Annual Town Meeting late Monday approved revisions to the zoning bylaw that will facilitate construction of or conversion to two-family dwellings. The 137-48 tally cleared the two-thirds threshold required for approval.
The proposal was strategically placed at the end of the 22-article warrant as a way to ensure retention of a quorum, and it worked. Town Meeting agreed to waive the house rule that no articles could be introduced after 10:15 p.m.; presentation of article 22 began at 10:25 and town meeting adjourned an hour later.
Planning Board member Todd Crowley had that task, and he explained in detail how the amendment would make the bylaw less restrictive. The change was recommended by the 2019 town housing study as well as a Council on Aging needs assessment, said Crowley.
According to the Planning Department, the amendments:
- Keep the allowance for conversion of pre-1945 single-family dwellings to two-family dwellings, while setting a size limit on any additions involved and eliminating the minimum size for the new dwelling unit and the need for a special permit if the property is fully conforming
- Widen other circumstances in which a two-family dwelling may be created but set criteria that limit its size, based on the lot area (using floor-area ratio and lot coverage, selected to roughly equate to current large single-family houses)
- Provide criteria for the Zoning Board of Appeals to refer to when reviewing proposals for two-family dwellings on nonconforming lots (which need a special permit)
Crowley enumerated what the board feels are benefits resulting from the revision, including expanded housing opportunities, preservation of existing structures, and more efficient use of town infrastructure.
He said the Planning Board doesn’t expect a large response to the changes. “We expect a small uptick in two-family houses,” said Crowley, adding that there should not be much of an impact on traffic or student population.
There are 196 two-family residences out of 5,444 housing units in Bedford today, Crowley said. Over the past 10 years, he added, there have been four two-family houses created.
Speaking for the Select Board, member Shawn Hanegan said “this is a step in the right direction” to recognize the “growing gap for middle-income people.” He said the board recognizes that, under state law, zoning changes for multifamily housing will have to be addressed soon.
Also endorsing the renovations were the Energy and Sustainability Committee, the League of Women Voters of Bedford, and the Bedford chapter, Mothers Out Front.
Council on Aging Board member Sandra Hackman pointed out that nearly 30 percent of the town population is at least age 60. “Bedford seniors, among others, very much need options” for housing, she said, adding that the amendments “also would help employers attract and retain employees. It is important for people to live close to where they work and shop.”
Hackman also noted that expanding the housing menu would support “our long-expressed value of economic and racial diversity.”
“We are part of the economic region. We have companies in continuous need of workforce,” said Planning Board member Jacinda Barbehenn. Angel Pettitt noted the need for more young families. Corinne Doud pointed out that other towns have adopted similar changes and have not experienced “drastic changes.”
Sue Swanson said the amendments could “allow families to expand and contract together. This might not be a developer’s dream but it could be a family’s dream.” Also staying up late to voice his support was 92-year-old Brown Pulliam.
Among the opposition was the Finance Committee. Chair Ben Thomas explained that “it is unclear what the cost would be in terms of resources or any other aspect of town government.” He said the committee does not think the issue is urgent, and time should be provided to gather more information.
There were a few other negative comments, but even some of those endorsed the concept.
“I think it is the right idea, but I think it is being rushed,” said Peter Ricci.
Although “the goal is laudable,” said Nicholas Howard, builders will exploit the option to maximize price.
“This is a great idea. I just don’t think we’ve got it worked out yet,” said Marc Levetin.
In answer to a question from Robin Steele, Crowley said the board did not conduct traffic or pupil population studies.
Former Selectman Joe Piantedosi, noting Bedford’s leadership in efforts to expand affordable housing, opposed the amendments. “We don’t have to solve the housing problems for the state,” he declared.