By Eliza Rosenberry
This is Part 1 in a series on Planned Residential Developments.
For many years, most families in Bedford have lived in traditional single family houses set on sizeable, private lots. But as undeveloped land become less available and more expensive, developers here are finding new ways to build and redevelop profitable residential properties.
This shift is not unique to Bedford. In an interview this summer with the Boston Globe, Zillow senior economist Aaron Terrazas cited developers’ needs to maximize financial returns on expensive property investments. “You can either sell more homes on that lot or you can build high-end luxury homes,” Terrazas told the Globe. “I think builders are pursuing both strategies.”
Bedford has seen many oversize luxury homes in recent years, results of a teardown-and-rebuild approach that concerned the town so much that such development now requires a special permit for nonconforming lots. But there is another approach to residential development in Bedford and other towns: Planned Residential Developments (PRDs).
PRD zoning, which allows for developments with greater density — up to five houses per acre, depending on zoning districts — in exchange for preserving open space and encouraging a variety of housing types, came about decades ago. At first, developers jumped at the opportunity to build dense, single and multifamily developments on expansive properties. Then the market seemed to lose interest: no PRDs were approved in Bedford for 15 years. But PRDs are now seeing a resurgence in town, as three such developments have been approved over the past two years.
Planned Residential Developments in Bedford
Modern town zoning laws have generally required minimum lot sizes, thereby encouraging relatively big lots in new developments (in New England, lot sizes for new homes are larger than anywhere else in the country, though they are decreasing on average). But, emerging from a conservationist effort to permanently preserve undeveloped land, Bedford created a PRD zoning bylaw in the mid-1980s that allowed developers to build more homes, more closely together, with no minimum lot sizes.
The bylaw requires a minimum property size to qualify as a PRD and from there, a maximum number of units is calculated, all based on zoning districts. The bylaw cautions that PRDs shouldn’t significantly increase town-wide density, which means there is usually lots of undeveloped acreage as part of the development. PRDs also promote a variety of housing types designed to meet a range of needs, including the oft-cited downsizer.
“The proposed development will provide housing for those Bedford residents who no longer need the four to five bedroom homes typically available in the Town,” wrote the 1986 Planning Board in its decision to approve one early PRD.
Bedford also requires minimum affordable housing commitments from PRDs of a certain size.
Somewhat confusingly, the town also has zoning provisions for “cluster developments,” which Assistant Planner Catherine Perry says lie somewhere between conventional development and PRDs. Cluster developments like Freedom Estates and Irene Road have exclusively single family homes, preserved open space, and no affordable housing requirement. Perry says the developer’s choice between cluster and PRD is often determined by land formation.
Bedford’s PRDs are spread throughout town, from under-construction cottages on Evergreen Avenue and South Road to longstanding developments at Huckins Farm and Bedfordshire. Three PRDs were approved soon after the PRD bylaw passed, all of which had large properties with dozens of units.
An interactive map of Bedford’s PRDs Zoom in and out or click and drag to move the map around. Click red circles for more information about each development. Data based on town planning records.
A map showing Bedford’s existing and approved PRDs.
But recent PRDs may not resemble their predecessors all that closely. A recently-approved PRD along Fox Run Road required months of public hearings, during which Board members and residents wrestled with the proper implementation of PRD zoning. The process drew attention to what previously had been a zoning bylaw nearing obscurity.
This is Part 1 in a series on Planned Residential Developments. Click this link to read Part 2.
Editor’s Note on 1/5/2017: Catherine Perry’s title was misstated in the original post; she is the Town’s Assistant Planner, not Assistant Planning Director