MA: AG: We don’t want to sue towns to make them follow MBTA Communities law

Feb. 29, 2024
Massachusetts State Attorney General Andrea Campbell filed the suit Tuesday against Milton, where voters earlier this month rejected a zoning plan that would have allowed the construction of multifamily housing in certain districts under the 2021 MBTA Communities Act.

State Attorney General Andrea Campbell said Tuesday that while she filed a lawsuit against one town in an attempt to force its compliance with a law meant to increase the housing supply, she doesn’t want to have to do it again.

Campbell filed the suit Tuesday against Milton, where voters earlier this month rejected a zoning plan that would have allowed the construction of multifamily housing in certain districts under the 2021 MBTA Communities Act. While many cities and towns have enacted similar zoning ordinances in order to follow the law, others have indicated, like Milton, that they would not.

“We hope we don’t have to continue to file lawsuits against municipalities to bring them into compliance, and that they look at what we’re doing here and choose to follow the law,” Campbell said during a media availability Tuesday afternoon. “We want to work with municipalities and we’ve been reasonable every step of the way. This is not about a fight or fighting each other. This is about working to address a housing crisis.”

The MBTA Communities Act requires cities and towns with an MBTA station or bordering a community with a station to have at least one zoning area that allows multifamily housing by right. Milton, which has four stations on the Mattapan Trolley line, falls into the law’s “Rapid Transit” category, and thus the town’s deadline to adopt a compliant zoning district was Dec. 31, 2023.

While the proposed zoning by-law in Milton was passed at a Dec. 11 town meeting by a more than two-thirds majority, opponents gathered enough signatures to force a referendum vote, and on Feb. 14, 54% of voters rejected the plan.

Because noncompliant communities are rendered ineligible for a number of state-funded grant programs, Milton has already lost a $140,800 grant meant to fund accessibility improvements to its waterfront and restoration of its seawall.

Since the vote, at least one town, Wrentham, has indicated that it would not comply with the law either, with Select Board members last week specifically citing the Milton vote as encouragement.

One other town, Holden, is currently out of compliance. While Holden is classified as an “adjacent community” because it does not have any MBTA stations but borders Worcester, which does, and therefore its deadline for enacting a compliant zoning map is the end of 2024, town officials have repeatedly said they would not do so and failed to file an action plan by the 2023 deadline.

Officials in both towns have argued that the law is not mandatory, but Campbell, along with Gov. Maura Healey and Housing and Livable Communities Secretary Ed Augustus, has repeatedly said this is not the case.

In the complaint, Campbell requested the case be sent to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court so the court could make a ruling on communities’ obligation under the law. However, she said Tuesday that the case was not about “making an example” out of Milton, because her office is not “framing this as a fight.”

“This is a crisis that we all have to play a role in solving,” she said. “It is about the future of our commonwealth, our workforce, our innovation, the next generation having a chance to be able to of course live here, to call Massachusetts home. It’s about housing for our seniors, municipal employees, and so many others who are working two or three jobs but can’t buy a home or rent a home in Massachusetts.”

In a statement, Milton Town Administrator Nicholas Milano said the town’s Select Board would be meeting Tuesday night to discuss Campbell’s complaint and next steps.

“We are reviewing the complaint filed by the Attorney General and we look forward to defending the town,” Milano said.

Following the announcement of the lawsuit Tuesday, several advocacy groups have come out in support of the action.

“The MBTA Communities Act is not optional,” Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said in a statement. “The only hope for Massachusetts to solve its crushing housing crisis is for communities across the state to philosophically commit and operationally lay the groundwork for the production and construction of more housing.”

The Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, a statewide nonprofit affordable housing policy organization, said Milton’s rejection of the zoning proposal was exclusionary of people who could not afford to live there.

“At a time when people across income levels are feeling the pain of escalating home prices and rents, the status quo keeps Milton’s gates closed and limits opportunities for people to have homes they can afford in the neighborhoods they love,” CHAPA said. “For too long, zoning has been used to exclude people rather than expand opportunities for people. The MBTA Communities Law is a tool to begin to undo the harms of the past and enable choices for people regarding where they want and can afford to live.”

Lawyers for Civil Rights sued Holden last year over its refusal to comply with the law. While a judge dismissed the lawsuit in December, saying the plaintiffs had not demonstrated that they had been directly harmed by the town’s actions, Executive Director Iván Espinoza-Madrigal said in a statement Tuesday that the organization is still appealing the decision.

“Every MBTA Community is now on notice that copy-cat violators will be held accountable,” Espinoza-Madrigal said of Campbell’s lawsuit. “Any municipality that refuses to comply with MBTA Zoning Law is selfishly—and illegally—entrenching an unacceptable status quo. ... Today’s suit brings us one step closer to a world in which all commonwealth residents, regardless of their race or income, can secure quality housing in their neighborhood of choice.”

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