents to come together to learn and discuss. Public forums will be scheduled through-out the two year process. A dedicated web page will be a repository for all the accumulated information.
MBTA zoning has already generated a lot of concern. To be sure, there is strong resistance from being told what to do from edicts from Beacon Hill. Whether we decide to comply or not, I believe Manchester would be well served by creating a more diverse housing stock. If we decide that the requirements of the state do not suit our long term needs, I hope that we can craft home-grown solutions that will. The majority of our housing consists of large, expensive single-family homes. I believe we need greater diversity of housing to retain a healthy mix of residents. Let’s use this MBTA zoning mandate as an opportunity to decide how we best go about meeting the stated goals of our Master Plan and Housing Production plan to produce a greater array of housing choices.