The Suites of Needham on Highland Ave. are an example of current multi-family housing in Needham/ Credit: Needham Observer

The town’s two proposed schemes for complying with the MBTA Communities law will be put before the public tonight at a 7 p.m. community meeting at Town Hall.

Residents will be able to weigh in on the plans, which represent seven months of work by the nine-member Housing Needham Working Group (HONE). The committee was created to suggest land use changes that comply with a state mandate to expand opportunities for multifamily housing to be built around the town’s commuter rail stations.

The MBTA law has multiple requirements, but the key metric for Needham is to create a zoning district that provides the capacity for at least 1,784 units of housing to be built “by right,” meaning without the need for a special permit.

HONE will offer two such scenarios this evening. One is a Base Compliance Plan that provides the potential for 1,868 units to be built. The other option is the Neighborhood Housing Plan in which more permissive zoning parameters create the opportunity to produce 3,339 units.

As has been stressed throughout the MBTA process, HONE’s presentation will explain that the MBTA law is not a housing production plan. There is no mandate that the targeted number of units be built. It only requires that zoning rules make their production possible and not hindered by special permitting requirements.

“We haven’t actually changed the underlying zoning,” said Katie King, the deputy town manager who worked with the HONE committee. “What we’ve changed is the special permit condition.”

HONE’s analysis of the parcels included in the Base Compliance map shows 776 existing units and a current zoning capacity of 1,019 units. By eliminating the special permit process, the potential capacity increases to 1,868 units. The consultants assisting the town on the project, RKG Associates & Innes Associates, also conducted a “Propensity for Change” analysis which indicated the Base Compliance plan had the potential to add 222 new units over an extended period of time.

Tonight’s meeting, in addition to offering detailed descriptions of the two proposed plans, will feature considerable new supporting information developed since the last community gathering in January. This includes projections on the fiscal impacts of the zoning changes on the town’s operating budget and on the student population of the Needham schools.

The data shows a net positive impact on the operating budget, and a relatively minimal increase in the student population. Projections on impacts on the town’s capital spending are not expected to be available until April.

Assessing community sentiment

The first two community meetings, held in November and January, each attracted more than 300 attendees, fairly evenly split between in-person and online. Those were significant turnouts by usual town measures, and a handful of community groups have formed around the issue.

The earliest and most active has been the Needham Housing Coalition, which has been holding frequent workshops both in person and online. The group favors a plan that maximizes the unit count.

A smaller group, headed by Town Meeting member Gary Ajamian, intends to ask Annual Town Meeting in May to fund a $150,000 study to look at the potential impact of new zoning on the town’s capital spending needs. And a group of residents in the neighborhood around St. Joseph’s Church has formed Needham for Sensible Zoning, expressing concern about the inclusion of church properties in the Base Compliance Plan.

Heidi Frail, Select Board member and co-chair of the HONE Committee, encouraged those with concerns to make them known.

“What we typically find is that folks who are not in favor of the plan tend to come out late in the game,” she said. “We prefer that they came out earlier. The earlier folks express their opinion, the more we can incorporate all ideas into our work.”

Frail stands firmly behind the work the committee has done to date and believes the diverse nine-member committee has been responsive to the feedback it has received. Her hope is that tonight’s presentation will provide clarity and defuse some of the objections she’s heard about its scale and potential impact, as well the assertion that, as a state mandate, it doesn’t consider Needham’s specific needs.

“I hope, once we have a chance to really demystify what we’ve done, people will see that the changes, although they’re impactful, they’re not startling.” she said.

“I guess my emphasis would be that we really feel this plan will work for Needham. It solves Needham’s housing problems — problems that we identified well before the MBTA communities law was put into place.

“There’s no reason to not try and begin to solve our problems just because this mandate came from the state.”

Tonight’s meeting is the third and final community meeting in the HONE process, which kicked off in September and will effectively conclude at the end of April. The town has established May 1 as the target date to send its preliminary plans to the state for a review of whether it complies with all requirements of the law.

The state’s review is expected to take three months. Assuming it confirms that the town’s proposals meet its requirements, the Planning Board in early August will take the lead in finalizing the zoning language. 

This will include additional public hearings and meetings on what will be brought before Fall Town Meeting in mid-October. The state’s deadline for reaching compliance is Dec. 31.

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