Planning Board to Consider Delaying Decision on Multi-Unit Zones

January 26, 2024

The Bedford Planning Board may decide next Tuesday that it needs more time to prepare a proposal for compliance with the state law requiring districts that allow multi-unit housing by right.

“Let’s not try to just rush this to Town Meeting,” said member Amy Lloyd at the board’s virtual meeting Tuesday. “I think we should ask the Select Board if it’s possible to have a Special Town Meeting in September, which would give us more time to work on this, educate, get input.”

“We’re still not settled on exactly where,” Lloyd explained. “We’ve moved away from much of what the public wanted. We still have tons of education to do.”

“I do share some of your concerns,” said board Chair Chris Gittins. “I would like to see how things proceed over the next two meetings. I haven’t ruled out that we can be ready, but your concerns are well taken.” He allowed that “we will need to finalize our geographic areas if we plan to proceed forward to March Town Meeting.”

Jacinda Barbehenn said she could envision a delay. Asked after the meeting, she said that she won’t decide on her timetable preference until after Tuesday’s discussion. But “if we need to punt, we have options,” including “a Special Town Meeting sometime later this year just for this issue.” 

“We are pushing this too hard,” Lloyd said. “What we are not addressing is just how many people need information and still don’t understand this.” 

One of the latest maps used for discussions in the MBTA compliance district. Map:

She suggested a 10-minute presentation at Annual Town Meeting to “talk about the areas under consideration so we can get it out to more people.”

Members Steve Hagan and Todd Crowley were absent, so Gittins said any decision needs to wait and be made by the full board. (Crowley arrived later and said that he favors moving forward now. But he missed the earlier context.) 

Under the law, Bedford must designate a minimum of 50 acres where at least 15 units per acre can be built by right, without age restrictions.

The board has been grappling with the issue for several weeks, trying to reach consensus on zoning overlays targeting the March 25 Annual Town Meeting, since compliance is required by the end of the year. 

Planning Director Tony Fields told the board that to aim for March, “We are really up against a tight deadline.” 

Wording of proposed zoning bylaw amendments would need to be “as tight as possible by Feb. 13,” he said, the day after the warrant closes.

As of Tuesday’s meeting, the general areas favored by a majority of the board are the Loomis Street-Railroad Avenue corridor, including Commercial Avenue; land north of The Great Road between the Shawsheen River and Shawsheen Avenue; lots west of the Great Road Shopping Center, including Alfred Circle and Roberts Drive; and the Walsh Road-Ashby Road horseshoe.

The Great Road Shopping Center, where multi-unit housing is already allowed if stores and offices are on the ground floor, was not included. But at Tuesday’s meeting, Lloyd tried to resurrect it. If the overlay boundary could split the lot, retaining some commercial development, “I don’t think there’s a problem,” she said. “So many people are positive about it.”

Gittins said if it could be determined that splitting the site was allowed, “I would be open to allowing housing-only in the back portion.” Barbehenn said if the lot can be divided, “I might be interested in thinking about it again. The big picture is we have a massive housing shortage in the region and a community that doesn’t want to have multi-family housing is not an acceptable answer. And there are lots of ways to do it.”

Lloyd said, “Many of the things we’re planning on seem unlikely to get developed as multi-family housing.”

The Planning Board also began reviewing specific zoning parameters that will be attached to the new overlays, such as lot setbacks, height limits, and parking requirements. The board is expecting more input on these details from the consulting firm RKG Associates, working with the Planning Department under a state grant.

If the board decides to continue on the Annual Town Meeting track, it is scheduled to present the details at a Feb. 12 Select Board meeting. If the public hearing takes place on Feb. 13, a legal advertisement has to be submitted this week.

Fields said the Planning Department will continue to move the process forward, fine-tuning the text and the map, which are separate articles on the warrant.

There was only a brief discussion of the proposed district boundaries on Tuesday. Lloyd expressed concern about designating Walsh and Ashby roads, and referenced a memo from the Department of Public Works about the potential for congestion on refuse collection days, since all containers are emptied on one side of the one-way streets. Fourplexes facing each other could generate 16 trash and recycling containers.

But Barbehenn said, “We shouldn’t be prioritizing people’s garbage over people’s housing.” 

Gittins felt the board would not include Walsh and Ashby roads and the riverside area off The Great Road and Shawsheen Avenue. He added, “I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with development in the flood plain. And those areas are already heavily developed. It would be preferable to identify uplands.”

He also noted that he called for including the cul-de-sac at the end of Roberts Drive because that would “lower administrative barriers” if the condominiums there are rebuilt. “Right now, they would have to go through discretionary reviews. That seemed to be an easy add.” 

Barbehenn said she favors including all of Roberts Drive in the multi-unit zone.

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