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.
“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.
“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.