Economic Development Bill ~ Its Effect on Zoning Density for MBTA Communities, and a Change to Simple Majority Zoning Votes

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Recently-signed state legislation designed to expand housing opportunities presents some challenges for Bedford.

The law, which affects MBTA communities, requires a zoning district of “reasonable size” in which at least 15 housing units can be situated on an acre of land, located no more than a half-mile from a commuter rail or bus station.

The provision was part of Gov. Charlie Baker’s economic development bill, which he signed in January.

“That element of this economic development bill may be difficult for us to accommodate,” said Tony Fields, town planning director. “We’re considering getting some technical assistance from the state to help identify how to comply with this mandate.”

Fields said the half-mile radius only applies to transportation stations. Since Bedford has bus routes and no station, the town may be exempt from this part of the bill and instead have a specific geographic area designated for zoning multi-family units.

“We’re being told that the literal interpretation is not going to include bus stops,” he said. “But it would seem to me that here in Bedford we are probably going to stick within a half-mile of the bus route.”

Fields added that municipalities aren’t allowed to relocate train or bus routes since the goal of the bill is to build more housing units rather than accommodate those that exist. Regardless, he said in Bedford, “there’s not a whole lot of options to relocate the bus route,” due to the town’s “linear layout.”

“I think the Planning Board will look more at where along the bus route are there appropriate places that we could increase density,” he added.

According to Fields, the town isn’t required to build any housing units, but rather zone the land in order to allow for units to be built in the future. Currently, he said there is no timeline on when land needs to be zoned or units need to be built.

Once a municipality authorizes the land for these units to be constructed, it’s up to a developer to actually build them.

“For towns that are willing to foster housing production, they have simplified the process. But you’re not required to do anything,” Fields said. “You don’t actually have to build [units] — you simply have to authorize them.”

Fields said he’s unsure what percentage of Bedford’s total land area would be subject to these zoning laws since legislation did not specify how much land nor how many units are acceptable. “We’re waiting for the state to post the guidelines for this requirement,” he said.

Fields added that the town is “waiting to confirm” whether Bedford Green puts them in compliance with the economic development bill, since the apartments offer 69 units for homeless veterans or veterans at risk of homelessness. Bedford Green, situated on the VA Hospital grounds, is within sight of a bus stop on Springs Road.

He also mentioned that Blake Block on The Great Road, Loomis Street between South Road and DeAngelo Drive, and the proposal for multiple units at 310 The Great Road (Papa Gino’s) could satisfy the bill’s requirements as well. “Those projects incidentally were built at a density that meets the 15 units per acre,” he said.

Since these developments meet the state’s density guidelines, Fields assumes the town is in compliance with the economic development bill, but said the decision comes down to whether there’s a certain geographic district identified for zoning.

“The problem with 15 units per acre is it’s a one-size-fits-all,” Fields said, explaining how towns and cities are both expected to follow the same guidelines. “There are communities where 15 units per acre is more easily accommodated than others.”

Another notable change includes a shift from a two-thirds vote to a simple majority vote for any zoning changes in town that would facilitate housing production.

“If the town chooses to do something that fosters housing production, then those types of changes are eligible for a majority vote,” said Fields, “whether it’s at town meeting or if it’s a special permit in front of one of the boards.”

Fields provided an example, saying if the town were to rezone a corporate plaza allowing for smaller lots to be created for multi-family housing, then that change would be decided with the new simple majority vote. But if these units exceeded 900 square feet, the zoning would require a two-thirds majority vote.

“Historically, all voting was subject to two-thirds majority vote,” Fields explained. “But now, any zoning changes that allow for potential denser developments are to be treated as simple majority votes.”

By implementing this new majority vote, the Baker Administration hopes to make it easier for the approval of zoning changes, in turn, alleviating the state’s housing crisis.

Fields said there is no set rental cost for housing units. “I don’t recall there being an affordable component in the statute. But they may or may not put one in the regulations or the guidance,” he said.

For now, the bill means “nothing at the moment” because it’s fairly new and the state is “still trying to create rules” that meet the legislation, Fields said. But eventually, the town will be forced to change its zoning and allow more multi-family housing units to be built.

“If we don’t do that by whatever deadline is later established, then we lose eligibility for some number of grant programs,” Fields said. “But the deadline is not yet established.”

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