At last night’s Select Board meeting, assistant town manager Steve Sadwick and town planner Alex Lowder gave a presentation on the new Massachusetts Zoning Act that requires Tewksbury, like 174 other communities, to have at least one zoning district “of reasonable size” in which multi-family housing is permitted by right and that meets other criteria.
Select Board member Todd Johnson was absent from the meeting.
The goal of the law, which took effect this month, is to increase housing stock. And in fact, at his final State of the Commonwealth address, outgoing governor Charlie Baker stated as an accomplishment that his administration “enacted long overdue changes to our exclusionary zoning laws to unleash much-needed housing production.”
The law requires a zoning district with a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre that’s not more than .5 miles from a commuter rail station, subway station, ferry terminal or bus station, if applicable. Units may have no age restrictions and must be suitable for families with children.
Sadwick explained that under the new law, Tewksbury is classified as an MBTA adjacent community. These towns abut a rapid transit community, bus service community or commuter rail community; have no subway station or commuter rail station within its boundaries or within 0.5 miles of its border; and have no MBTA bus route running through it.
Lowell, Wilmington, Billerica and Andover are all classified as commuter rail or bus communities.
The extensive bill comes with $626 million earmarked for economic development and housing spending. Of that, Tewksbury is set to receive $150,000 for economic development at “some future date.” There is also money for various loan programs. For purposes of required MFD housing, as of the 2020 census, Tewksbury has 12,139 units. That means the minimum multifamily capacity requirement is 1,214.
Sadwick brought up two additional sections of the law that affect Tewksbury.
First, zoning articles brought to Town Meeting now need only a simple majority to pass instead of a two-thirds vote. And, special permit approvals move from a super majority to a simple majority.
Lowder explained that multi-family housing must now be permitted as a right without need for discretionary approval.
“That does not mean that they can’t go through a site plan review, process with the planning board or any other board,” she said. “It just means that there can’t be any other barriers for it.”
In Tewksbury, the “reasonable size” district must comprise at least 50 acres total, with at least 25 acres contiguous.
“And no portion shall be smaller than five acres, which means that you can’t take a bunch of one acre parcels or smaller and just push them all together and call that the district,” she said. “Now, while these guidelines do prescribe that zoning enables the multifamily housing, this is not a mandate or requirement to build. It simply means that these districts have to be created to make it a by-right use.”
Next steps for Tewksbury are to put in place by June an action plan that demonstrates that the town has a plan to implement the zoning. The new zoning amendments must be adopted no later than Dec. 31, 2024 and submitted for a determination of compliance.
“While that is about two years away, it will come up quickly, which is why we wanted to get started on this process,” said Lowder.
In the near term, the town must submit by the end of this year a complete request for determination, meaning that we believe we already meet the zoning requirements, or let the state know that there is no current existing zoning that would meet compliance and propose the actions we plan to take.
Noncompliance with the law boils down to, at minimum, the loss of millions in funding.
“Not attempting to shoot the messenger here because obviously you guys are not responsible for this, but what’s the upside to this for Tewksbury, if any?” asked Select Board clerk James Mackey. “Did I miss that part?”
Board member Ann Marie Stronach echoed that sentiment, while vice-chair Jayne Wellman pointed out that cost is not part of the equation for the state.
“So it’s not talking about affordable housing,” said Wellman. “It’s just talking about multi-family housing.”
Sadwick pointed out that Tewksbury now requires that 15% of MFD projects be affordable units, but that more guidance is needed on whether that mandate can be placed on by-right developments; Wellman asked Sadwick to query the state for guidance and thanked the staff for bringing the information to the board promptly.
“What are the chances we’re already in compliance, if we look at parcels along [Route] 38?” asked Wellman.
The odds are less than 50% said Sadwick, but he and Lowder will take a look. Even the Balsam Place and Joan’s Farm developments are less than 15 units per acre, for example, because the calculation includes the entire parcel.
“The sky’s not falling just yet,” said board chair Jay Kelly, who asked about the effect of the new law on the bylaw proposal due to come before Town Meeting in May.
“To do both initiatives justice, I think they should be separate,” said Sadwick, who says he will look to bring a draft plan back to the board. The ultimate zoning bylaw will need to go to Town Meeting.
“At the end of the day, it’s a mandate,” said Kelly.
Liquor License Increases
The town was informed by the ABCC that in light of population growth in the federal census, a number of additional alcohol licenses are available to Tewksbury businesses:
> Restaurant, all alcohol went from 30 licenses to 33 licenses;
> Restaurant wine and malt went from six to seven;
> All alcohol, retail package, went from six to seven; and
> Wine and malt retail package licenses went from six to seven.
These increases are in addition to the special legislation that the board sent to our delegation and that was passed a little over a year ago that added five additional restaurant all alcohol licenses to the community as well as two beer and wine restaurant licenses.
“Those special legislation licenses need to be used by February 2024,” said town manager Richard Montuori.
Board member Anne Marie Stronach suggested that the economic development committee ensure prospective new businesses know that licenses are available.
Mackey reports that the new website is finally ready to go. Residents will receive an announcement soon on when the site will be live as well as future plans.
Stronach shared that the removal of the center school is imminent, so expect activity in the area. “It’s not going to be an explosion,” she said. “They are going to be taking it down almost brick by brick.”
Wellman thanked Montuori, DPW director Brian Gilbert and town engineer Kevin Hardiman for setting up a tour of the DPW for the last week. The tour was attended by the Carnation as well as Wellman, Mackey and Johnson.
“The facility was built in the 1950s and while … our staff are doing a great job of caring for the building, it’s very worn,” said Wellman. “I’m looking forward to seeing how the plans [for a new facility] are going to be modified as we go forward. And I know that the town manager and staff are working very hard with their consultants to bring the budget into line.”
Wellman is also the designee to NMCOG and shared that Rt. 38 construction is slated to start in April, from Colonial Dr. to Old Main St., and run through Sept. 2023.
“It’s going to be disruptive,” she said. “So I am requesting that DOT do a robust public outreach program that we can repurpose on our website.” The idea is to create materials so that residents and businesses know what sections are being worked on when and any impacts so they can plan.
The DEI survey has been approved in draft form by the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee.
“The next step is for to be loaded into Survey Monkey in a preview form,” said Wellman. “Then it will be brought back to this board and to town staff for feedback before we publish it out to the public.”
Finally, Mackey updated the board on progress by the Zoning Bylaw Committee.
“Feedback is is dying down, which I believe is a good thing as it means we’ve addressed the questions,” he said. Any remaining comments or concerns should be submitted to the committee by Feb. 2.