Planning Board Fine-Tuning Proposed Districts for Housing Compliance

The Planning Board is fine-tuning maps of areas that will likely be targeted for rezoning in Bedford to comply with a state mandate for expanding multi-unit housing potential.

Members Chris Gittins and Amy Lloyd presented detailed maps of their visions for the Shawsheen subdistrict – the commercial area at the east end of The Great Road – and the Loomis Street-Railroad Avenue region at a virtual board meeting on Tuesday. There was some geographic overlap as the authors explained their reasoning for the boundaries.

Gittins also displayed revisions to a proposed area north of The Great Road bounded by Hillside Avenue, Springs Road, Pine Hill Road, and Hancock Street. Lloyd said she is opposed to any zoning overlay that would facilitate multi-family housing there.

The board has scheduled a special meeting at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 20 to continue the discussion. Members are also anxious to interact with specialists from RKG Associates, which has been retained to consult on the process through a Massachusetts Housing Partnership grant. 

The consultant is expected to help with outreach and education, the final choice of locations, and drafting the bylaw revisions, which will incorporate variables like height limits, setbacks, and parking requirements.

The state law, which applies to all cities and towns in the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority district, requires areas where multi-family housing be permitted by right. Bedford falls into a category mandating at least 50 acres with a density of 15 units per acre or more and no age restrictions. 

That means Bedford will be zoning for a potential of at least 750 units, although there is no requirement to build any of them.

Deadline for compliance is Sunday, Dec. 31, 2024, so the Planning Board is aiming for zoning articles on the March 25, 2024, annual town meeting warrant. As housing related proposals, these will require only a simple majority for approval instead of the normal two-thirds threshold for zoning.

Member Jacinda Barbehenn said that many residents are eyeing the Shawsheen area as a likely locale for compliance. She asked for data on the current commercial tax revenues so the board can consider the financial impact of conversion to residential.

“Then we can concentrate second tier on what we want to do with the remainder,” she said. “And I heard quite clearly that there is a component interested in the gradual ‘missing middle’ in single-family areas.” 

Gittins’s latest map showing an overlay for the Shawsheen area was radically different because it omitted the Great Road Shopping Center. He explained that it is important to keep the door open for mixed-use development there, permitted under current zoning, but not in compliance with the state mandate. 

The map designated areas for housing on the north side of The Great Road, encompassing the Bedford Plaza Hotel, Shawsheen Avenue, and some lots on Shawsheen Road, as well as an area east of the Great Road Shopping Center and down to YD Road. 

He also designated acreage to the east of the shopping center on the south side of The Great Road, as well as nearby Alfred Circle, which is accessible by car only via Wiggins Avenue. Members Todd Crowley and Barbehenn said they liked his revised version.

Lloyd’s map included all of the Great Road Shopping Center. Her rationale was that the buildings are more than 50 years old and ripe for repurposing. She said there are “signs that ownership is looking to redevelop or sell.”

She acknowledged that “we could redraw to allow for some significant space for commercial use,” but opposed Gittins’s two separated geographic areas. Lloyd also excluded the commercial buildings in front of the shopping center, now used as a restaurant, a bank, a karate school, and a funeral home.

Gittins reduced the previous scope of the proposed area on each side of the Bedford Depot. He dropped all of Railroad Avenue, including sites on Commercial Avenue, which he said could be valuable to the town for future recreation development. His district was revised to an area bounded by Loomis Street, The Great Road, and Webber Avenue.

Lloyd’s version comprised all of Loomis and Railroad Avenue, as well as a few commercial lots on South Road, and excluded Webber Avenue, except for the first house on the east side.

The residential area north of The Great Road engendered the most disagreement. “My thought here was to enclose an area with small lots that, if we put in a two-story limit, would be conducive to construction of three- and four-unit buildings,” Gittins explained. The area is attractive because it is within walking distance of institutions and close to the bike path and bus line. “It has the potential to be a real positive incremental development,” he said. 

Lloyd said the rezoning would risk the integrity of the area’s older homes. “The people who build multi-family housing are businesspeople. They don’t convert as often as they tear down and build new,” she said. 

“Building a moderately-sized unit on Shawsheen has much less of an impact than building a four-family on a tiny lot. It will be a huge structure, out to the setbacks,” she continued. The neighborhood, she added, is also closer to affordability than most of the rest of the town.

“We’re talking about a generational slow changeover,” Barbehenn said. “It’s not going to happen in a year or 5 or 10. We need to do a variety of different kinds of growth models for multifamily housing.” But Crowley said, “I struggle with how it could change the area. It could be drastic.”

Lloyd said she thinks the town could be in compliance without rezoning the center residential area.

Planning Director Anthony Fields noted that the law requires at least half of the designated areas to be contiguous. That means if the scattered areas total, say, 90 acres, one segment has to be at least 45.

“There’s a significant number of people in town who would not be okay with a much larger area than what is required,” Lloyd said. “Getting our foot in the door is more important than trying to get as much space as possible.”

Lloyd also repeated the board’s opposition to rezoning parts of Middlesex Turnpike for multi-unit housing, despite “an awful lot of questions” from residents. The owners of the sole undeveloped parcel, Woburn Sportsmen’s Association, “will never sell,” she said, and a broader rezoning could cost Bedford part of its affordable housing inventory. Current apartment complexes can become multi-family by right. She added that conversion of office buildings to residential is unlikely.

“The point is about creating more housing,” she continued. “I realize some people don’t agree that we should comply with the spirit of the law. We are in agreement that we should.”

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Thomas Kenny
December 14, 2023 6:59 pm

I have a question? From what I have heard this is a mandate from the State to all communities serviced by MBTA commuter rail, transit or bus routes.The cudgel being a removal of certain State aid to these municipalities if they fail or refuse to do the zoning changes. My question being, is the extra cost in services to the Town of Bedford’s taxpayers such as trash pick up, school attendance increases (maybe a need for a new school), water and sewerage needs, fire and police burdens, etc, more than the savings of aid received from the State?

Chris Gittins
December 15, 2023 1:32 pm
Reply to  Thomas Kenny

The multifamily zoning requirements are state law, Section 3A of Chapter 40A. Municipalities that miss implementation deadlines will be subject penalties, such as loss of eligibility for MassWorks grants, but opting out is not an option. Attorney General Campbell made that clear in her advisory memo regarding the law [1]: “Massachusetts cities and towns have broad authority to enact local zoning ordinances and by-laws to promote the public welfare, so long as they are not inconsistent with constitutional or statutory requirements. The MBTA Communities Zoning Law provides one such statutory requirement…”

I also note that any new multifamily housing built in town would be subject to property taxes and contribute to our tax base.

Chris Gittins
Member, Planning Board (Chair, 2023-4)

[1] https://www.mass.gov/doc/advisory-concerning-enforcement-of-the-mbta-communities-zoning-law/download

December 17, 2023 9:30 am
Reply to  Thomas Kenny

It absolutely is. The state money comes out to about $2 million per year (we apply for it, so it fluctuates year to year). In particular one of the programs we would be disqualified from is MassWorks, which is where we apply for infrastructure grants, like water and sewer upgrades.

The impact of this rezoning is expected to be 750 units built over 20-30 years. Right now households have an average of 0.5 kids in school (Solomon must be involved). So we expect 375 students over 20-30 years, which averages a few dozen added kids each year from this anticipated growth. The school growth is an additional $200k-$300k per year, which the School Committee has said they can keep up with.

These are really good questions, but the answers from the PB, the School Committee, the DPW, and the state are reassuring to me.

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