Resident Geoff Engler speaks at HONE meeting/ Credit: The Needham Channel

Needham residents who attended last week’s Housing Needham Advisory Group (HONE) public meeting signaled their support for a robust approach to complying with the MBTA Communities Act. 

But that support was countered by concerns that the two more ambitious of three possible plans place a disproportionate burden on neighborhoods in Needham Heights as well as possible strain on the town’s stormwater management system and other infrastructure. 

Needham is one of 177 cities and towns in the MBTA service area mandated to amend its local zoning as a means to stimulate housing construction, especially multifamily housing, in areas within a half-mile of MBTA stations. Failure to comply by the end of this year would make Needham ineligible for certain state funding programs and expose the town to possible lawsuits from the state attorney general.

“I am a firm believer in housing,” said Valley Road resident Geoff Engler. “I believe the intent is to actually create housing and economic development and not merely comply.”

“If the town chooses to barely meet the minimum requirements, we will have done close to nothing in response to the need for additional types of housing,” said resident Paula Dickerman, a member of the Needham Housing Coalition that has been advocating for increased housing opportunities in Needham, especially affordable housing.

Marked Tree Road resident Doug Fox said, “I support as much as we can build a consensus around town to accept.”

Other residents qualified their support for going beyond the minimum by warning against any activity that might have a negative impact on the town’s capacity for stormwater management or provide too much leeway for builders to overdevelop.

Of the two dozen residents who spoke, a handful advocated for doing no more than the minimum amount of rezoning needed to reach the required 1,784 units. More than one speaker thought it wise to assess the impact of minimum compliance before opting for more extensive land use changes.

Needham is obligated to devise a plan that would allow a minimum of 1,784 units of housing to be built “by right” — that is, without any discretionary review by a local permit-granting body. The minimum land area of the multifamily zoning district is 50 acres, and it must accommodate an average of 15 units per acre. The law does not mandate actual construction of housing units, merely that they be possible under zoning laws.

Three possible scenarios (see sidebar) are concentrated along the town’s spine, the transportation corridor along Highland Avenue to Chestnut Street. The route parallels the commuter rail from Needham Heights through Needham Center to Needham Junction in an area where higher density development already exists.

The plan does not extend beyond the Junction to include areas around the town’s fourth commuter rail station, Hersey. The HONE Committee voted at its Dec. 11 meeting to exclude the areas around Hersey, where achieving compliance would involve rezoning areas currently zoned for single-family homes.

The absence of any rezoning in the area around Hersey station was a common concern among those opposing an aggressive plan. Residents raised equity issues in focusing solely on the Heights and Junction station areas.

In addition to calling the MBTA act “opaque” and “very tricky,” Meetinghouse Circle resident Gary Ajamian said, “To be equitable to all of the community, the Hersey area should be reconsidered for zoning.”

Jane Volden of Brookside Road expressed concerns over the financial impact of new development and the stress on town services, and Ann Fox of Edgewater Drive felt the law was an example of state overreach into local affairs. “Don’t let the state tell Needham what to do,” she said.

Last week’s meeting, which attracted nearly 300 residents between Town Hall and on Zoom, was the second community event held by HONE. It opened with the town’s housing consultant, Eric Halvorsen of RKG Associates, offering an overview of three zoning scenarios labeled A, B and C, with A producing the bare minimum number of the required 1,784 units, B creating the possibility of 2,630 units and C producing a potential yield of 4,782 units. 

Those who spoke in favor of the larger scenarios offered a common theme of taking advantage of the rare opportunity the state mandate offers to take a holistic approach to the town’s land use policies.

“I’m a strong advocate of C. I’d be an advocate of D, E and F if there were such things,” said Engler, who said he also owns a commercial property in town.

Erik Bailey, who lives on Hillside Avenue in the Heights, said, “I love hearing the passion for ‘let’s go big.’”

Next steps

All attendees were asked to complete a brief survey on various aspects of the plan. HONE committee co-chair Heidi Frail said the group will review those results, as well as the comments made at the event and input from other sources as it works on next steps.

HONE’s next meeting will be Jan. 29. The third and final community meeting is scheduled for March 7, when the committee is expected to present a final plan for further public comment.

HONE anticipates sending its completed plan for review by the state Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities in April to certify that it satisfies the requirements of the law. That review could take as long as three months.

Assuming the plan satisfies the law’s requirements, it will go before the Planning Board, likely in July. The Planning Board will hold further public hearings to help members craft a zoning warrant article that will be presented and voted on at Fall Town Meeting in October.

The plan that emerges from Town Meeting will be sent to the state for a final review that should be completed by the end of 2024.

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