Credit: Needham Observer

Based on a preliminary analysis of how Needham’s current zoning matches up with the requirements of the MBTA Communities Law, it appears complying with the law may be more challenging politically than it will be technically.

The analysis offers multiple roadmaps to achieve compliance by choosing from among a number of relatively minor zoning reforms affecting the areas around three of the town’s four commuter rail stations.

The challenge facing town officials is how to overcome objections that are highly likely to come from residents who reside where zoning changes may be proposed to facilitate multifamily housing. 

The analysis was presented at last week’s meeting of the Housing Needham Advisory Group (HONE), which is leading the town’s community engagement effort as Needham works to meet the December 2024 deadline to make the necessary zoning reforms.

Consultants hired by the town presented the results of a “preliminary test fit analysis” of the changes required to Needham’s current zoning to make it possible for the mandated 1,784 housing units around the town’s commuter rail stations.

This number of multifamily units represents 15% of total housing units in Needham. The town is not required to build the units, but it must adopt zoning that would make it possible.

The analysis showed a plan that could allow more than 2,000 units along the town’s spine through zoning reforms in the areas around the Needham Heights, Needham Center and Needham Junction commuter rail stops.

The report described this zone, which runs along Highland Avenue and Chestnut Street, as “the more densely built parts of town with a mix of commercial, institutional, municipal and residential uses with a range of lower to higher density buildings types.”

There are no plans to amend zoning around the town’s fourth commuter rail station, Hersey, due to “insufficient area with which to work and other complications.” The other three areas allow for enough units to be built without rezoning that neighborhood.

HONE’s co-chairs, Heidi Frail from the Select Board and Natasha Espada from the Planning Board, both emphasized that HONE intends to make a distinction between technical compliance and a fuller commitment to the law’s goal of adding to Needham’s housing supply.

“We have some decisions to make on whether we’re in this for compliance or in this for housing production,” Frail said. 

“Hitting our numbers is one thing, but deciding what is best for Needham is another. We just have to balance those two things.”

Espada emphasized that the analysis was preliminary and does not imply compliance has been achieved. “It seems like we have it done, but it’s not,” she said.

The nine-member HONE committee vetted maps, charts and other materials produced by the two housing consultants the town has engaged to help propose options and work with the community at large on crafting a plan.

Eric Halvorsen of RKG Associates and Emily Innes of Innes Associates guided the committee through multiple scenarios and zoning “levers” such as adjusting standard zoning requirements — setbacks, height restrictions and lot coverages, etc. — that minimize adverse impacts.

The areas under consideration for increased density through zoning are already relatively dense, giving the town multiple options.

“In some ways it’s a little tricky for you,” Innes told the committee. “You are in the enviable but a little bit more difficult position of being able to tailor this to the needs of your community.

“What we’re hoping to do is give you the tools to have that discussion. Let us know what you want us to test out in order to give you more information about what the implications are.”

The HONE committee will meet again Oct. 19 to decide on an agenda and develop presentations for the committee’s first communitywide meeting, scheduled for Nov. 9 at Powers Hall.

“Our hope is we go to the first community meeting with two scenarios, no more than three,” said Katie King, deputy town manager. King and town leadership have emphasized that the town envisions HONE’s work as a “community engagement visioning process.”

“We know we have so much wiggle room for compliance. What we’re really talking about is what do people want this town to look like.”

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