Looks like Wellesley MBTA Communities plan will need some Special Town Meeting treatment

Wellesley town administration was hopeful that by hitting its marks throughout the state’s MBTA Communities zoning approval process that it might wrap up proposed changes at Annual Town Meeting this spring and easily hit the year-end compliance deadline for the new multi-family housing law. But after receiving word this past week from the state’s Executive Office of Housing & Livable Communities (EOHLC) that the town needs to address a number of issues on its pre-adoption review application, it looks like Wellesley will have to seal the deal at a Special Town Meeting later in the year.

The state’s MBTA Communities law, which went into effect in 2021, requires relaxed multifamily zoning near train and other commuter stations. The law is intended to help the state address its housing shortage, though doesn’t specifically address affordable housing. Different communities, depending on their proximity to public transportation stations and the type of transportation, have had different deadlines and zoning goals to achieve.

Wellesley’s proposed zoning changes designed to enable the town to comply with the MBTA Communities law are wrapped into Annual Town Meeting Article 40, which has three motions addressing MBTA Community Projects. The third motion goes beyond the state’s MBTA Communities rules by requiring inclusionary zoning to ensure continued development of affordable units, and as part of that, the town needs to assure the state that such a requirement won’t stifle possible development by dooming such projects to unprofitability.

Town officials for months have been presenting their plan to Wellesley municipal boards and committees, with generally positive feedback. The Planning Board is sponsoring Article 40 at Town Meeting, and Advisory Committee, which vets articles ahead of Town Meeting, voted favorable action almost unanimously across the three motions (one member who voted against two of the motions cited concerns about the impact the zoning changes could have on Wellesley Square’s architecture and density).

Town officials have also held several public forums in recent months, the most recent of which was on March 7 (see Wellesley Media recording). The forums have given town officials a chance to emphasize that the law is about zoning to allow for nearly 1,400 multifamily units, not requiring actual development, and an opportunity to explain Wellesley’s approach, with the key change being the elimination of a special permit requirement for building multifamily housing in five areas of town within half a mile of an MBTA station (Wellesley has three commuter rail stations and is within striking distance of the green line in Newton). Wellesley zoning already has in place provisions that support the sort of density per acre required under MBTA Communities, and development and agreements in recent years at Wellesley Park (formerly Wellesley Office Park) have put the town in a good position to meet the law’s requirements.

mbta community project
Wellesley’s proposed MBTA Community zoning areas


While the MBTA Communities law seeks to address the state’s housing crisis by allowing for more multifamily units to be built “by right” near public transportation, its potential effect will vary by community. In Wellesley, designated by the state as a “Commuter Rail community,” there is a need for more diverse housing, including housing for people who work for the town or at local businesses and organizations. Being near an MBTA station won’t necessarily have anything to do with their desire to live here or have anything to do with their ability to get to work in town. In other communities, like Brookline or Newton (designated “Rapid Transit Communities”), the green line—albeit flawed—does present residents with a true transportation alternative to personal vehicles.

“Each town is approaching this differently… it’s apples and oranges how towns approach this,” said Wellesley Planning Director Eric Arbeene during the March 7 public forum. “Hopefully every town complies. As we’ve said, Wellesley has every intention to comply.”


The State gives Wellesley its feedback


Wellesley this past week received feedback from EOHLC on its plan (see letter embedded below), and the town has a handful of things to work on. Town officials met with EOHLC shortly after receiving the feedback to address concerns and figure out its next steps.

We reached out to Wellesley Executive Director Meghan Jop on Friday and she said: “We have met with EOHLC today and had a good conversation and we have resolved a number of issues. At present, I believe we will move forward at [Annual Town Meeting], but likely need one additional minor modification at the [Special Town Meeting].”

