Bedford Planning Board Grapples with Evolving Housing Density Requirements

August 28, 2023

Planning Board members last week continued to grapple with avenues to compliance with so-called MBTA housing requirements – which continue to evolve at the state level.

Members spent much of their most recent discussion on Aug. 22 considering the wording of a survey they hope will not only reveal residents’ preferences but also inform them of the content of the law. Jacinda Barbehenn said the survey should be a centerpiece of the board’s Bedford Day presence, adding, “Maybe we could ask folks to be part of a focus group.”

Each city or town served by the MBTA must have at least one zoning district in which multi-family housing is permitted as of right. Bedford falls into a category of towns adjacent to a commuter rail station, which means a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre over at least 50 acres – half of them contiguous. The housing must be suitable for families with children.

The deadline for the detailed compliance plan isn’t until Dec. 31, 2024. Cities and towns that fail to comply will be ineligible for a range of state grants.

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“This questionnaire is also an educational opportunity. I don’t think most people know what is going on, and there has been a ton of misinformation,” said member Amy Lloyd. Barbehenn agreed, calling for a brief, educational document.

Catherine Perry, Assistant Planning Director, remarked that “it is a complicated subject. There are going to be different explanations at different levels.” The town website will be a key to better understanding, she added, and could include a frequently-asked-questions section.

The Planning Board continues to discuss MBTA housing requirements and is hoping to use the town website, surveys, and Bedford Day to inform, educate, and gather input from community members. Image:

“People need to understand the consequences for non-compliance,” Lloyd said. “There are going to be plenty of people who say, ‘No change in Bedford.’” Barbehenn said the material “should also point out the benefits,” such as the regional economy.

Planning Board Chair Chris Gittens, during the Aug. 22 board meeting, asked fellow members about their “current thinking” regarding compliance. Two approaches emerged. 

Barbehenn said, “I think this is the best opportunity we’ll ever have to create a livable, walkable community.” She said she would favor rezoning not just The Great Road corridor, but also “town center neighborhoods around it, anything within walking distance of the four subdistricts.” 

Lloyd had an alternative, referring to acreage owned by the Woburn Sportsmen’s Association.  “We should zone that big chunk over on Middlesex Turnpike and then be able to chunk in the center of town to customize.” 

She opposed blanket rezoning of older neighborhoods because “there are so many historic structures in the center that have a significant impact on the character of the town.” Planning Director Tony Fields noted that the density definition requires structures to have at least three units or two duplexes on one lot. 

Member Steven Hagen “would go along with what Jacinda is talking about.” He pointed out that the MBTA service is in the area of The Great Road, while the bus route along Middlesex Turnpike is operated by the Lowell Regional Transit Authority. Todd Crowley said, “I would probably go with more of Amy’s thoughts.” 

Gittins said, “I would like to see mixed-use development associated with multi-family. I know I would prefer areas where there are a lot of small parcels rather than a few big ones, areas evolving by conversion from one family to two or three or four, over the course of decades, in contrast to immediate construction of developments with hundreds of units.”

There are four areas – three along The Great Road – that under current zoning allow higher-density residential development, but as part of mixed-use. The criteria for the MBTA housing law originally excluded mixed-use development from fulfilling the requirement.

Fields told the board that the provision has been modified slightly at the state level, but not in a way that will provide Bedford with a clear path. “There is going to be some opportunity to do some mixed-use zoning for up to 25 percent of your requirement, but it’s unclear how you deduct the mixed-use zoning from the 50-acre requirement,” he said.

Fields has pointed out that “requiring multi-family to ‘stand-alone’ means potential loss of retail, restaurant, and services that may change the fabric of the mixed-use neighborhoods if we continue that strategy.”

Members hope the state Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities will consider changing its guidelines to allow muti-family as part of mixed-use when the underlying zoning is a business or industrial district.

Any local zoning changes that the board identifies as necessary will require public hearings late in 2023 for inclusion in the March 2024 Annual Town Meeting warrant.

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August 28, 2023 6:31 pm

Why should we let ourselves be blackmailed into doing this by the state? Hundreds of new possible units in Bedford will mean all of our infrastructure will need to expanded. We’ve only recently finished a decade’s long major renovation/expansion at every school in town. There is no way some meager state contribution to our budget is going to pay the $10s or $100s of millions needed to start that all over again. I, for one, say Bedford should just say no.

August 30, 2023 2:12 pm
Reply to  Dan

One thing to bear in mind is that these are simply zoning changes. They don’t mandate any actual building. The potential for “hundreds of new possible units” would have to be acted on by landowners and developers. The zoning change would give incentive to, for example, the owners of the Bedford Plaza to redevelop that large parcel into mixed-use. Imagine if Stop N Shop stayed exactly as is, all the businesses got facelifts, and there were two stories above the existing business where people could live. There’s already ample parking.

People could then live next to a grocery store, pet store, flower shop, hardware store, liquor store, and 4 restaurants all either within their parking lot or just across the street. And the empty storefronts would fill quickly with built-in demand and easy parking.

But again, none of this will actually happen unless the land owner wants to make the investment. The zoning changes just give him/her a reason to want to.

August 31, 2023 5:12 pm
Reply to  Dan

If this becomes a thing, it makes no sense for anyone who currently owns a property in this new zoning with a single family property as an investment to not tear it down and get a 2 family building put in the same place. The only ones that would not do it would be those who do not have the financial means to get such a project going.

These changes will result in speeding up how fast the town grows. I moved here to get away from the big city and live a slower life, not to help the town to speed up its transformation into a big city faster than it needs to.

August 31, 2023 9:14 pm
Reply to  Mario

Two-family housing wouldn’t meet the 15 units per acre density requirement, so this law doesn’t incentivize that at all. I also find it doubtful that “everyone who owns a single-family property as an investment” a) is a significant slice of property owners in Bedford; b) would want to become landlords to twice as many tenants; or c) would want to have a duplex on their hands to sell, as opposed to a single-family dwelling, when they are ready to divest themselves of that investment.

Lexington already passed their version of this, covering 160 acres. The whole town of Lexington is more than 10,000 acres, so a little more than 1.5% of their land is now eligible for this level of density. Bedford has to zone 50 acres of our total 8800 acres: about 0.5% of our total land. It seems overblown to consider higher density on 0.5% of the town a “transformation into a big city.” The goal of these changes is to create pockets of density with smaller units that are more affordable than the standalone single-family homes that make up the vast majority of properties in town. Are we really unwilling to make 0.5% of town available for this purpose?

September 1, 2023 1:04 am

Other cities and towns can do as they please, I don’t live there, I live here.

Are we really unwilling to make 0.5% of town available for this purpose?”

As long as roads can’t get any wider and any faster to let the ever growing traffic through, yes, that is something I am very much unwilling to do.

A town should very much be able to choose how much it grows or how much it does not grow. If the town chooses not to go through with this, I certainly do not see anything wrong with it.

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