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MBTA Communities Workshop: ‘It’s Not Tewksbury Against Tewksbury’

Town staff, elected officials provide reality check on law’s requirements

About 200 residents, many of them from Emerald Court, crowded the Tewksbury Senior Center for a workshop for the MBTA Communities law district selection process. This was the last of three resident visioning sessions that followed a survey fielded this summer. The next stops for the districts that remain in consideration are the Select Board meeting on Oct. 24 and the Planning Board meeting on Oct. 30. From there, the town’s two finalists will be submitted to the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC) for a compliance review, which could take 90 days, before being presented in May to Town Meeting, which has the final say.

While the plan for this session was for Community/Economic Development Planner Alexandra Lowder to present feedback from the town’s public safety and public works departments and dig into the features of the four districts still in consideration, Emerald Court residents had plenty of questions.

“We can’t handle any more traffic on 38, it’s jammed most of the time,” said one. “Is the state going to pay to widen all these roads?” Answer: No.

Residents also questioned whether the the town can opt out (not without losing grants and funding and potentially facing other punitive actions,) what happens if no district is approved at Town Meeting (a new article will be introduced at Special Town Meeting in October) and the overall purpose of the law (increase the supply of housing units to, in theory, drive down costs.)

One resident asked why the Town Center zone, which includes Emerald Court and Archstone, was added back into the mix after being eliminated after the last workshop. Town Manager Richard Montuori answered that he asked Lowder to add it back because didn’t believe any of the districts along Main St. should be removed from consideration before the Planning Board and Select Board weighed in.

One change of note since this process began is that EOHLC announced this summer that it would count residential units in properties with ground-floor commercial space toward communities’ compliance with the law. Learn more.

Here are the districts that remain in consideration as sites with buildable land that allow for — but do not require — the production of at least 1,214 multifamily, non-age-restricted units.

“Buildable doesn’t mean vacant,” Lowder reminded attendees, pointing out that zoning does not mandate construction.

Main Street A is an 84-acre site along Main St. from Shawsheen St. to Heath Brook Plaza, where Pushcart is. It contains Oakdale Plaza and the Village at Tewksbury community.

Main Street B runs from Stonebury Crossing and 1660 Main St. to St. Williams and Orchard St. It contains about 180 acres.

Town Center, the third district running along Main St., is 100 acres that are largely built up. It contains Emerald Court and the Archstone apartment complex.

From a public safety and transportation standpoint, all three of these districts are accessible for fire and police services and are on the LRTA bus route. They’re also already largely developed.

North B, the final district discussed, is 134 acres containing the Trull Brook golf course. It has the most undeveloped land and, if sold, could potentially accommodate the most new residents, but it’s not on public transportation. It’s also the most challenging for public safety personnel.

The South and North A districts were previously eliminated from consideration.

Lowder shared details on density and input from the DPW on the water and sewer infrastructure serving each area. Because the lengthy Q&A left little time to discuss the merits of each district in a meaningful way, Lowder said her presentation to the Select Board and Planning Board will be a summary of the entire public outreach process, and what the feedback was for all six sites, noting that South and North A were not part of last night’s discussion.

“Since I ultimately need their blessing before sending anything to the state for review, the two final districts will come out of those two meetings,” said Lowder.

Select Board members Jayne Wellman and Patrick Holland attended, along with Stephen Johnson and Jonathan Ciampa from the Planning Board, to hear residents’ thoughts ahead of those board meetings.

“I was really impressed with the turnout tonight and the mastery of the topic by Alex Lowder,” said Wellman. “I believe some misconceptions were remedied, and I look forward to the presentation at the Select Board meeting later this month.”

Among those misconceptions is the idea that designating an MBTA zoning overlay would trigger construction, even in areas with existing homes that would need to be purchased and demolished — an expensive proposition.

“It’s called ‘business,'” said Emerald Court resident Dick Cuoco of the notion that the community would be razed. “We can identify districts and never have to build.”

In response to a question from Ciampa, Lowder added that the MBTA Communities law does not preclude the town from requiring a developer to pay for mitigation, such as a sewer pump station. And while it also does not require affordable units, because Tewksbury already has this provision, any new construction could help the town stay above the 10% level to stave off a 40B project.

Ciampa also pointed out that there are 177 communities that fall under the MBTA law, so developers looking to build housing on newly rezoned land have options.

“It’s not Tewksbury against Tewksbury,” he said. “Other towns probably have more low-hanging fruit.”

Lorna is a U.S. Army veteran and 25-year resident of Tewksbury who has written for organizations ranging from the DIA to InformationWeek to a free weekly in New London that sent her to interview the pastry chef at Foxwoods.


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