February 23, 2023
Setting the Record Straight on MBTA Zoning Decision Making
By Becky Jaques, Select Board Chair, Ron Mastrogiacomo, Planning Board Chair, Betsy Ware, Interim Town Planner, and Gregory Federspiel, Town Administrator
Recent resident letters to the Cricket and to the Town Hall have addressed what is commonly referred to as “MBTA Zoning”, created by Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 40A, Section 3A. While we appreciate hearing from citizens, we need to set the record straight on a number of inaccurate assertions.
First, no boards or town officials have come out in support of the state’s mandate to change the town’s zoning. Furthermore, no municipal official has stated that this zoning initiative is “in the best interests of the town.” The State has required cities and towns to submit an action plan to achieve compliance with the state mandate. We, like nearly all municipalities effected, have submitted our action plan, but it is non-binding. It gives us time to make a carefully considered decision.
Second, no zoning articles pertaining to this issue will be presented at the Spring 2023 Town Meeting. As has been pointed out, there are many issues to consider, including concerns about flooding, infrastructure, and other issues. Since there will be “no rush to judgement,” downtown MBTA zoning will not be a matter for consideration this spring. However, we want to point out that the Planning Board plans to present specific proposals at Town Meeting to change the zoning bylaw. These proposals are unrelated to MBTA zoning.
Third, in response to the dismissal of state grants as inconsequential, the numbers that were quoted underreport past grants and discount future possibilities. None-the-less, there is agreement that infrastructure always needs work. Before we decide to forego important state funding including support for municipal infrastructure and public housing units that are vital to seniors living in our community, we should at least determine what zoning changes would be needed to comply with the state mandate, how such changes might impact the Town and what the financial impact on the Town would be if the Town did not pursue the State’s requirement to put this zoning in place. It would be irresponsible not to conduct this analysis before making a decision.
The Town (Select Board, Planning Board, Town Administrator, Interim Town Planner, and others) is undertaking the following:
- The Planning Board is assembling a Task Force to study the pros and cons of adoption of zoning to comply with the MBTA Zoning provisions. The Task Force will consist of representatives of pertinent boards and commissions who will study the town’s options for either adoption or rejection of this zoning provision. As necessary, the Task Force may hire an engineering, planning and/or housing consultant to work with the GIS program, designated by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, to assist the Task Force in development of a data base upon which policy decisions are made.
- The Task Force will study the financial ramifications on not being able to access certain grants should the Town not adopt the State’s MBTA zoning recommendations.
- The Task Force will be examining existing housing developments for density and character and “fit” within our community. Residents might be surprised that there are properties in town that already have a density exceeding the 15 units/acre required by the State.
- There will be a series of public forums to discuss the pros and cons of the MBTA zoning and to examine the data as it is developed. We encourage everyone’s attendance at these meetings to obtain as much public input as possible.
- The Action Plan we submitted to the State included a significant section on the issue of coastal vulnerability and floodplain issues. In public informational sessions with the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), town representatives have reiterated their concerns that development near the train station would be impacted by the floodplain and the fact that the train station was constructed on filled tide lands. Clearly any zoning change to allow residential development near the train station would have to consider soil conditions and potential flooding.
To be clear, no town official (appointed or elected) wishes to burden existing infrastructure, compromise the character of the community, or neglect their fiduciary responsibilities to the residents of Manchester. However, we also want to be clear that raising the specter of Rantoul Street in Beverly presents a false choice and a rush to judgment without understanding the ramifications of compliance and non-compliance would be a major mistake. What we have proposed and will execute is a careful analysis of the downtown to determine what specific regulations would need to be revised to achieve compliance. If a determination is made that compliance with this zoning requirement is not in the Town’s interests, then the Town will consider other options to increase the diversity of our housing stock.
The MBTA zoning requirement has become a hot button topic. Through a methodical, data driven process with ample opportunity for public discourse we can come to a decision that is right for Manchester.