Chestnut Street is under consideration for zoning changes/ Credit: Needham Observer

Katie King warned them.

The deputy town manager told the nine-member Needham Housing Working Group (HONE), that their Feb. 15 meeting would be lengthy — and she was proved right when they adjourned after midnight. 

The meeting involved more than five hours of intense work on adjusting existing zoning rules to satisfy the town’s MBTA Community Law requirements. The group took deep dives into more than a dozen zoning districts and made recommendations on plans that must be brought before Town Meeting in late October in order to meet the law’s December 2024 deadline for compliance.

The committee was guided by input it had received at two community hearings held in November and January, along with results from a survey completed by nearly 600 residents.

The HONE committee members pored over zoning maps of the areas in and around three of the town’s four commuter rail stations — Needham Junction, Needham Center and Needham Heights. The HONE Committee previously voted not to consider the areas around the fourth station, Hersey, for a variety of reasons. The committee has also made the decision to prepare two separate scenarios for Town Meeting to consider, a “base” scenario to achieve minimal compliance and a “bonus” scenario that could make even more units possible.

“The preference is to go neighborhood by neighborhood, or district by district, because I think the intent of the MBTA Community Law is not only to produce housing but to produce neighborhoods,” HONE co-chair Heidi Frail said at the outset of the meeting. “And I think a neighborhood can only be attractive when considered as a whole.”

The committee began its work by examining properties along the Chestnut Street corridor and followed the town spine that parallels the commuter rail tracks. It examined zoning parcels in the downtown, along Chapel Street and on to Highland Avenue before ending in the area around the Needham Heights station.

The committee made multiple adjustments to dimensional requirements such as height allowances, floor-to-area ratios, dwelling units allowed on a per-acre basis and other elements — all designed to boost the unit yield and increase overall zoning capacity to comply with the MBTA law.

It concentrated largely on allowing housing in areas currently zoned for business or industrial uses, and raising the number of units allowed in a handful of districts where apartments are allowed. It suggested removing the need for special permit processes in certain business districts.

The effort excluded areas zoned General Residence which had previously been considered. And no changes were recommended for areas zoned for single-family use.

The town’s housing consultants will now run an analysis of how the suggested alterations change the zoning capacity. Additional analysis will also be forthcoming on the expected economic impacts and how the revised zoning could affect town spending. Those findings are expected to be discussed at HONE’s meeting on March 7. 

Meeting state mandates

Intended to address the state’s acute housing shortage, the 2021 MBTA legislation requires 177 communities to amend their zoning laws to facilitate the creation of more housing, especially multifamily housing. The law has given birth to a new concept: “zoning capacity.” 

Zoning capacity is an estimated count of allowed dwelling units within a defined area. It is not a housing production goal, nor is it a count of existing housing units.

Under the law, Needham is required to alter its zoning so that there is a district that allows for the creation of 1,784 housing units and allows multifamily zoning to be built “by right” — that is, without requiring a special permit or other additional level of review. At least 90% of the district must be located within a half-mile of one of the town’s commuter rail stations. 

HONE will hold its last community meeting on March 28 when it will present its recommended “base” and “bonus” scenarios in detail. Additional meetings will be held among HONE and the Select Board, Planning Board and the Finance Committee, with the goal of sending the town’s proposed plan to the state for compliance review by May 1.

That review may take as long as three months. When complete, the zoning changes will become a matter for the Planning Board, which is expected to hold public hearings and conduct further review before the plan is presented at Fall Town Meeting in late October.

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