Towns and cities served by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority are required to zone for multi-family housing by right with no age restrictions. Bedford is among a category that must establish at least 50 acres that allow a density of 15 or more units per acre.
The deadline for establishing the change is Dec. 3, 2024, so the Bedford Planning Board is aiming for rezoning articles on the 2024 Annual Town Meeting warrant.
According to Planning Director Anthony Fields, the board has scheduled special meetings for Wednesday, Dec. 20, and Thursday, Jan. 4 “to focus on narrowing down the geographic locations to be recommended, and the accompanying zoning text to govern the potential development.”
As the process unfolds, the board has strived to amass public input. Besides regular discussion at semi-monthly meetings, the board has conducted a survey and sponsored a focus group and two open forums.
Deliberations have led to four proposed areas presented by the Planning Board: the Shawsheen subdistrict that includes the Great Road Shopping Center; Loomis Street, and the Railroad Avenue area; North Road between Willson Park and Carlisle Road; and two residential areas near the center of town, one north and one south of The Great Road.
Planning Board members emphasized that the public events were not repetitive; in totality, they encompassed a wide range of ideas.
At last week’s forum in Town Hall, about 30 participants were divided into six groups around tables. Planning Board members Jacinda Barbehenn and Chair Chris Gittins presided while their colleague Amy Lloyd, Planning Director Tony Fields, and Assistant Director Catherine Perry observed.
Conclusions from the process illustrated the inherent tensions in efforts to comply with the law:
- Five of the groups preferred concentrating the potential new units in the Shawsheen subdistrict. but several participants also acknowledged the possibility of a large development there that could strain schools and town services.
- Rezoning residential areas could self-regulate growth. Barbehenn envisioned the gradual conversion of buildings, perhaps as properties change hands. She pointed out that there has only been one accessory dwelling unit and no changes from single- to two-family residences, though both are available options. But a participant pointed out that with “enormous pressure in the housing market,” developers are looking for opportunities to maximize profits.
- Board members said they were not bringing forward acreage off Middlesex Turnpike as an option because it is far from schools and amenities, and the owner, Woburn Sportsmen’s Association, is opposed. Some people at the forum called for rezoning regardless.
- Some expressed concern about loss of commercial space if areas close to stores are rezoned, especially since the law prohibits mixed-use development from counting toward the requirement. But another resident noted that “we have a lot of empty commercial space. This is an overbuilt resource.”
Before tackling the location question, participants were asked to name their favorite thing about Bedford. The pattern was “small-town feel” and the resulting institutional and neighborhood culture.
When asked about their long-term visions for the town, responses again included maintaining character – as one respondent said, “We don’t want to lose what we love about the town.” Other answers were quality of education, preserving green space, traffic reduction, and “more economic diversity.”
Each table was equipped with a large map of the town and Lego bricks – large ones representing 100 housing units, and small ones 25. Participants spent about 20 minutes accounting for 750 units, not just within the Planning Board’s preferences but anywhere in town.
The patterns were consistent. Almost all of the groups targeted the Great Road Shopping Center and nearby commercial areas and even residential areas, some with as many as 600 units. One table “gerrymandered” the Shawsheen subdistrict to preserve some commercial space. The Loomis Street-Railroad Avenue region attracted some proponents. Only one group spread at least some of the blocks throughout the Planning Board’s choices.
Barbehenn pointed out that although the town is required to accommodate the housing, dimensional and other elements of zoning are still under local control, such as setbacks, height limits, and parking.
“We can play with these variables and get a lot of different capacity options,” she said. For example, relaxing the height limits in the Shawsheen subdistrict could serve as an incentive for adding mixed-use by choice.
A resident asked about the prospects if Town Meeting does not vote to comply. Gittins said there’s always the fall Town Meeting, but the worst-case scenarios range from civil litigation to charges of violating fair housing laws to the state overriding local zoning (which has been proposed). Also, he said that a developer whose plans are rejected could sue the town for failure to comply.
Barbehenn pushed back on calls for including the Middlesex Turnpike property. That would defy “best practices for creating communities that people want to live in,” she said, by “putting them in a highway situation with no amenities.” That is “not conducive to a great community with a residential feel.”
She said a better option for addressing the issue is part of the upcoming local long-range planning process, which could include “an East Bedford village.”
Nick Howard, a resident who has been a regular observer at the Planning Board’s discussions on Zoom, said Town Meeting could change the zoning on the Middlesex Turnpike parcel, then evaluate the impact and revoke the zoning if appropriate.
Barbehenn replied that “due diligence requires us to comply with the spirit as well as the letter” of the housing law. “We are in a housing crunch,” she said, and there is a demand for units to be occupied by young families, teachers who live as far away as New Hampshire, and residents who wish to downsize. One woman said this should be considered an opportunity, not an imposition, because “people need a place to live.”
Howard pointed out that Town Meeting will have the option “to vote down their plan and demand that they come up with a better one.”
In answer to questions, Gittins said there are about 5,500 housing units in Bedford. If the zoning changes are maximized, they would add 750. Student population equates to about one-half per housing unit, so this formula would add 375 students, he said.