Residents line up to speak at the HONE community meeting/ Credit: The Needham Channel

The Housing Needham Working Group (HONE) heard from more than 40 residents during the nearly two-hour public comment period of its third and final community meeting on March 28. 

The comments came after HONE presented two options for the town to comply with the state’s MBTA Communities Act, which mandates an increase in the town’s zoning capacity for multifamily housing units around its commuter rail stations. 

The Base Compliance scenario tweaks the town’s zoning to achieve barely more than the minimum level of compliance. The more ambitious Neighborhood Housing Plan offers more permissive zoning parameters allowing for more height and density, and is more likely to encourage construction.

A majority of the nearly 300 people who participated in the hearing either in person at Town Hall or on Zoom voiced support for the more ambitious neighborhood plan, but a significant cohort expressed strong preference for a more cautious approach.

The town’s business community and institutions were well represented among those in favor of the more ambitious plan. 

John Fogarty, president of Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham, asked attendees to think about the topic as a healthcare issue, noting that only 7% of BID’s employees live in Needham and 18% live in the surrounding communities.

“Adequate housing equals a stable workforce,” he said. “Many senior staff retired during the pandemic. Seventy percent of our nurses are under 30 years old. We have to create a housing plan that supports a workforce for tomorrow for access to healthcare.”

Jay Spencer, owner of French Press Bakery & Cafe, Paula Jacobson, executive director of the Charles River YMCA, and Greg Reibman, president of the Charles River Regional Chamber, also spoke in favor of the larger plan. They expressed the need for more foot traffic to create a more vital downtown as well as more varied housing options that would help attract workers and make local businesses more competitive.

Those who spoke for the minimally compliant approach expressed fear about the effect of allowing development “by right,”which limits the town’s authority to impose conditions. This overlapped with concerns over impacts on the town’s infrastructure, particularly with regard to stormwater management at a time when flooding has become a more pressing concern.

Nordo Nissi is a Chestnut Street resident who lives in the area where the more aggressive zoning changes are being proposed, including the Hartney Greymont property near Needham Junction, where a significant transit-oriented development was proposed several years ago.

 “We would like to see the committee take another look at the Hartney Greymont parcel,” said Nissi, expressing fear that an apartment complex there would create a traffic hazard as well as negatively impact stormwater management.

“It’s going to be very complicated to make that a safe access point for a large complex,” he said. “If we develop that property, it’s going to have a significant negative impact on the Junction and Chestnut Street neighborhoods.”

How HONE presented the project

In a presentation that consumed the first hour of the meeting, HONE co-chair Heidi Frail and the town’s housing consultant, Eric Halvorsen of RKG Associates, walked the attendees through the specifics and the differing goals of the two plans. 

The law mandates that the town create a zoning district of at least 50 acres near the MBTA stations that provides the capacity for a minimum of 1,784 units of housing to be built “by right,” meaning without the need for a special permit. The Base Compliance Plan provides the potential for 1,868 units to be built. The Neighborhood Housing Plan creates the opportunity to produce 3,339 units.

“The first plan establishes compliance with the state law using existing zoning for the most part,” said Frail, who is also a member of the Select Board. “The second plan also establishes compliance, but moves past paper compliance to adjust zoning to spur housing development.”

Both plans will be presented to Town Meeting in October and voted on separately. At least one needs to pass for Needham to comply with the law. If both pass, the Neighborhood Housing Plan will supersede the Base Compliance Plan and be implemented.

Frail was clear in expressing that the HONE committee, which has been working on the plan since late summer 2023, favors the more ambitious neighborhood plan.

“As you hear about the plans tonight, I hope that you’ll agree that guaranteeing compliance is right for Needham. I also hope you’ll agree that the Neighborhood Housing Plan, more than the Base Plan, is right for Needham because it will unlock many benefits for Needham that go beyond housing,” said Frail.

“The HONE committee believes this plan will help revive economic vitality, bringing much needed foot traffic to more areas of Needham.”

In his presentation, Halvorsen said the area covered under the Base Plan currently has a zoning capacity of 1,019 units and has 775 existing units. The proposed change would increase that capacity to 1,868 units. 

He also said HONE conducted “propensity for change modeling” that suggested the “likely build out” of the recommended zoning changes would produce 222 new units over an extended period of time.

Applying the same modeling to the Neighborhood Plan, Halvorsen said the likely build out would add 1,099 new units, with 700 of them resulting from loosening restrictions along Chestnut Street.

Halvorsen also said the results of a municipal fiscal impact report indicated the plan was net positive for the town as it would generate more in tax revenue than it would incur in operating costs. A fiscal impact report on the town’s capital spending has not yet been completed.

HONE will wind down

The HONE working group will evaluate the public comments at its meeting this evening. It also has meetings planned with other town boards in April as it winds down its activities. 

HONE intends to submit its final proposals to the state by May 1 for review to determine if they comply with the provisions of the MBTA law. That review is expected to take three months, which means HONE would hand the project off to the Planning Board in early August.

The Planning Board will then hold public hearings and other meetings of its own as it finalizes the language of the warrant items that will be voted on at Fall Town Meeting in October to meet the Dec. 31 deadline to produce a compliant plan.

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