The town of Wellesley has been tracking the state’s MBTA Communities law, which requires relaxed multifamily zoning near train and other commuter stations, since it went into effect in 2021 and through its subsequent amendments. The law’s intended to help the state address its housing shortage, though doesn’t specifically address affordable housing.
The law set different deadlines for compliance depending upon a municipality’s public transportation situation—Wellesley is designated as a “commuter rail community” due to its train stations in Wellesley Square, Wellelsey Hills and Wellesley Farms. Though all 177 towns and cities needed to submit action plans to the Massachussetts Department of Housing and Community Development (now called the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities) by the end of this past January. Wellesley met that deadline (see plan embedded below), and now is readying a proposal to adopt compliant zoning districts by the end of 2024. Town Meeting should expect to see this proposal for amending the town’s zoning bylaw in the spring.
Wellesley Planning Director Eric Arbeene, who has been working on the town’s MBTA Communities plan with Executive Director Meghan Jop, Sustainability Director Marybeth Martello, Building Inspector Michael Grant, and others, shared an update on the topic at the Sept. 5 Planning Board meeting (see Wellesley Media recording) and fielded questions from the board. Jop shared a brief update with the Select Board near the end of its June 6 meeting, and the tone of both briefings was that Wellesley is well positioned to meet requirements (some communities are balking and could be punished by losing access to grants, capital funding, and more). “Wellesley seems to be in a lot better place than some other communities,” Arbeene said, some of which essentially have to start from scratch.
Whenever anyone in town discuss the MBTA Communities law, they emphasize that this does not require multifamily units be built. Rather it stipulates that designated areas, mainly within a half mile of MBTA stations, are zoned to allow such building as of right, which Arbeene says means that a development proposal can proceed under a zoning bylaw without the need for a special permit, variance, waiver or other type of discretionary approval. In Wellesley, based on the state’s calculations, zoning must allow for 1,392 units, and in fact, Wellesley already has approved zoning for a good chunk of that thanks in large part to 850 units zoned at the Wellesley Park property on William Street. The zoning must cover 50 acres and allow a gross density of 15 units per acre (Wellesley actually already allows for 17 units per acre in some applicable areas).
The town can also expand its as of right multifamily housing zoning beyond the half-mile radius of MBTA stations, and it was suggested at the Planning Board meeting by member Kathleen Woodward that the town might want to look at other areas, such as Walnut Street, which features many office buildings today in the Lower Falls part of town.
Board member Jim Roberti and others said the lots around the Wellesley Square train station should be targets for building new multifamily housing, in part because the properties are already disturbed land, and it was suggested as well that the town might want to revisit its development agreement with Linden Square to explore possible housing development there.Though given recent development of other projects along Linden Street and nearby, significance resistance could remain. Board member Marc Charney emphasized that in order for the town to meet the spirit of the law, it will need to amend zoning to allow for units to be built in places where developers would actually have incentive to build them.
Update (9/18/23): Wellesley Executive Director Jop noted during the Sept. 12 Select Board meeting that town properties need to be limited for consideration under MBTA Communities zoning calculation unless the town has authorization from Town Meeting or if the Select Board has disposed of those properties.
Wellesley’s initial idea for compliance with the law would be to amend its zoning bylaw so that a Project of Significant Impact permit wouldn’t be required for such multifamily housing development. Substantial site plan reviews would still be required, however, and could still be used to ensure projects don’t negatively affect town infrastructure (the town uses these reviews for projects in 40R districts, for example, such as the William Street developments). As Executive Director Jop told the Select Board in June, “The challenges are permitting,” when it comes to Wellesley amending its zoning bylaw to comply with the MBTA Communities rules.
Arbeene also said the town would want to include inclusionary zoning to require some number of affordable units in any development both to meet demand and to keep the town above the 10% affordable housing stock threshold (doing so protects Wellesley from developers sighting unfriendly 40B projects willy-nilly). Requiring 20% of units to be affordable, as Wellesley does, would mean the town would need to conduct an economic feasibility analysis to show that such a rule wouldn’t scare off developers concerned that they couldn’t make money on such projects.
The town will be adding resources to its website regarding MBTA Communities to help the public better understand this topic. There are also plans to hold public forums.
If you appreciate Swellesley sparing you from watching Planning Board meetings, please consider contributing to support our work