Each week, the Abington News is asking the three candidates for the Planning Board board a question to help voters better understand them as candidates. Election Day is Saturday, April 30.
Because the Editor of Abington News is also a member of the Planning Board, questions for this series were crafted by Jeff Welch, a former member of the Abington Zoning Board of Appeals and past Plymouth County Commissioner. Candidate responses are published as submitted, in the order they were received, and were not edited.
This week’s question is: What are the most important planning/zoning challenges and opportunities facing Abington?
I believe the most important planning/ zoning challenges are to protect residential areas from business and industrial zones with a respectful buffer zone with fencing and trees.
We also need to promote business in their proper zones to increase the tax base.
Thank you for your consideration.
Thanks for the opportunity to answer the question related to the planning and zoning challenges and opportunities facing Abington. I’m seeking a seat on the Planning Board because we will be facing some real challenges and opportunities in the years to come.
In terms of opportunities, I think the Planning Board can take direction from the short and mid-term goals that were documented in the Master Plan update of 2019. Not too long after the update was published the pandemic began and the Town’s ability to execute against the Master Plan’s goals was certainly impacted. As the effects of the pandemic hopefully wane and the Town’s business returns to normal, I think there’s an opportunity to make progress against some of the goals.
The updated Master Plan lays out short term (1-5 years), medium term (5-10 years) and long term opportunities that were identified as a result of Town government and resident input. There were specific recommendations regarding improvements to Abington Center and North Abington Center that have a lot of merit.
Some of the goals more broadly speak to difficult objectives like housing affordability and availability, attracting business and economic development in Abington. Resident feedback generally supported these goals but not at the expense of preserving open space, watershed protection and maintaining Abington’s “small town feel.” This is going to represent a difficult but necessary balancing act.
The Planning Board was in many cases identified in the report as the catalyst for leading these efforts. The Plan also identified the necessary collaboration of other Town boards, business owners and residents. If we’re looking for planning and zoning opportunities then I think the updated Master Plan provides a good starting point for that discovery.
As to challenges, there are many. But there is one in particular that I think is near the top of my list. The economic development bill of January 2021 included a change to the Commonwealth’s Zoning Act known as Section 3A. Section 3A will require MBTA communities to establish a 50-acre zoning district for the purpose of constructing multi-family housing. Because Abington has a commuter rail stop we are one of the communities that will be required to establish such a district. Information about Section 3A can be found at https://www.mass.gov/info-details/multi-family-zoning-requirement-for-mbta-communities.
The Commonwealth has further legislated that this multi-family housing can be constructed “without the need to obtain any discretionary permit of approval.” While the degree and mechanism of Town oversight remains to be determined, the Commonwealth’s clear intent is to mitigate our ability to apply all of our existing regulations and by-laws to comprehensively control this development. The Commonwealth has taken a similar approach with Chapter 40B development.
Abington will not be required to formally adopt this new multi-family zoning district until December, 2024. While this seems like a long time away there is much work that needs to be done between now and then to determine what we’ll need to do and how we’ll propose to do it. There are compliance requirements that are staggered along a timeline between now and then. The person who is elected to this five-year term on our Planning Board should be a very active participant in the critical discussions and planning around Abington’s Section 3A compliance.
The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) solicited public comment to a draft guideline that describes the means by which DHCD will enforce compliance to Section 3A. Following is the text of the comment that I provided in response to this solicitation, outlining my opposition to this statute and the emerging compliance requirements.
I will also post this public comment to my Facebook campaign page.
[Editors note: The text of this letter is included below following all candidate responses]
For more information or to offer support to my campaign, I can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’d very much appreciate your vote in the Town Elections on April 30 at the Beaver Brook Elementary School.
All of the planning/zoning challenges facing Abington stem from one main issue – guiding growth and development in a way that benefits everyone. This includes not interfering with the residents, supporting businesses & also attracting new businesses and preserving wetlands, open space, vegetation & other greenery within the Town.
