Town to submit comment asking state to be more flexible on “MBTA Communities” housing guidelines

Above: Under draft guidelines by DHCD, Southborough and Hopkinton would each be financially pressured to define, and rezone, 50 acres of land developable for high density housing, with at least ½ of that within a ½ mile of the train station on our border. (image is my rough estimate of radius using the Town’s GIS map)

Last month, I shared news that the public comment period is soon closing for draft guidelines on a state law that could impact the south side of town. Town officials have been collaborating to submit a comment to DHCD (Mass Dept. of Housing and Community Development).

The Town’s intent is to persuade the agency the guidelines’ “one size fits all” approach for increasing multi-family housing would be counterproductive. A draft letter outlines issues that could prevent Southborough from complying or lead to reducing the amount of affordable housing in our town.

The state is seeking to financially pressure towns/cities with MBTA stops to add/rewrite zoning to increase multi-family housing options. Towns that have MBTA stops and don’t comply with state guidelines would be prohibited from seeking grants through three state programs:

Draft Letter to the Secretary of Housing and Economic Development

A comment letter jointly from the Planning Board and Select Board was approved by Planning on Monday night. If Select Board Chair Lisa Braccio doesn’t have issue with the final language, it will be jointly submitted by tomorrow’s March 31st comment deadline. (If she does have concerns, it can still be submitted by the Planning Board alone.)

The letter acknowledges the problems caused by rising housing cost. It expresses the Town’s desire to do its part to increase and diversify options. It then leads into problems guidelines would pose if implemented as written:

compliance with the “one size fits all” statute is challenging and, in some respects, may prove to be counter-productive to some of the statute’s goals.

It sums up: 

more flexibility in the location of the district would enable our Town to achieve the statute’s objectives while also being sensitive to the unique geographical, historical, and environmental features of the Cordaville section of our Town closest to our train station.

In between, specific obstacles were split into four “comments”:

  1. District Size: Per the draft compliance guidelines “To comply with Section 3A’s “reasonable size” requirement, multi-family districts must comprise at least 50 acres of land— or (emphasis added) approximately one-tenth of the land area within 0.5 mile of a transit station. Our Town is in a unique situation whereby the MBTA Station is located in the southernmost area of our Town and right on the town line with Hopkinton. The Sudbury River runs immediately south of the railroad tracks, and close to the borders of Hopkinton and Ashland in much of the area close to the station. Due to this unique situation, only half of the 500 acres comprised by a circle with a half-mile radius with the transit station at its center is actually within our Town, thereby doubling the land area within .5 mile of the transit station required for the district. The guidelines state that the reasonable size for the multifamily district is 50 acres or one-tenth of the land area within .5 mile of a transit station. For our Town, the land within our borders that comprises one-tenth of the land area within .5 mile of a transit station is 25 acres. Therefore, we request 25 acres is deemed a reasonable size multi-family district for our Town.
  2. Affordability: The major objective of the multi-family requirement for MBTA communities (MGL C40A s3A) is to help address rising housing costs in Massachusetts and reduce the financial pressure those rising costs have placed on low- and middle-income families yet there is no affordability requirement in the statute. To adequately provide housing affordable for low-and middle-income families, young professionals, first responders, etc., the statute should have an affordability requirement.
  3. District Location:
    1. The land area within .5 mile of the transit station in our Town is comprised of well-established neighborhoods with many historic homes and smaller homes built in the 1950’s and 1960’s. This area, which is known as Cordaville, additionally includes many smaller, older, historic homes that were originally constructed as residences serving a 19th century textile mill, which used to be located at the present location of the parking lot for the MBTA Station. These homes in Cordaville are among the more affordable homes in our Town. We are quite concerned that the MBTA Communities zoning requirements would encourage redevelopment of this area through multi-family district that would result in replacing these affordable, often entry-level homes with more expensive housing. That is contrary to one of the desired outcomes of the statute, which is providing housing for low-and middle-income residents. Our Town respectfully requests more flexibility in location of the multifamily district so as not to deplete our stock of more affordable housing
    2. As stated, the Sudbury River runs adjacent along the southern border of the MBTA station with tributary streams, Bordering Vegetated Wetlands (BVW), and floodplains encompassing or infringing upon properties within the District. The Sudbury River extends a 200’ Riverfront Area which, in itself, is a wetland resource area. Our Town has a Wetlands Bylaw which enforces a 20’ no touch buffer zone to further protect the eight values of the Wetlands Protections Act and functionality of wetland resource areas. If existing lots are converted and re-developed, then it may cause adverse impacts on the Riverfront Area as many properties are within the Inner Riparian Area. Any changes to the Riverfront Area also require an alternative analysis that demonstrates that there is no “practicable and substantially equivalent economic alternative” which may cause undue burden on our Town if we need to promote development or redevelopment in this area. Due to the extensive resource areas in this area of Town, it may not be economically viable to increase housing density within the District due to cost of engineering, design, and permitting costs alone.
  4. Town Infrastructure: In addition to the concern raised above the land area within .5 mile of the transit station is an area already developed with single family homes on small lots, contains 2022.03.21 MBTA Community comment letter v2 MD edits[13952] many wetlands and is bordered by the Sudbury River. Additionally, the Town lacks public sewer, making it unlikely that this area could support the required density with private wastewater infrastructure. There are other areas in Town that are not within .5 mile of the transit station that would be more conducive to supporting the development of multi-family housing at the required density, and would still achieve the primary objectives of the statute: increasing the production of such housing in a way that is complementary with public transit.

