Largest number of potential units/ Credit: HONE Commmittee

Town residents will be asked to offer their opinions tonight on three broad and varied scenarios that showcase the breadth of the town’s options for complying with the state MBTA Communities law.

The Housing Needham Advisory Group (HONE) will present those options at a community meeting at Powers Hall starting at 7 p.m. It will be the second of three planned outreach events designed to engage the community in the effort to possibly make major changes in the town’s land use rules in areas around the town’s four MBTA commuter rail stations.

Passed by the state Legislature in 2021, the MBTA Communities Act requires the 177 cities and towns that host MBTA bus or train service to facilitate the creation of more multifamily housing such as apartments, townhouses and condos. Needham is mandated to complete its plan by the end of 2024.

Heidi Frail, Select Board member and co-chair of the HONE Committee, said all three scenarios satisfy the law’s requirement that the town devise zoning to create the capacity for 1,784 housing units in areas within a half-mile of the four T stations. The law does not require cities or towns to build any new housing, but zoning rules need to be in place that make it possible for those units to be built.

Tonight’s meeting follows up on HONE’s Nov. 9 community meeting that attracted more than 300 residents in person and via Zoom. Attendees completed surveys and provided suggestions on how specific zoning requirements such as lot coverage, height restrictions, setbacks and density could influence how neighborhoods near the T stops might eventually look and function.

The nine-member HONE committee has incorporated that feedback into tonight’s agenda in the form of three scenarios that will be described in detail at the outset of the meeting. The scenarios are not specific policy recommendations;  rather, they offer examples of what increasing levels of compliance would look like on a map — from the minimal 1,784 units to a more substantial 2,600 units and finally to a maximal 5,000 plus.

Medium number of potential units/ Credit: HONE Committee
Minimally compliant number of units/ Credit: HONE Comittee

“The three scenarios definitely represent different views of our land use,” said Frail. ‘The small is a minimally compliant version because we know there are going to be people who hate this idea. But we also know there are people who want to go big or go home. So we wanted to have three options that were different enough that people could have some feelings about which direction they felt was appropriate.”

The town’s housing consultant will open the meeting with a presentation that will walk the attendees through all three scenarios. During the course of the presentation, the attendees will be asked to complete a brief survey so the HONE Committee will have the benefit of their views of the respective options.

“These will be obvious questions done in conjunction with the presentation,” said Frail. She said the surveys will ideally be completed in real time to assure that everyone is answering the questions based on the same information, but there will also be the option to complete and submit it at a later date.

The meeting will then be opened up for public comment, which Frail expects will vary as greatly as the three scenarios do. “We’re going to go with the flow to allow people to express either their excitement or their anticipation, but also their concerns and their worries and everything else that goes along with this process.

“The idea of this forum is they will have clearly distinct maps to use as the basis for this conversation.”

Frail said the HONE committee heard some concerns after the November meetings that the material was overly technical. “I understand this can be a confusing topic. We’ve tried really hard to simplify a lot of the technical jargon.”

She also said more pictures will be used to offer examples of how the technical aspects might influence the appearance of a building or area.

Attendees will not see any scenarios that include the area around the Hersey commuter rail station, largely because the half-mile area around that station is zoned primarily single-family. The presence of the Needham Golf Club was also challenging.

“Single-family is, in my opinion, outside the purview of the HONE committee,” Frail said. “Looking at single-family is something Needham may choose to do in the future, but the focus now is on our transit corridor which is not currently single-family zoning for the most part. That is why the HONE committee voted to exclude Hersey from our compliance modeling.”

Frail said the meeting will end after the public comment segment. 

The HONE committee will then process what she hopes will be the considerable amount of feedback it receives. That will inform HONE’s draft of its next recommendations, which will be presented at the final community workshop scheduled for March 7.

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