While the Bylaws set forth the standards of review for site plans & development projects, these boards must also balance private interests with the public good. Rather than destroy land to develop, we should explore options that are already available, such as empty storefronts, unnecessarily large parking lots and blighted properties. For example, in North Abington Center, the old Bemis is empty, as is the storefront across the street beside Abington House of Pizza. In Abington Proper, the old Marylous remains unoccupied and the bank across the street has a lot of parking for a drive-thru. Target has a very large parking lot; if we could put a Wendy’s in front of Stop & Shop, why not look into doing something similar with a portion of the Target parking lot?
Abington also owns a portion of land at the old air base – have we fully explored developing that? If we worked with the surrounding towns, specifically Weymouth and Rockland, this location could prove to be valuable as it is located near the Commuter Rail and could also provide an alternate route to the highway. What about the old New England Art building? Or the North School building? If properly developed, these locations could provide housing without having as much of an impact and are not too far from North Abington Center.
If planning and zoning shifted focus and concentrated on revitalizing the centers of the Town, as is laid out in the Master Plan, Abington could be more attractive to small businesses. We currently have two breakfast establishments, right across the street from each other; we don’t have a bakery; we don’t have a butcher shop; there isn’t a pharmacy in town anymore; but we do have several pizza shops. If we could strengthen and diversify our business base, not only would taxes for the residents improve, but it would also generate more income to the Town. Moreover, if the Town is increasing housing, we should focus on transforming what we have to be more appealing instead of developing unused property in the Town. This would encourage people to shop locally and, again, would benefit everyone. Additionally, revitalizing and redeveloping pre-existing locations would not place as much of a burden on town resources.
Another factor to be carefully considered is the pot shops in town. Whose best interest is being considered with the proposed zoning amendment to create a marijuana overlay district off of Chestnut Street? Not only is the proposed area in a residentially zoned district, but, if approved, it would also mean destroying a protected habitat (the White Cedar Swamp).
The challenge of guiding growth in Abington also presents several opportunities: to make the Town more inviting & appealing to people who would normally just pass through; attract new business & expand existing businesses; generate income for the Town; and, most importantly, this can be achieved without interfering with the residents.
Lastly, I believe the most important opportunity is the upcoming election. It is a chance to welcome a new perspective and new ideas – to welcome change.
[The following is the text of a letter Rick Shepherd sent regarding the proposed MBTA multi-family zoning guidelines.]
To: The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD)
RE: Public Comment of Section 3A of the State Zoning Act, Chapter 40A
To Whom It May Concern:
My name is Richard Shepherd and I am a resident of Abington. I have reviewed the DHCD Draft Compliance Guidelines for Multi-family Districts and I believe that Section 3A and these supporting draft Guidelines are not in the best interest of the Town of Abington. I am providing feedback per the solicitation of public comment.
Abington is defined as an MBTA community by virtue of the fact that there is a commuter rail station within the Town. Section 3A will eventually require that Abington establish a 50-acre, multi-family zoning district, the Commonwealth’s preference being that this zone be within a half mile of our commuter rail station.
Section 3A indicates that the district must be designed to accommodate multi-family housing at a rate of 15% of the Town’s total housing units and conforming to gross density requirements of 15 units per acre. Per census data cited by DHCD, this translates to 1,022 units of multi-family housing that could be constructed within the district.
The draft compliance guidelines provided by DHCD represent that “The purpose of Section 3A is to encourageMBTA communities to adopt zoning districts where multi-family zoning is permitted as of right, and that meet other requirements set forth in this statute (italics herein and going forward are mine).”Review of the DHCP Guidelines show the following:
1. Abington must provide DHCP an assessment of the number of multi-family housing units that can be developed as of right within the zoning district that is prescribed.
2. Abington must provide DHCD with an action plan and a timeline for achieving compliance with Section 3A and must obtain DHCD approval of the plan and timeline.
3. Abington must achieve the milestones set forth in the approved plan and must adopt a zoning amendment by the date stipulated in the approved plan.
4. To achieve interim compliance, Abington must submit a complete request for a determination of compliance and must notify DHCD that there is not an existing multi-family district that fully complies with the guidelines.
If Abington does not conform to the compliance guidelines, the Town will not be eligible for funds from the Massachusetts Housing Choice Initiative, the Local Capital Projects Fund and the MassWorks Infrastructure Program. Like many small towns in the Commonwealth, Abington has in the past relied upon these programs to obtain critical capital funding for infrastructure projects and other essential purposes. Loss of access to these funds would impose a significant financial burden upon the Town.
