As a general rule, gatherings designed for a discussion of zoning don’t require large venues. This is true even though nearly every square foot of real estate in the United States is regulated through land use regulations and zoning laws.
When a generational piece of legislation such as the MBTA Communities law is passed, however, zoning and its various terms of art become central to the public dialogue.
That was evident at the initial community meeting to discuss Needham’s approach to complying with the MBTA law, which drew an overflow crowd to Powers Hall and another 150 or so attendees via Zoom on Nov 9.
Organized by the town’s Housing Needham Working Group (HONE), the gathering was intended as a primer for town residents on the process that will play out over the next year and could produce potentially dramatic changes in the town’s land use rules, especially around its four MBTA commuter rail stations.
“My expectations about how many people would show up were exceeded,” said HONE co-Chair Heidi Frail, who represents the Select Board on the committee.
“It felt like people were genuinely curious and came there pretty much with an open mind,” she said. “They were interested in the educational process that we were offering.”
Passed by the state Legislature in 2021, the MBTA Communities Act requires cities and towns that host MBTA bus or train service to change their zoning laws to make it easier for developers to build more multifamily housing such as apartments, townhouses and condos. Needham has to complete its plan by Dec. 31, 2024.
The law’s formula requires Needham to devise zoning to create the capacity for 1,784 units of housing 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 make it possible for those units to be built.
Some of those attending were surprised that the meeting was not designed to solicit public comment via the traditional method of allowing residents to step up to a microphone either to ask questions or offer comments.
“It’s such a complicated subject and there’s so much education that needs to be done as a foundation,” said Frail. “Public comment will certainly come later.”
Instead, attendees were given brief overviews of the purpose of the MBTA law and the land use changes it may require, followed by an opportunity to visit various “stations” where HONE committee members and housing consultants hired by the town were available to walk residents through examples of how zoning changes may be implemented, both in particular areas of town and in general zoning districts.
At the various stations, residents engaged in exercises where they could see how certain zoning requirements such as lot coverage, height restrictions, setbacks and density could influence how neighborhoods eventually look and function.
HONE co-chair Natasha Espada of the Planning Board said the committee actually received far more targeted public feedback from this process than it would have via a succession of open-ended comments and questions.
“I think having the community give feedback before we even start coming up with concepts will give us a lot of great input as to how people see the different areas of town,” said Espada. “Having people ask good questions and be very involved from the beginning will be very helpful.”
“The entire workshop was about getting feedback from the community,” said HONE member Katie King, the deputy town manager.
“My overall takeaway was that I was really impressed with the questions we were getting,” King said.
Residents who attended via Zoom completed surveys on what type of zoning regulations they would devise for several of the town’s zoning districts, such as industrial and general residence. Likewise, attendees at Powers Hall were asked to weigh in on how dense particular districts should be, the regulation of building heights, how far back buildings should be from the sidewalk or abutting properties and other technical requirements.
These are the so-called “levers” of zoning that will be applied to different districts to achieve desired outcomes such as promoting multifamily housing or allowing mixed uses, where residential units are built above ground-floor retail locations, particularly downtown.
“People came with clear thoughts about housing and wanted to make sure they were translating those thoughts accurately in terms of how the levers of zoning ultimately shape density and other aspects,” said King.
The HONE committee will meet regularly between now and the next community meeting in January. Members will analyze the feedback they received and how it could be applied to the eventual overall plan. The January 18 community meeting will likely include maps with recommended zoning alterations that reflect community input.
Both Frail and Espada encouraged residents to think beyond the technical aspects and consider the overall impact new land use regulations will have on the town. Frail stressed the big picture and encouraged residents to take a holistic approach to the effort.
“It’s about way more than just what should the building look like and how far back from the sidewalk it should be,” she said. “What kind of community do we want to have? How open do we want to be? Do we want people who work here to be able to live here? Do we want people to be able to walk to restaurants and patronize local businesses without using their car?
“These are questions about how do we want our little society to function.”