It’s worth noting that if the draft guidelines are made official as written, there’s another reason they could be counterproductive. Even Town officials invest in efforts to designate zoning that meets the state’s new guidelines, Town Meeting would have to approve zoning changes.

Significant zoning changes have been very difficult to push through Town Meeting even when officials promote them as desirable. It could be a massive challenge to convince enough TM voters to approve changes for blanket higher density development in the defined area (pushed by outside forces) just to remain eligible for potential future grants.

Background on the draft guidelines and letter

In January of 2021, Governor Baker signed the housing act into law related to MBTA Communities.  The draft Compliance Guidelines for were finally issued in December. (The Mass Municipal Lawyers Association put together a presentation on the guidelines here.)* When Town officials looked at the details, they were dismayed by some of the restrictions for Commuter Rail Communities, especially given the location of the Train Station. 

The issue was discussed at a joint meeting between the Planning Board, Select Board and SHOPC (Southborough Housing Opportunity Partnership Committee) in late February.

Town Planner Karina Quinn explained that the housing law doesn’t have an affordability component, just calls for zoning to increase housing density. Some towns have have voiced issue with a cookie cutter approach that to guidelines they say don’t work in their communities. The town of Medway was putting together a comment letter and asking if other towns want to participate.

Ultimately, the boards agreed that Southborough should issue its own letter about our Town’s specific issues. Representatives of each board were designated to collaborate on a draft. (SHOPC’s Chair Doriann Jasinski, Planning Board’s Meme Lutrell, and Select Board’s Andrew Dennington.)

In the February discussion, Jasinski shared her committee’s concerns about ramifications, including the density and location. Overlay zoning would allow 15 units allowed per acre.** A minimum district capacity of 750 units is required. SHOPC Member Tom Bhisitkul pointed out that the issue was that everyone want to be eligible for the state grants but requirements may be too stringent for some Towns to meet.

my rough estimate of half mile around train station (from Town's GiS Map)Lutrell noted that based on the one Train station near the Southborough/Hopkinton border, each town would need to carve out 50 acres of land, with at least 25 acres within ½ mile the station. Yet a city that has several stops would be allowed to split out the same acreage into smaller sections around each stop.

She pointed out that state is trying to increase affordable housing options. But the area near the station is currently where Southborough’s more affordable options are. Denser zoning allowances may attract developers to replace homes with higher end developments. Lutrell wondered if access to the state grants would be worth the drawbacks.

Complicating the issue is that Towns are responsible for mapping out “developable land” for zones. That can’t include wetland resource areas or areas lacking adequate water or wastewater infrastructure or capacity. Given the amount of wetland in Southborough, that’s a challenge, and one officials worried would be costly to analyze.

An earlier draft of the letter included language about the onerous costs. At last Thursday’s Select Board meeting, fellow members told Dennington they believed that wouldn’t be well received by the Town. They referenced Southborough’s image as affluent compared to many community’s. They indicated that complaining about the cost would make the Town’s other concerns appear less credible.

Select Board Members Marty Healey and Sam Stivers had warned in the original discussion that the state is determined to increase housing density. Pushing back too much would make Southborough appear naysayers, instead of persuading the state to alter its rules.

On Thursday, the Board agreed to have Dennington continue to work with Lutrell on a final draft with softened language. Once that was done, Chair Lisa Braccio would have the authority to decide if the version was acceptable to sign on behalf of the Board.

Monday night, the Planning Board unanimously approved the revised draft. (Although Jasinski was heavily involved in the letter, due to meeting schedules and the comment deadline, SHOPC was removed as a signatory.) Planning Chair Don Morris noted that he liked the revised final paragraph, which indicated the Town’s willingness to try to comply with guidelines.

*The Town Planner shared the MMLA presentation in the Planning Board’s February 28th meeting packet.

**MMLA’s presentation states:

an MBTA community may establish sub-districts within a multi-family district, with different density requirements and limitations for each sub-district, provided that the gross density for the district as a whole meets the statutory requirement of not less than 15 multi-family units per acre.

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John Kendall
1 year ago

There’s a lot of swampy land in the Cordaville area. Just where do the intend to jam I housing?

Too Much Regulation
1 year ago
Reply to  John Kendall


Could the South Union building be used for this purpose?

bump on a log
1 year ago

According to this map, It Looks built out already, leave the area as is, stop jamming stuff onto the south side of town.

1 year ago

Lots of room for a building in Fitzys parking lot. Everyone loves living next to the tracks so a win for all.
Take it by eminent domain and have Dipietri and the ZBA ( great band name) work their magic!

Too Much Regulation
1 year ago
Reply to  Matthew


This is an excellent idea. Fitzie’s is a dump and a fire trap.

Great idea!

1 year ago

Racist nimby white people. Sad!

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