Clearly Section 3A is not intended to “encourage” compliance as represented in the guidelines but is intended to mandate compliance. This was acknowledged in the recent presentation to the Old Colony Planning Council. The cost of non-compliance would be devastating. Any wording in the draft DHCD guidelines that suggests that this is not a mandate should be reconsidered.
Of great concern is the manner in which Abington’s oversight and control of any multi-family housing that could be constructed in the proposed district would be restricted.
Multi-family housing in the required district would be permitted “by right.” According to DHCD’s definition of terms, “as of right” means that construction could proceed “without the need to obtain any discretionary permit or approval.” Abington’s site plan review, which according to the draft Guidelines may be required, “may regulate matters such as vehicular access and circulation, architectural design and screening of adjacent properties but may not be used to deny a project that is allowed as of right nor impose conditions that make it infeasible or impractical to proceed with multi-family use that is allowed as of right.”
It is unclear to me which of Abington’s rules and by-laws could be considered “discretionary” by a developer or by the Commonwealth. The Guidelines indicate “A municipality should consider reducing or eliminating any minimum parking requirements in the multi-family zoning district to allow for greater density of multi family units on each parcel.” Does this suggest that minimum parking requirements that Abington could consider essential could be dismissed as “discretionary?”
The “as of right” provision of Section 3A will almost certainly restrict Abington’s ability to enforce compliance to the entirety of its rules, regulations and by-laws within the proposed district in much the same way that the comprehensive permit provision of Section 40B circumvents local control. The Commonwealth’s continuing trivialization of local oversight compromises Abington’s ability to manage to the goals of its Master Plan and renders the process of electing and appointing local regulatory Boards an increasingly empty exercise. The Commonwealth should not be usurping local control in this fashion.
DHCD guidelines include a FAQ section. Question D4 poses the following: “A density of 15 units per aces is out of character with my rural community. Can the final guidelines reduce the minimum gross density requirement … for more rural MBTA communities in which that density is out of character with existing development patterns?” The answer? “No. The minimum gross density of 15 units per acre is expressly set forth in Section 3A.” Consideration of a Town’s existing and essential character by its locally elected and appointed officials then becomes discretionary?
Section 3A mandates a 50-acre zoning district. While flexibility is allowed in the way that the district can be apportioned, the 50-acre requirement is inflexible. 50 acres in smaller towns like Abington represents a larger overall percentage of land use than that of a larger community like, for example, Plymouth and imposes a more difficult task of defining the district’s bounds for the smaller towns. The fixed size of the district should instead take the size of a Town’s total land area into consideration in calculating the required size of the district.
Section 3A clearly establishes that multi-family housing in the district “shall be without age restrictions and shall be suitable for families with children.” This provision begs the question of the impact that additional multi-family units could have upon Town services like the public schools.
Returning to DHCD’s FAQ section, Question G5 addresses this concern as follows: ““It is unlikely that communities will see any immediate increase in school attendance. Studies have shown that in most cases new multi-family housing development has no negative impact on a community’s school system.“
There are no citations for the referenced studies. If the Commonwealth seeks to allay the very real concerns that Abington’s residents would have about the impact to our schools and other services, the specific studies should be cited and available for review. There is little in the Guidelines that address the very legitimate concerns about Section 3A’s potential long-term impact upon Town services like schools, police and fire.
The Guidelines argue that the impact of the required zoning is lessened because 3A mandates only zoning, not construction. The argument is specious. It is clear that once the districts are established and developers are allowed significant negotiating leverage in their dealings with the towns (as of right), development of multi-family housing will inevitably follow. That’s the whole intent of the statute. The argument that construction within this district is not inevitable is not reasonable.
The Commonwealth’s concerns regarding the downward trend of housing construction are certainly legitimate. Availability and affordability of housing will certainly affect job and economic growth across the board, as argued.
The Guidelines allow for some collaboration and flexibility between the towns and the Commonwealth. These efforts should be redoubled. Affordable and available housing are important and essential objectives but these should not be achieved by ignoring or mitigating a town’s ability to locally and intelligently manage its growth, finances and character. DHCD’s enforcement of the Guidelines should give towns like Abington every opportunity to control its future.