Abington would have to approve new zoning rules that allows for more than 1,000 units of multi-family housing around the town’s commuter rail station, according to housing guidelines being drafted by the Baker Administration.
The guidelines are part of a 2020 state law that requires cities and towns served by the MBTA to create zoning districts that would allow developers to build multi-family housing “by right,” meaning without needing special approval from local boards. Those projects would still need to meet all other local zoning, conservation, and design rules.
The Abington Planning Board will discuss the new guidelines at its meeting Monday night, which will take place via Zoom. Communities must submit any comments by March 31. The Baker Administration will then issue a final version of the rules a few months later.
There are still a number of unanswered questions about the new guidelines, such as whether towns like Abington can count existing multi-family units towards its goal, or what happens if a community lacks the water and sewer capacity to serve the district.
And the units don’t actually have to be built; just allowed by right under the new zoning.
But the news still has residents who live near the MBTA station worried.
“The size is ridiculous,” said Donna Rizzi-Peavey, who lives on Summer Street.
That roadway has become an increasingly popular shortcut for drivers traveling between Routes 58 and 18, and is the locus of multiple large multi-family housing projects.
“Traffic is already too much for the area, and the schools are full,” she said.
With real estate prices soaring, the state hopes requiring cities and towns to make it easier to build multi-family housing will result in more reasonably priced housing options. The 2020 law said the zoning districts should be of a “reasonable size” with a minimum density of 15 units per acre, be located within a half-mile of the station, and be suitable for families.
The Baker Administration, which released the draft guidelines the week before Christmas, says the zoning districts must consist of at least 50 acres of buildable land.
The guidelines also set housing growth goals for each city and town based on the type of MBTA station within its borders. Communities with a subway station need to adopt zoning rules that allow for a 25 percent growth in its total housing stock. For a city like Braintree, this would mean a district and density large enough for 3,769 multi-family units. Communities serviced by MBTA bus routes, such as Hingham, would need to allow for 20 percent growth, and commuter rail towns, which include Abington, need 15 percent growth. Towns like Rockland, which are located adjacent to MBTA communities, have a 10 percent goal.
According to the 2020 Census, Abington has 6,811 housing units; a 15 percent increase comes out to 1,022 units.
But the guidelines say there is “no expectation” that towns like Abington build all 1,022 units. The town will be in compliance simply as long as the new zoning is in place.
“It is important to remember that this law is all about zoning—the rules that establish what can be built, and where—and not the permitting of individual projects or the production of actual housing units,” said Michael Verseckes, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Community Development. .
“Over time, the zoning changes adopted at the local level as a result of this law will enhance landowners’ opportunities to develop multifamily housing that will serve the needs of communities. The immediate impact of this law, and the implementing guidelines, is to establish a clear set of rules with which municipalities must comply to preserve eligibility for certain types of state funding.”
Communities who fail to comply would not be eligible for a number of state housing and infrastructure grant programs.
One goal of the new guidelines is to force communities with restrictive zoning rules to contribute towards solving the state’s housing crunch. Many suburban communities do not allow multi-family housing developments by right. But that’s not the case in Abington. More than 15 years ago, Abington Town Meeting proactively established a transit-oriented zoning district around the commuter rail station; the smart-growth zoning district is designed to encourage multi-family, mixed-use developments within walking distance of the station. The zoning law has been used to approve multiple multi-family townhouse developments along Centre Avenue and an apartment building on Summer Street.
In addition, Summer Street is already home to the Woodlands, a 192-unit apartment complex built under Chapter 40B the state’s so-called affordable housing law. The Zoning Board of Appeals is considering a 236-unit Chapter 40B project proposed along the Summer Street entrance of the MBTA station. A 144-unit 40B project was approved for a parcel of land off Plymouth Street that abuts the town’s Senior Center, which is also on Summer Street.
What’s not clear within the guidelines is whether Abington would get credit for those existing or proposed multi-family units. The guidelines say at one juncture that communities need to prove “the number of multi-family housing units that can be developed” in the new district, and at another point say that communities need to “show at least 15 existing or potential multi-family units per acre” in the district.
If the town is allowed to receive credit for its transit-oriented district, which doesn’t set a cap on density, or the multi-family developments already built or being permitted, Abington’s new zoning district would be significantly less intrusive than if it has to start anew.
“It’s commendable that Abington has approved multiple multi-family housing developments,” said Planning Board Vice-Chairman Bruce Hughes. “This gives folks wanting to live in Abington choices as to the housing where they want to live. I think that Abington needs to promote a diversity of housing options to meet the needs of a changing and aging population and promote a socio -economically diverse population. making Abington a more inclusive place to live.”
The new zoning district does not need to consist of 50 contiguous acres. It could consist of a couple different sections of land within that half-mile radius, so long as one of the sections is at least 25 acres in size. It’s up to Abington to decide where in the radius the district is located.
Unlike with 40B projects, where developers can ignore all local zoning and permitting regulations, projects built within the new multi-family zoning districts would have to follow local rules, including setbacks, height limitations, architectural design, screening, and parking. Any condition of approval can’t make the project “infeasible or impractical,” however.
The guidelines say the town’s proposed zoning district must take into consideration “limitations on development resulting from inadequate water or wastewater infrastructure,” but doesn’t specify what impact it will have. While Abington has ample sewer capacity, the Abington/Rockland Joint Water Works has frozen all new applications for water service while it studies whether the system is at capacity.
Abington must submit a timeline and action plan by July 1, 2023, and adopt its new multi-family zoning guidelines by Dec. 31, 2024.