The Bedford Planning Board last week agreed to display four prospective areas of town that with a zoning overlay could ensure compliance with the state law requiring space for building higher-density housing by right.
The town must commit to 50 acres – at least 25 contiguous – with a density of at least 15 units per acre, without age restrictions. The potential is for 750 housing units, though none has to actually be built.
Planning Board members are undertaking a community education campaign leading to the March 2024 Annual Town Meeting where proposed zoning changes are likely to be on the warrant. Compliance deadline is Dec. 31, 2024, and failure will mean ineligibility for a variety of state infrastructure grants.
One landmark of the information effort will be at the Monday, Nov. 6 Special Town Meeting where four maps – each designating at least 25 acres – will be displayed in the lobby outside the high school’s Joseph Buckley Auditorium:
- An area roughly between the narrow-gauge rail trail on the east, Loomis Street on the south, Page Road to the north, and the town campus and Fletcher Road on the western border. The area excludes property in the Historic District and also incorporates the area west of the narrow-gauge trail between Springs and Dunster roads.
- The Great Road Shopping Center and, across the street and to the east, the Mead business block at The Great Road and Shawsheen Avenue. That comprises most of the so-called Shawsheen subdistrict that now permits mixed-use development.
- All of Loomis Street and part of Railroad Avenue, excluding Depot Park.
- The acreage at 155 Middlesex Turnpike, owned by the Woburn Sportsmen’s Association.
Planning Board members are also analyzing feedback from a community survey, and intend to schedule a focus group with residents who indicated interest. Then there will be a session open to all.
The goal for the 2024 Annual Town Meeting is to narrow the choices to one. Planning Director Tony Field said experts from the firm RKG Associates will assist with identifying dimensional criteria, thanks to a state grant.
No individual board member endorsed all of the options at last week’s virtual meeting and some voiced opposition. Member Steve Hagan predicted Town Meeting would not endorse rezoning the Middlesex Turnpike property.
Amy Lloyd said a proposed district close to the center of town would not only affect many historic houses, but also smaller, so-called “non-conforming” lots that are the closest thing to affordable. A developer would be less likely to see small lots as good opportunities, she said, and at Town Meeting, “I think there are going to be major issues around areas of town that people don’t want to see changed.”
Todd Crowley agreed, explaining that with many of the lots in that region non-conforming, an overlay zone designated for multifamily would result in a process that does not require public hearings by the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Planning Director Field acknowledged that “within an overlay district you would have to create a set of parameters that overcome non-conforming factors.” He foresees “a single structure with however many units they divide” on a building lot.
But as Chair Chris Gittins explained, “What I want for the display is where people can have a choice. It’s understood that not everyone would concur. What I want to come away with are fairly different sorts of areas as a basis for community discussion going forward.”
Assistant Planning Director Catherine Perry stated that acreage in the mixed-use subdistrict can’t be counted; the zoning has to be exclusively for housing. But Gittins suggested that the proposed overlay could still allow multi-unit housing by right, with perhaps an exception from current building height limits to incentivize denser development. The Shawsheen subdistrict “provides for a wide variety of types of housing, from triplexes to apartment buildings,” Lloyd said.
Gittins and Jacinda Barbehenn, as a subcommittee of the board, have been sharing information about the law and the response to government committees and private groups. Hagan praised their efforts, saying, “The verbal presentation has been a big help.”
Resident Nicholas Howard joined the Zoom webinar to comment that the board would find rezoning success easier by targeting areas that meet the least resistance from Town Meeting voters, rather than seeking ideal conditions for the long term.
Barbehenn pointed out that one of the law’s main intentions is to encourage housing patterns close to public transportation, which requires proximity when rail or bus stations are involved. The proposed district in the center of town is “intended to design in a way that lessens the need for people to drive,” and follows the route of MBTA bus 62 down Loomis Street and on South and Springs roads to the VA Hospital.