HANSON — When a commuter rail line runs thorough it, a community now needs to plan for multi-family housing within a half-mile of a commuter rail station, T-station, ferry terminal or bus station, according to a new state zoning law.
Commuter rail communities are required to contain a minimum of 15 percent of total housing stock — 750 units in Hanson — that qualify under the statute as multi-family. As of 2020, Hanson has 594 of these units.
“But the commonwealth has set the floor at 750 units,” Town Planner Tony DeFrias. “But what I want to let the board know is that the multi-family district unit capacity is not a mandate … to construct a specified number of housing units, nor is it a housing production target.”
He explained that a community is only required to have a multi-family zoning district of a reasonable size.
“The law does not require the production of new multi-family units within that district,” DeFrias cautioned. “There is no requirement nor expectation that a multi-family district will be built to its full unit capacity.”
While the Selectmen expressed concern around some specifics like tax support for schools, septic demands and character of community, there was some appreciation of the environmental mission at work.
“It sounds to me like they’re trying to address energy issues with the housing crisis, but you also don’t want to lose the flavor of what it is to live in Hanson,” said Selectman Joe Weeks. “I’m very eager to see what you guys come up with — I think it’s going to be an exciting by-law to kind of build and see what you can do.”
Selectemen voted to acknowledge that DeFrias made the presentation, as the state requires a copy of the minutes to verify that it was done.
It’s part of MBTA draft guidelines for communities with public transit facilities, in accordance with the omnibus economic development [Chapter 358 of the Acts of 2020], signed by Gov. Baker in January 2021. Among its provisions is a new section — Chapter 40A of the Zoning Act (MGL) that apply to MBTA communities.
“Hanson is a Commuter Rail town,” DeFrias said. “Because it is a Commuter Rail town, the commonwealth has issued guidelines that require towns with transit to create a multi-family zone by right.”
The commonwealth requires that the guidelines be presented to the Select Board at a public hearing, and town/city planners must prove that has been done, along with the filing of a form with the state before May 2. The deadline for interim compliance is Dec. 31 and for the action plan, the deadline is July 1, 2023. New zoning regulations must be adopted by Dec. 31, 2024. Towns have until March 31, 2024 to apply for termination of compliance.
“This is just the first step,” DeFrias said of the hearing before the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, March 15. “Next will be crafting a by-law that will put all those mechanisms in place.”
All this means Hanson, like other MBTA communities “shall have” a zoning ordinance or by-law providing for at least one district of reasonable size in which multi-family housing is permitted as of right, providing that the multi-family housing has no age restriction and is suitable for families with children. The commonwealth would require a gross density of 15 units per acre, subject to the Wetlands Protection Act and Title V of the State Environmental Code.
Chapter 40B requires at least eight units per acre and 40R, which is mixed use, requires at least 12 units per acre, DeFrias noted.
“The minimum size they want for this area is 50 acres,” he said. “Taking a half-mile radius from the train station, that would encompass a land mass of about 500 acres. They’re looking at about one-tenth of that to be dedicated to the multi-family zone.”
The districts should lead to development of multi-family housing projects that are “consistent with a community’s long-term planning goals.”
There are 267 pieced of property within the half-mile radius of the Hanson MBTA station, according to DeFrias. Not all are developable. While there are some large properties in the area, they are under private ownership.
“As of right” means that construction and occupancy of multi-family housing is allowed in that district without the need for any discretionary permits or approval. But it does allow for a site plan and approval process, permitting regulation of issues such as motor vehicle assess and circulation on a site, architectural design of a building and screening of adjacent properties DeFrias said. But site plan review can’t be used to deny a project allowed as of right or to impose conditions that render it unfeasible or impractical as of right.
“The town will have some control … similar to a site plan similar to a commercial site,” he said. “The town will have to decide which board will control that site plan review process.”
A heavily regulated overlay plan will be allowed for consideration.
“What will probably decide the size and number of bedrooms in Hanson, is this is a non-sewer town,” he said. “The Wetlands Act can be a restriction.”
To determine compliance the state would consider factors such as general district information, location of districts, reasonable size metrics, district gross density, whether housing is suitable for families and attestation, according to DeFrias.
Determinations of compliance carry 10-year terms with applications for renewal due six months before.
“It’s not forever,” DeFrias said.
Selectmen Chairman Matt Dyer asked if there was any way the town could designate affordable housing units toward the program to “kill two birds with one stone?”
“My understanding, through attending the webinars is a ‘definite maybe,’ with an underlying ‘yes,’” DeFrias said. He said he has also been examining the prospects of such a blending through 40R, which is similar to this program in some of its requirements.
Selectmen Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett asked about the advantages of using 40R in that manner in light of the requirement that multi-family units include families with children for a community already struggling to raise revenue to deal with costs such as school budgets.
DeFrias said 40R allows for communities to get some cash from the state for creating affordable housing in certain instances.
“If the taxes that are incurred can not pay for the child, then there is what’s known as 40S — which a town can tap into to get the difference in taxes,” he said. “Because the taxes usually tend to work out, not many towns apply for that. … The two sort of go hand-in-hand.”
There is also the issue of the environmental limitations that restrict the number of septic systems allowed in the area.
Dyer also advocated for the use of trees in any developments resulting from the law in order to maintain the character of the town. DeFrias said that could be addressed through the architectural design controls included in the law.
“The state is not telling the town, ‘You have to construct this many units,’” DeFrias said. “It’s, ‘You have to create a zone to allow for the construction of that many units.’ They seem to understand it’s not a one-size-fits-all.”