Multi-Unit Housing Overlay Sails through Bedford Town Meeting

March 26, 2024
Bedford’s Annual Town Meeting on Monday approved by a wide margin the creation of an overlay district that allows multi-unit housing by right, in compliance with state law.

Bedford’s Annual Town Meeting on Monday approved by a wide margin the creation of an overlay district that allows multi-unit housing by right, in compliance with state law.

The outcome by raised hands, culminating more than an hour of discussion, was obvious to Moderator David Powell, as he did not direct tellers to count the votes.

Planning Director Tony Fields said on Tuesday that the zoning bylaw amendments will be reviewed by the attorney general’s office within 90 days, as well as by the state Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities “for consistency with their guidelines.” He had no timetable on the housing review.

The requirements the proposal had to meet are a minimum of 50 acres with density of at least 15 units per acre and no age restrictions. There is no obligation to build anything. 

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Chris Gittins of the Bedford Planning Board during the debate on the MBTA housing zoning article. Photo by Wayne Braverman

The penalty for non-compliance includes loss of eligibility for an array of state grants. The attorney general also wrote recently to Milton officials, “My office will not hesitate to compel compliance … through legal action, if necessary.”

Approved by Bedford voters were two districts, totaling 55.5 acres:

  • “Loomis Street-Depot corridor,” comprising the south side of Loomis Street, a few properties on South Road, and Railroad Avenue to and including Commercial Avenue. The area also incorporates 200 and 215 The Great Road.
  • “Shawsheen West,” consisting of Roberts Drive, 277 and 281 The Great Road, and Alfred Circle.

Each of these districts has subregions – three for Loomis-Depot and two for Shawsheen – in which there are slightly varying zoning parameters, explained Planning Board member Jacinda Barbehenn.

Barbehenn told Town Meeting that the zoning amendments follow the state law, but also have the potential to reduce dependency on cars, encourage economic development, expand retail customer base, and conserve open space by building within existing infrastructure. She also pointed out that the overlay doesn’t affect uses that are already allowed. 

“The Planning Board has done a lot of outreach and engagement over the past year,” Barbehenn said. And indeed, that appeared to pay off on Monday, as support for the overlay emanated from a range of sources – Council on Aging, Energy and Sustainability Committee, League of Women Voters, Mothers Out Front – and several individuals.

Select Board member Paul Mortenson repeated his opposition to the districts because they would exacerbate existing traffic congestion. “My belief is there are other areas we should consider,” he said, adding that “the lack of a parking space requirement will add to the misery of future residents.”

But Dawn LaFrance-Linden, chair of the Transportation Advisory Committee, citing comments by former Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, replied that traffic congestion is a regional issue, “driven by a number of factors, including failure to provide reasonably priced housing near transit options.” The districts are near the bus line and multi-use paths, “giving residents a choice to leave a car behind or not to own one.”

Erin Rathe pointed out that locating overlay zones on Middlesex Turnpike would result in larger developments populated by residents who spend their money in Billerica or Burlington, but add to Bedford traffic when they drive to the center of town for programs and activities. 

“We know growth is coming. This bylaw gives us more control about how and where that happens,” she said.

Guilhem Ribeill praised the quality of life at high-density Pine Hill Crossing. 

Added Seth Cargiulo, “If we are ever going to have a market that approaches balance, we need to encourage and enable developers to build multi-unit properties.” 

Armen Zildjian praised the Planning Board’s efforts, but expressed disappointment that the law doesn’t include an affordable housing component.

The most substantive opposition came from Nicholas Howard, who participated in most of the Planning Board work sessions leading to the proposed districts. His amendment featured several swaps, including removing some properties from consideration because of their potential for immediate dense growth and replacing them with contiguous sites. 

“The basic idea is to remove the most problematic parcels and replace them so we can continue to be compliant, if not more so,” he said.

Powell conferred with town counsel and told Town Meeting, “It is quite possible and likely that much of what Mr. Howard is proposing will not pass legal muster.” Planning Board Chair Chris Gittins told Town Meeting that “some of these areas were considered and not included.” The amendment received just a smattering of support on its way to defeat. 

Karl Schwartz called for rejection of the proposal, leading to “a comprehensive zoning change that incorporates what the state makes us do.” He said the alternative is likely to be “garden-style apartments. We need to have smaller lot sizes to build smaller houses.”

Joy Kenen, who lives on Loomis Street, predicted that rapid development would follow approval. “My neighbor to the left would probably flip immediately,” she said, foreseeing “15 or 16 little, tiny, horrible units right across from Page Field.”

Christina Carvey also said there is potential for rapid growth. “It is naïve of us to assume we are going to be guaranteed a slow, steady increase.” Carvey, who is Howard’s spouse, said the overlays should be crafted “to take credit for some of our existing multi-family areas.”  

[Editor’s Note: Dawn LaFrance-Linden’s quote was expanded on March 26, 2023, at 9:49 p.m.]

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