Housing initiative adopted by Lexington deserves our attention

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PERSPECTIVE: A broader look at news affecting Arlington

Meeting, presentation of draft map

The MBTA Communities Working Group invites all in Arlington to join a discussion of Arlington's draft MBTA Communities zoning map on Monday, June 8, from 7:30 to 9 p.m., in the Community Center. Based on the community outreach done to date, this first draft of Arlington's potential MBTA-Communities-compliant district will be presented. Learnmore here >> 

Arlington is one of 175 communities served by the MBTA that are working toward compliance with the state’s newMBTA Communities law. The planning and zoning effort -- led by Claire Ricker, director of Department of Planning and Community Development, supported by a citizen advisory committee and the input of residents in precincts participating in “visioning” discussions -- is expected to culminate in a vote to approve a compliant plan at the Special Town Meeting in October. Town officials actively encourage citizen engagement in this process.

This new state law requires communities served by the MBTA to adopt multifamily zoning “as of right” to remove obstacles to the development of additional housing. Communities not in compliance with this law will be subject to several state-imposed financial penalties.

Who the law aims to help

State rules requireMBTA communities to develop zoning that can accommodate new housing, specifically targeted for “workforce” residents. Such housing anticipates meeting the needs of schoolteachers, town employees, retail employees and others who work in Arlington but often can’t afford to live here. It may also meet a growing demand among older residents who’ve lived here for years and raised their families here but who can no longer afford taxes on their family home and would like to stay in town in a smaller home with age-appropriate safety features and within walking distance to stores and cafes.

A townwide survey sponsored by Arlington planners on locational preferences for the new zoning closed recently. Results should be available soon.

Questions within the survey addressed access to parks, open spaces, locations along commercial corridors, commercial nodes and so on. Notifications about opportunities to participate in creating a vision for this new zoning are expected over the next few weeks through town email notices and precinct level communications. More information aboutArlington’s timeline and information are available here >> 

On April 9, Lexington became the first municipality to submit a required plan in compliance with the state’s new MBTA Communities law. Lexington’s plan exceeds the requirements for housing. Carol Kowalski, Lexington assistant town manager for development and former town planner in Arlington, said: “Lexington’s minimum was 50 acres, but we zoned for 227 acres. We also allowed a height bonus for retaining commercial on the ground floor in part of the overlay districts. There are three overlays over varying heights. We distributed the district throughout the town, over about 2 percent of the land area.”

See thedetailed motion/bylaw language on pages 2 and 3 >>(scroll to page 7 to see the map of the three overlay districts: MFO, VHO and VO).

Seethe slide presentation for an overview >> 

To participate, the town of Arlington must develop and approve new zoning laws in the form of overlay districts on existing zones or via rewriting the current zoning laws to permit more multifamily housing to be built “as of right.” If a Special Town Meeting does not approve Arlington’s MBTA Communities by Nov. 11, 2023, the town will likely lose the opportunity to become one of the 10 first-round Massachusetts communities in the state’s new fossil fuel plan.

This is a project that the town’s Clean Energy Future Committee, including many residents concerned about sustainability, have worked hard to achieve. Participation in that program is conditional on the municipality’s adoption of new zoning that complies with the MBTA Communities law.

'Inclusionary zoning'

For about 20 years, Arlington has had “inclusionary zoning” laws that require affordable-housing units to be created in multifamily buildings. But during that period, only 54 units have been created. The state law does not require affordability but does expect an increase in density, such as attached one- and two-bedroom townhouses, for new developments.

Rezoning or zoning overlay districts are expected to encourage the development of new housing to comply with this new MBTA Communities law. While the town hopes to have the zoning passed by November, it may be many years before there is any noticeable change in the town’s appearance. The effects of new zoning on existing locations depends on when existing owners decide to sell their property.

As Arlington faces a possible vote for a tax override this coming year to cover its budgeting expectations for the next four to six years, many residents are concerned that more new housing may bring more families with school children, which would then drive a need for more school buildings. However, a counterargument is that Arlington is already well supplied with family housing but seriously undersupplied with one- and two-bedroom housing.

Such smaller housing configurations would likely not drive up the population of the schools. New housing construction results in the badly needed “new growth,” which might be applied to stabilizing the tax base in town. Arlington benchmarks its “new growth” against several other similar and nearby municipalities.

Steve Revilak, Arlington Town Meeting and ARB member, points out that Arlington could use the opportunity for new growth. According toArlington’s Public Annual Financial Reports, Arlington has less new growth than comparable communities -- and significantly less than the statewide average. 

From the town website: 

To help the town determine the location of Arlington’s district, what type of housing should be encouraged and whether any bonuses should be provided for affordable housing or ground-floor commercial space, town planners invite community members to facilitate small-group conversations about multifamily housing. MBTA Communities Visioning Kit materials are available to guide the process. Feedback is requested by May 19. Download materials here >>

This news perspective by Barbara Thornton, a Precinct 16 Town Meeting member with an interest in housing issues,was published Wednesday, May 3, 2023. It was updated May 22.

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