HONE co-chair Heidi Frail at Jan. 18 community meeting/ Credit: The Needham Channel

The Housing Needham Advisory Group (HONE) has put forward a Solomon-like proposal: two separate zoning articles for Town Meeting to consider to satisfy the MBTA Communities Law’s mandate to allow more multifamily housing in Needham.

After hearing from proponents of a broad expansion of the town’s housing options on one side and “do-only-enough-to-comply” housing minimalists on the other, HONE opted this week to try to satisfy both camps.

After digesting the feedback it solicited at its Jan. 18 community meeting, including a survey that drew 595 responses, HONE unveiled a two-part plan that will be sorted out at fall Town Meeting in late October.

The first part is intended to satisfy the 52% of survey respondents who stated their preference that the town offer a land use plan that would allow little more than the mandated 1,784 units of housing in a contiguous zone of at least 50 acres within a half-mile of the town’s commuter rail stations.

The second part will offer an opportunity for the other 48% of respondents who favor a more expansive land use plan to make the case for doing more than simply complying with the law’s minimum requirements and provide housing options beyond the 1,784-unit requirement.

Katie King, the deputy town manager working with the nine-member HONE committee, explained how the two-part proposal will be presented in May at Annual Town Meeting, which has final say on what the town will submit to the state.

“Think of this as a two-article recommendation,” she said at the outset of the HONE committee meeting held Jan. 29. 

Under the plan, Town Meeting would first be asked to consider the minimum land use article. After voting on that article, Town Meeting would then be asked to consider a second article that could go well beyond the minimum 1,784 units.

Heidi Frail, a member of the Select Board and HONE co-chair, said the committee will seek permission from the town moderator to discuss the items together while voting on them separately.

Seeking compromise, avoiding conflict

Frail acknowledged that the HONE plan represents a compromise position likely to draw criticism from advocates on each side of the issue.

“A compromise means nobody walks away happy,” she said at the meeting. “We’re not going to please everyone.”

Interviewed days after the meeting, Frail expanded on the rationale for the separate articles.

“We recognize this is a very divisive subject,” she said. “There are several towns that have successfully employed a strategy with their Town Meeting that allowed them to almost ensure successful compliance and also to advocate and persuade Town Meeting that additional housing capacity was the right way to go.”

She said HONE has a fiduciary responsibility to make sure it produces a model that complies with the state mandate, as failure to comply comes with financial penalties and exposes the town to a lawsuit from the state attorney general’s office.

“This gives us an opportunity to both comply and persuade Town Meeting and the citizenry at large that there’s a benefit to increasing our potential for housing capacity moving forward,” she said.

“I believe the add-on that we bring to Town Meeting will be entirely reasonable and not at all threatening. I’m a housing advocate, so maybe my tolerance levels are higher than the average bear’s, but I think we understand why the 76% of people who chose “B” saw it as an acceptable option.”

More work to do

Making the two-article decision does not mean HONE’s work is done for now. In fact, the committee has added meetings to its schedule, pushed back the date of a planned third community meeting and anticipates an intensive work schedule as it now needs to complete not one but two compliance scenarios.

The committee spent more than three-and-a-half hours discussing how to amend its initial minimum compliance model to add approximately 10% more capacity as a “buffer.” 

“There have been towns that have had units taken away from their compliance model under review,” Frail said. “It’s a wise strategy to go in with a surplus. And 200 units over compliance doesn’t mean we’re housing-happy. It means we’re playing it safe.”

HONE plans to dedicate its Feb. 15 meeting to constructing the “add-on” scenario. This plan will attempt to land on a number of units beyond the minimum compliance Scenario A and perhaps the middle ground Scenario B, which HONE presented at the Jan. 18 community meeting.

“This is like hunker-down, bring your water and your granola bars,” King advised committee members. “We really need to leave that meeting with the final decisions on whatever that add-on scenario is, for that second article —boundaries, zoning parameters, parking, etc.”

Both scenarios will need to be mapped before the committee can complete the fiscal-impact analysis and other state requirements. This expanded workload has prompted the committee to reschedule its third community meeting from March 7 to March 28.

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