HONE presents final plan at joint meeting of Select Board, Planning Board and Finance Committee/ Credit: Doyle Bley

And now we wait.

After eight months of work that featured three well-attended community meetings and multiple iterations of its plans, the Housing Needham Working Group (HONE) on May 1 sent its two draft MBTA Communities law zoning compliance plans to the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities for review.

By August, the state is expected to let the town know whether the drafts satisfy the law’s technical requirements and can be handed off to the Planning Board, which is tasked with finalizing what will be presented to fall Town Meeting in October.

The revisions have been mandated by the MBTA Communities Act, a 2021 state law requiring 177 cities and towns the transit authority serves to develop zoning plans allowing for more multifamily housing to be built by right, meaning without the need for any special permit. 

The town’s deadline for compliance is Dec. 31, 2024. 

The Select Board established the nine-member HONE committee to lead the process of coming up with a zoning scenario to meet the law’s requirements for Needham to create at least one zoning district in town that is at least 50 acres in size and allows for at least 1,784 units of housing in which multifamily housing is allowed by right.

HONE opted for a strategy that produced two plans — one for minimal or base compliance and a second that has the potential to exceed the minimal compliance requirements.

Both plans were concentrated in the town’s spine that follows the commuter rail line from the area around the Needham Heights commuter station along Highland Avenue to Chapel Street and across Great Plain Avenue to Chestnut Street before ending in the area around the Needham Junction station.

Under current zoning, both zones have the capacity to create 1,019 units. There are 775 existing units.

The base compliance plan comprises 100 acres and has a zoning capacity for 1,868 housing units with a zoning density of 18.6 units per acre.

The second, “neighborhood” plan covers 93 acres and has a zoning capacity to create 3,294 housing units with a density of 35.6 units per acre.

Neither plan makes any changes to the underlying zoning. The increase in unit yield is achieved by removing special permit restrictions, creating overlay districts and altering certain dimensional requirements such as increases in allowed building heights, density, lot coverage and others.

The Chestnut Street corridor was subject to the most extensive changes. Its current zoning capacity of 370 units increases to 987 units under the base scenario and to 1,354 under the neighborhood scenario.

The town’s consultants on the project, RKG Associates and Innes Associates, applied “propensity to build” modeling to the proposed plans. It is essentially a black box-type model that estimates the likely build-out scenario under each plan over the next decade or so.

Using the propensity modeling, the consultants estimated that the base compliance plan would add 222 units of housing and the neighborhood plan would add 1,099 new units. 

Needham is one of 130 communities required to pass new zoning rules that will comply with the law by the end of this year. Multiple communities have already submitted their plans while a handful have balked. 

Milton’s Town Meeting voted to approve its compliance plan, but residents gathered enough signatures to vote in February on a referendum which overrode that Town Meeting action. Milton was subsequently sued by the state attorney general, a case that is expected to be heard in the fall.

More recently, Marshfield’s Town Meeting voted down its compliance plan, and a group of Rockport residents has filed a federal suit challenging the constitutionality of the town’s requirement to comply.

The state has indicated it will complete its review of Needham’s plans in 90 days, or early August. Assuming the two plans conform to the state model, the Planning Board will then hold multiple meetings, including public hearings where residents can address the issue.

The Planning Board is charged with finalizing the plan and will present it at Town Meeting in October.

The current strategy calls for Town Meeting to vote first on the base plan, with a simple majority required for approval. If that article passes, Town Meeting would then vote on the map change required by the plan.

Assuming both pass, Town Meeting would then vote on the neighborhood plan, which would amend the base plan and effectively override it. If that were to pass, Town Meeting would then vote for the accompanying map change.

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