New Zoning for Massachusetts’ MBTA Communities

19 July, 2023

New Districts Bring Opportunities for Multifamily Development

Insufficient housing stock remains a challenge across Massachusetts – despite initiatives like Chapter 40B, which aims to increase the number of affordable homes by allowing developers to override local zoning bylaws.

As a result, the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) is promoting the development of multifamily housing suitable for families with children and without age or affordability restrictions.

Draft guidelines have been issued by the DHCD for a new section under the Zoning Act, which aids municipalities in the adoption and standardization of zoning laws. The new section will require 175 communities along Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) bus and rail lines to create a new zoning district that allows for much-needed multifamily development.

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According to correspondence from the DHCD dated December 15, 2021, these communities must comply in order to remain eligible for funding from the Housing Choice Initiative, the Local Capital Projects Fund, or the MassWorks Infrastructure Program.

What the New Legislation Means for Developers

  • Significant Time Savings in Entitlements. The new zoning districts are expected to be more flexible and multifamily communities will be allowed “by-right.” This means developers do not need to obtain any discretionary permits or conditional approvals. Site plan review may still be required, but it cannot be used to deny a project that is allowed by-right. In addition, the new zoning guidelines provide a potential alternative to Chapter 40B, which would require a lengthy process and was previously used to develop multifamily projects in these areas.
  • Multifamily Developments are Permitted By-Right. Municipalities cannot delay or deny the project unreasonably, or impose conditions that make the project infeasible or impractical.
  • Affordability Requirements are not Required. The state’s guidelines do not require affordability as part of a town’s compliance, and municipalities are limited to requiring no more than 10% affordability within its individual zoning districts.
  • Opportunity to Influence Properties Included in the New Zones. Across the region, we are seeing developers helping to determine the boundaries of these zones. Consider engaging your consultant team to perform preliminary due diligence to evaluate properties within the specified communities. Approach the town with your plan and ask that your property be included in the new zone.

Here are some of the proposed requirements for these zoning districts:

  • The district must total 50 acres of land or more, where at least one portion of the district must have 25 acres of contiguous land. No area shall be smaller than 5 contiguous acres.
  • The minimum multifamily unit capacity for each district ranges from 10% to 25% of the community’s total housing stock, depending on the type of transit service provided. The minimum gross density cannot be less than 750 units (e.g. 15 units/acre for a 50-acre district).
  • The district must have a gross density of at least 15 units/acre.
  • Zoning cannot require age restrictions, nor limit unit size, number of bedrooms, bedroom size, or number of occupants.
  • Districts shall be within 0.5 miles of a commuter rail station, subway station, ferry terminal, or bus station, if applicable.
  • A mixed-use district will be deemed to comply as long as it meets the unit capacity, density, and other requirements in the guidelines.

Bohler’s New England team provided technical assistance for implementing rezoning regulations to five original communities. The municipalities of Swampscott, Marblehead, Southborough, Hopkinton, and Stoneham have all benefited from our expertise in determining suitable areas for rezoning that align with state requirements. Using a comprehensive compliance model, we meticulously analyzed each area, identifying any deficiencies, suggesting adjustments, and outlining a potential path to full compliance. Recently, we’ve added two more communities, Wrentham and Hamilton, expanding our reach and impact.

Our team compiled unique, detailed reports to each municipality, summarizing the research and showcasing zoning overlays and nearby transit connections. While our part in the process is complete, each municipality will now need to have its newly contemplated zoning reviewed and approved through the appropriate local channels and submit the finalized plans to the DHCD. Together, we are shaping the future of these communities with thoughtful and well-planned zoning updates.

What’s Next

The MBTA communities are broken into four different categories. Municipalities categorized as “rapid transit communities” must comply with the new zoning regulations by 12/31/2023. Municipalities categorized as “commuter rail communities” or “adjacent communities” must comply by 12/31/2024. “Adjacent small towns” must comply by 12/31/2025. A map of the categorization can be found here.

In the meantime, Bohler’s teams have been assisting residential developers across New England with conceptual planning, massing, density, and feasibility analysis to help identify sites that would benefit from this zoning. Our teams continue to follow this developing legislation and will adapt our recommendations and guidance to our clients as more information becomes available.

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About Brian Oberg
Brian Oberg 2019_Southborough

As Principal in Bohler’s New England region, Brian helps owners and developers identify and act on opportunities to become accomplished. With more than 20 years of experience providing land development consulting services throughout the region, Brian is focused on strategic business development planning, cultivating new company-wide partnerships, and maintaining existing client relationships.

During his career, Brian has specialized in residential development and understands the challenges, opportunities, and incentives available to help developers achieve success. Brian is an active member of industry associations including Urban Land Institute (ULI), Innovating Commerce Serving Communities (ICSC), Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), and the New Hampshire Commercial Investment Board of Realtors.

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