In order to meet a state mandate to increase Needham’s housing supply, the town will launch what is expected to be a year-long effort to craft a plan at tonight’s initial meeting of the Housing Needham Advisory Group (HoNe).
The 2021 MBTA Communities Law, which applies to 177 communities in the MBTA service area, requires Needham to have at least one zoning district of reasonable size in which multifamily housing is permitted as of right, among other stipulations.
The law is a major effort to address an acute regional housing shortage. In Needham’s case, this means the town must zone for at least 1,784 new housing units near its commuter rail stations. This will not require all the units to be built, merely for them to be allowable.
The effort in Needham will be spearheaded by HoNe. Established jointly by the Select Board and the Planning Board, the nine-member group will lead the community engagement process that will help inform those boards on the zoning proposals that will be brought to Town Meeting in fall 2024 with the intent of bringing Needham into compliance with the law.
Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick elevated the stakes when she discussed the HoNe mission with the Select Board in May. “I would say — and I’ll probably say this a lot — this is probably the biggest thing you’ll do in years. It’s a big project. It’s a BIG project.”
Assistant Town Manager Katie King, who will manage the effort, echoed the sentiment.
“With some town projects, there’s a sub-group that might care particularly about that issue. But re-visioning the spine of the town and what it’s going to look like for decades to come, that’s really a community-wide conversation,” said King.
That conversation will begin at a meeting tonight at 7 p.m. at the Public Services Administration building on Dedham Avenue. The agenda will cover multiple topics, such as the status of housing in Needham, an overview of the MBTA Communities Act and the plan for the public engagement process.
King says HoNe plans to leverage the work of the Housing Plan Working Group that in early 2023 produced the 201-page Needham Housing Plan. King expects the HoNe community engagement process will resemble the public outreach done to help shape the housing plan and its recommendations.
“We got a lot of good feedback from the community on that plan,” King said. She added that it gives HoNe a bit of a jumpstart on its work.
“We are going to use the recommendations from the housing plan as a starting point to say, ‘This is what it would look like if we implemented the housing plan recommendations.’ We’ll be asking the community to give us feedback on that.”
After at least two community workshops, King said HoNe will synthesize and discuss the community feedback, and then go back to the community with the advisory board’s response to that feedback.
King said the answer to, “What does compliance look like?” is technical in nature and will require the town to run its draft proposals by the state, which has a complex formula to determine whether the proposed zoning changes are indeed compliant. But she says the community engagement process will not be bogged down by these highly technical requirements — that’ll come later.
“The priorities question isn’t a technical one,” she said. “It’s mostly what type of housing do people want to see and where.”
“When we get a consensus on that, we can fine-tune that to each area (of town), given the overall town consensus.”
The town has engaged two consultancies with expertise in municipal strategic planning to provide technical expertise, guide the community engagement effort and help ensure the town’s plan is technically compliant with the law.
“They will be helping us run tests through the state compliance model,” King explained. “They will be helping with impact analysis — what would the buildout mean in terms of the town’s infrastructure capacity, financial implications, school enrollment and other services.”
Once the community input has been received and integrated, HoNe will offer its recommendations to the Planning Board for its review process. That will include additional opportunities for public comment.
In accordance with Town Meeting process, the Select Board will review the Planning Board’s recommended Town Meeting warrant language. It can make its own suggestions to the Planning Board, which will draft the final language that Town Meeting will consider in the fall of 2024.