The state’s feedback on Wellesley’s plan included concerns about a lack of contiguous area for building, minimum lot size requirements in Wellesley Square and Wellesley Hills districts, Water Supply Protection district overlap, and impermissible zoning caps in the Wellesley Park district at William Street. Wellesley’s counsel has already gotten busy on some of the nine issues outlined by the state.

Following its listing of issues, EOHLC wrote: “For the foregoing reasons, EOHLC recommends that the Town address the issues outlined before putting the District to a legislative vote.” Indeed, it appears that the town is attempting to do just that, with Town Meeting starting on March 25 (Article 40 isn’t expected to be handled until at least April 1, Jop said during the March 7 forum).

According to an EOHLC spokesperson, every community’s pre-adoption review to date has received feedback. “Pre-adoption feedback is a routine part of the process and is intentionally thorough to fully inform and support communities on their path to compliance. One common example of feedback is relative to special permit requirements being triggered indirectly by other aspects of the zoning bylaw,” wrote EOHLC’s Kevin Connor.

“Many of the items listed in EOHLC’s feedback to Wellesley relate to the Town using an existing zoning district (and not an overlay district) which can result in greater complexities due to the interaction between multi-family housing uses, the existing district, and the rest of the bylaw,” he continued.

Following the Friday meeting between town staff, counsel, state legislative reps, and EOHLC, the town started to address EOHLC’s concerns point by point. This includes adding parcels to meet the law’s contiguity requirement (say combining Linden Street industrial/business areas with Wellesley Square property) and speaking further with EOHLC regarding compliance for 40R areas (such as William Street, where the Nines apartments are located).

It remains to be seen which issues will require sorting out and approval at a Special Town Meeting later in the year. Wellesley actually got the balling rolling on its MBTA Communities compliance with zoning change approvals at last fall’s Special Town Meeting.

Wellesley’s strategic housing approach


Wellesley has taken some criticism, namely from Charles River Regional Chamber President and CEO Greg Reibman, for an MBTA Communities plan he sees as being compliant on paper but not in spirit. Among his concerns is that much of Wellesley’s plan includes the 850 units built or zoned for development at Wellesley Park, which isn’t easily accessible to the green line even though it’s within half a mile. He also emphasizes that the the law seeks to encourage building of new units, whereas Wellesley is taking credit for hundreds of units already built at The Nines. Reibman acknowledged during the March 7 MBTA Communities forum that he does appreciate Wellesley’s other various efforts to develop housing.

Wellesley in recent months has shot down a multifamily housing plan in a single-family-zoned neighborhood at the intersection of Cliff Road and Rte. 9 (i.e., 489 Worcester St.), with residents raising concerns about traffic, environmental impact, and neighborhood character. But other projects have been moving ahead (a proposed zoning measure  for a condo project at Cedar Street and Worcester Street is on the Town Meeting agenda in Article 42). Developments on Weston Road and Linden Street finally near completion, and the developer for a project at 680 Worcester St., estimates it’s a year away from completion . Town administration is also hopeful that recently sold Haynes Management office property in areas such as Washington Street in Wellesley Hills and on Grove Street near Wellesley Square might become housing or mixed-use developments under new owners. There’s also been discussion that Walnut Street properties in Lower Falls might some day be folded into MBTA Communities districting.

Wellesley town officials point to projects recently completed or in the works as part of a broader picture of new housing development in town beyond what the state is mandating zoning-wise under the MBTA Communities law. What’s more, Wellesley issued a request for proposals with a March 13 deadline to hire a consultant to work with the town on a Strategic Housing Plan using $75K secured last year via Special Town Meeting and the Wellesley Housing Development Corp.

“It will be a very public process,” Arbeene said of the Strategic Housing Plan during the March 7 forum. The administration will work with the consultant to see what the town would like to see happen on the housing from, from the location to type of housing. It will be, Arbeene assured, “a collaborative effort.”

Update 3/26/24: We added comments from EOHLC in response to our inquiry about the review.

More on Wellesley’s MBTA Community zoning plans.

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