Board Floats Some Options That Could Comply with State Housing Law

October 17, 2023

The Bedford Planning Board is starting to get specific about the geography of compliance with a state law requiring zoning to accommodate multi-family housing. But board members are far from consensus.

The requirements are known informally as the MBTA housing guidelines because they apply to the 177 cities and towns served by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Signed in January 2021, the law requires these municipalities to designate at least 50 acres – with at least 25 contiguous – where 15 or more units of housing per acre can be built by right, without age restrictions, “suitable for families with children.” That adds up to 750 potential housing units, although none of them may actually be constructed. As an “MBTA adjacent” community, the districts can be anywhere. 

The penalty for not complying with the law is ineligibility for a range of state grants, some of which the town is targeting to help with major infrastructure improvements. Full compliance is required by the end of next year. The Planning Board submitted a pro-forma action plan for its process in January, as required for interim compliance. 

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Still to be determined are the boundaries, which ultimately will require rezoning by a majority vote at town meeting. Planning Board members hope there is meaningful public input toward a decision, and are circulating a detailed 10-question survey (https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/ZD83GSB) to elicit and share information. 

Members Jacinda Barbehenn and Board Chair Chris Gittins have been developing a strategy and a timetable toward ensuring the town’s compliance. A key component of a community education effort with at least three maps of potential overlay districts still under consideration will be displayed at the Nov. 6 Special Town Meeting. The conversation is expected to continue at the board’s meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 24.

“Where?” is the question the Bedford Planning Board is tackling as they decide the location of the state required MBTA housing guidelines. Slide taken from an info pamplet handed out by the planning board on Bedford Day and found here: https://www.bedfordma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/3067/Info-Pamphlet-distributed-at-Bedford-Day-9-23-23-PDF

The challenges inherent in delineating districts were evident in practical and philosophical disagreements about a particular proposal. 

Based on a map provided by an economic planning consultant – a model developed specifically for the MBTA communities law – Planning Director Tony Fields outlined rough boundaries of The Great Road, Fletcher Road, Pine Hill Road, and Springs Road-Hancock Street. The proposal excludes the Historic District along The Great Road. Fields recognizes that “there is a variety of historic structures that are not in the Historic District.”

Board member Todd Crowley pointed out that under current code, the owner of a lot smaller than 30,000 square feet needs Board of Appeals approval to build a larger house. Yet, a zoning overlay would permit multi-family housing by right on the same lot. 

“There are a lot of half-acre lots. I struggle with this concept greatly,” he said.

So did member Amy Lloyd. “I agree that a variety of multi-family is very desirable. I just don’t think that a four-family on a 9,800-square-foot lot is particularly feasible. It would have to take up the whole lot and a lot of people living in the area would have major objections to that.” 

Lloyd said the area of Loomis Street around Depot Park could accommodate fourplexes and the Shawsheen subdistrict – The Great Road near Shawsheen Avenue – “something larger, maybe townhouses. That would have less of an impact than replacing a ranch house with four units in a two-and-a-half-story building, she said.

Barbehenn favored both approaches. In the residential neighborhood, she envisioned “incremental change over the course of 30 years in a gentle density situation, as properties turn over, one at a time.” This contrasts with the potential for a larger development near the Great Road Shopping Center, resulting in “a huge major shock to our system with a lot of people at once.”

Lloyd also cited undeveloped land on Middlesex Turnpike now owned by the Woburn Sportsmen’s Club, “with incentives to create a more walkable and cohesive neighborhood, not just a bunch of buildings.” Her colleague Steve Hagan predicted that such a rezoning would fail a Town Meeting vote. Lloyd said the area north of The Great Road could meet the same fate.

“We should be concentrating on the town center,” Barbehenn said. “The more we distribute our population to the furthest reaches, the more costs we will have to incur on creation and maintenance of infrastructure and service providing.” 

She added that concentrating housing centrally would also support small business.

Gittins added that “in areas of town where the lots are smaller, development is going to be more likely over the course of a decade or a generation.” He also noted that more central concentration will mean residents will be less likely to rely on their cars.

The various options “all involve different strategies and I don’t see the necessity to limit our thinking to 50 acres,” Gittins said. “We shouldn’t be opposed to zoning more than is minimally necessary.” 

Hagan pointed out that “if we blend these areas together, this would allow for a greater area of town.”

Barbehenn told the board that as of Oct. 10, there were 248 survey responses, and she is looking into expanding the poll’s reach through town email or surface mail distribution. The deadline for responding is Friday, Oct. 27.

Plans call for a focus group in November, composed of survey respondents who indicated an interest in participating, followed by a larger general informational meeting. 

“We will be looking for residents’ input as we start writing bylaws in December,” she said. 

Barbehenn also has scheduled outreach sessions with several governmental and civic boards and committees, including the Select Board, School Committee, Finance Committee, Bedford Family Connection, and Chamber of Commerce.

Drafted zoning bylaw amendments will be targeted for the March 2024 Annual Town Meeting with a statutory public hearing as well as “general outreach and engagement” in the weeks preceding. Lloyd noted that “we should be clear that the state requires this.”

The board is applying for a state-funded Massachusetts Housing Partnership technical assistance grant, which could help pay for expertise in not only evaluating criteria for delineating districts, but also drafting zoning amendments and executing community engagement and education.

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