By: Philippe Thibault
All communities serviced by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and those communities adjacent to this public transit provider will be required to create zoning supporting the production of housing. A total of one hundred and seventy-seven communities in eastern Massachusetts are required to comply.
Boston is exempt from the regulation. The requirement is codified as Section 3A of MGL c. 40A:
Section 3A. (a)(1) An MBTA community shall have a zoning ordinance or by-law that provides for at least 1 district of reasonable size in which multi-family housing is permitted as of right; provided, however, that such multi-family housing shall be without age restrictions and shall be suitable for families with children.
For the purposes of this section, a district of reasonable size shall: (i) have a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre, subject to any further limitations imposed by section 40 of chapter 131 and title 5 of the state environmental code established pursuant to section 13 of chapter 21A; and (ii) be located not more than 0.5 miles from a commuter rail station, subway station, ferry terminal or bus station, if applicable.
(b) An MBTA community that fails to comply with this section shall not be eligible for funds from: (i) the Housing Choice Initiative as described by the governor in a message to the general court dated December 11, 2017; (ii) the Local Capital Projects Fund established in section 2EEEE of chapter 29; or (iii) the MassWorks infrastructure program established in section 63 of chapter 23A.
For a community like Dracut, the law demands the creation of one thousand two hundred thirty-three dwelling units within a zone of eighty-three total acres. If there are multiple zones, one must be twenty-five contiguous acres; otherwise, zones must be a minimum of five contiguous acres. These residential projects must also be “by right,” so no special permits are required. Just the land, construction plans and the permit fee if you meet zoning criteria. This looks like a big stick without any carrots.
There continues to be an outcry from the politicians in Dracut, who believe this law to be detrimental to the town. One selectman pondered if there was an area in Dracut that would be so restrictive that such a development would be impossible.
The State has seen municipalities play these games before, and the zones will be reviewed for developability. So, the middle of Long Pond, Wheeler Pond, and the Dracut Tyngsborough State Forest are out. The politicians that decry the MBTA multi-family zone are the same that have been fighting the revisions to the Zoning Bylaws that remain substantially unchanged since adopted in 1985.
These bylaws, if not updated, will be ruinous to the rural character so cherished by the citizens of Dracut. The existing bylaws promote sprawl into the farmlands and wooded groves of Dracut by restricting the redevelopment of populated areas such as the Navy Yard, Collinsville, and Dracut Center.
The MBTA zone can be utilized to promote this type of redevelopment to the urban centers of Dracut. A recent project at the Dracut Center School to transform the dilapidated Town Hall Annex to affordable Veteran’s Housing provided a comparable dwelling unit density as proposed by the MBTA zoning. Nine residential dwellings on a parcel of land that is slightly over half an acre. By all accounts, a wonderful project that was even spotlighted on multiple episodes of This Old House. The key point being that Dracut must look at the MBTA multifamily zone as an opportunity and not as a hurdle.
There is a need for family housing that the MBTA zone is trying to address. In a recent study by the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments, a regional planning organization that Dracut is a member, nearly three thousand households are living “house poor.”
A term used to illustrate the cost of housing alone requires much of a family’s income, leaving nothing for savings. Dracut has had the benefit of being affordable through market forces in the past. A very desirable attribute, and one noted in a Boston Globe article a few years ago stating that “Dracut was one of the most affordable towns in Massachusetts.” The other side of this coin is Dracut becomes desirable for affordability and an influx of construction and people are coming to town for that value. Supply and demand will make quick work of the open spaces and farms we are trying to maintain.
Economic development will also help boost the town’s coffers through the MBTA zone. Additional amenities will be needed for the residents of these neighborhoods through merchant stores, restaurants, professional offices, and the like. Business promotes business and these neighborhoods will become walkable once more, rather than the car-centric districts there are now.
Dracut’s tax base is ninety-two percent residential and eight percent commercial/industrial. I do not foresee that changing dramatically with the MBTA zone at first, but there is a better chance of that change with the MBTA zones than without it.
Human nature prefers the familiar. Nobody likes to change when they are comfortable. Personal growth only comes through discomfort and venturing into the uncomfortable. Communities are no different in the fact that they are the collective of the people. Certainly, Dracut is not in a comfortable place with a projected town budget deficit of over two million dollars next year and seven million plus dollars the year after that.
Preserving the physical town as it is presently may run in opposition to maintaining the character of the town without proper thought and planning. Dracut could be at a crossroad of holding on too tightly to the past and having it spill through its fingers for not embracing its future. ◊