MA: MBTA zoning bill doesn’t force cities, towns to build more housing, state says

March 4, 2024
The MBTA Communities Act does not require housing be built near transit hubs, instead it forces cities and towns to zone for more multi-family units, according to the state housing office.

The MBTA Communities Act does not require housing be built near transit hubs, instead it forces cities and towns to zone for more multi-family units, according to the state housing office.

Whether the law results in more housing hinges on individual communities themselves approving units, according to the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities.

“We certainly hope the housing will follow,” the official with the department said, speaking on background. “If the zoning isn’t there, there’s no opportunity to develop more multi-family housing in a lot of these communities. What we’re doing is saying we need to have the opportunity.”

The Wrentham Board of Selectmen sent a letter to Gov. Maura Healey earlier this week, seeking support as it looks to comply with the controversial law that has led to a loss of state funding in Milton.

Under the law, Wrentham, a Norfolk County town known for a popular shopping center, has to zone at least 50 acres near its downtown for multi-family housing, with 15 units per acre and a capacity of 750 units.

When added up, the state-mandated zoning plan could lead to a population increase of 13% in a town that officials say lacks municipal sewage and has an inadequate water supply, the Board of Selectmen wrote in its letter to Healey.

“This would cause the largest one-time increase in population in our town’s history,” the letter states.

Work is being done to address Wrentham’s housing shortage, a situation rattling most cities and towns across Massachusetts, the letter states. Those efforts should carry more weight than the MBTA Communities Act, the board argued.

The board is requesting Healey assist the town in accessing a waiver or modifications to the requirements.

“Wrentham has a plan and is doing its part,” the letter states, “but the MBTA Housing Requirement ignores this effort and dictates changes that do not align with the goals of our residents and will lead to the destruction of the small-town New England charm we’ve come to love.”

But the state housing office spokesperson rebuked the notion that there’d be such a drastic population increase under the law in Wrentham, adding some of the zoning districts could be placed in areas where there’s already existing housing.

“It’s not like ‘Next year, full buildout of every possible development in town,’” the spokesperson said. “There’s a lot of variation here. The idea of a one-time increase of 13%, that’s not going to happen.”

Wrentham, with a population of roughly 12,000, is considered an “adjacent community,” meaning it doesn’t have a transit station within town or within half a mile of its border. But neighboring towns – Franklin, Foxboro and Norfolk – have commuter rail stops.

Being an “adjacent community” forces municipalities to place a “multi-family district” in an area with “reasonable access to a transit station based on existing street patterns, pedestrian connections, and bicycle lanes.” They are also required to increase their multi-family unit capacities by at least 10%

Wrentham selectmen are looking for the state to lower that requirement – the least significant classification is “adjacent small towns” in which a 5% increase in units is mandated.

Milton – a “rapid transit community” facing a 25% increase requirement – set off fireworks as residents overturned compliance with the MBTA Communities Act at referendum on Valentine’s Day. That led to the loss of roughly $140,000 in state funding and Attorney General Andrea Campbell suing the town on Tuesday.

Wrentham has until the end of the year to adopt zoning under the law which would come from approval at Town Meeting either in the spring or fall.

Select Board Vice Chairman Chris Gallo argued that while officials are aware there’s a need for more housing in town, he doesn’t believe the law would ultimately lead to more affordable living options.

“I believe this, as it stands right now, is an unfunded mandate that lacks genuine interest and collaboration,” Gallo said, “but it is very full of threats about losing grants and potential lawsuits. I don’t think that’s the right approach.”

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