Chapter 40A Section 3A (MBTA Communities)
Requirement for Multi-Family Zoning
In 2020, the Commonwealth added Section 3A to MGL Chapter 40A, and titled it “MBTA Communities Zoning Law.” There are 177 “MBTA Communities” that are defined in Section 1 of MGL Chapter 161A. As a community that abuts a city or a town that hosts MBTA service (Lowell’s station), Tyngsborough is classified as an “Adjacent Community.”
Section 3A requires that MBTA Communities define a zoning district where multi-family housing is allowed as-of-right. (“As-of-right” means development that may proceed under a zoning bylaw without the need for a special permit, variance, zoning amendment, waiver, or other discretionary zoning approval.) As an Adjacent Community, the deadline to adopt such zoning is December 31, 2024.
Tyngsborough submitted the required Action Plan that was prepared with assistance received from NMCOG in January of 2023. The State’s approval of that plan was received in April of 2023.
It is important to keep in mind that the submission of an Action Plan does not commit the town to a specific course of action. Rather, it is intended to show that the town is giving serious thought to the proposal, and that there is a logical plan in place to achieve compliance by the December 31, 2024 deadline. It is fully expected that many changes will occur as the proposal is shaped by further engagement with the public, Zoning Review Committee, boards, and other stakeholders.
Zoning Review Committee, Technical Assistance
Tyngsborough has formed a Zoning Review Committee made up of members of the Select Board, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Residents. Staffed by the Town Planner, the Committee receives technical assistance from NMCOG, the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments, the Town’s Regional Planning Agency. This technical assistance is funded by the State.
NMCOG provided the Town / Zoning Review Committee with a Scenario Report in August, 2023. The Committee evaluated the scenarios, provided feedback to NMCOG, and after a round of revisions, settled on a combination of areas that are compliant with the regulations (referred to as “Scenario A” in the report.
The Zoning Review Committee and the Planning Department will be holding several information sessions to answer questions and get feedback from the community. Information sessions are scheduled for November 8, and December 4, 2023 at the Town Offices Community room at 7:00pm.
Since this requires amendments to the Zoning Bylaw and Map, public hearings will also be scheduled in April to finalize the language in preparation to be included on the Spring Town Meeting Warrant.
June-August: A Scenario Report was developed by NMCOG with input from the Zoning Review Committee and Planning Department that analyzes several locations for consideration to be included in the Zoning District. The report includes information resulting from inputting potential district boundary information into the compliance model provided by the EOHLC. [The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) became the new Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC) in May 2023]
September-December: Solicit feedback from the community and start work to develop the zoning language itself that would regulate the proposed zoning bylaw for the new district areas. Information sessions are scheduled for November 8, and December 4, 2023 at the Town Offices Community room at 7:00pm
November: Submit proposed district to the Planning and Select Boards for consideration and EOHLC for preliminary approval.
January – February: Zoning Review Committee, Planning Board, and Town Counsel to finalize warrant article language
Late February: Submit District Zoning Article for Town Meeting Warrant
April: Planning Board to advertise and hold the required public hearing on the proposed amendment. Warrant is expected to be closed on April 22nd.
May 7th: Annual Town Meeting votes on the proposal
About the Law’s Requirements
What is an MBTA Community?
There are 177 communities that are subject to the new requirements of Section 3A of the Zoning Act. It is defined as a community that is served by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) or is adjacent to a town or city served by it. Tyngsborough is an MBTA Adjacent Community, bordering Lowell, which has a commuter rail station.
Why was this legislation passed and why is it important to Massachusetts?
In short, it’s because the Commonwealth is in a housing crisis. High and fast-growing home and rental prices threaten the economic competitiveness of our state. Housing is the top challenge to keeping and growing the number of jobs that make our home such a great place to live.
The production of homes, specifically non-single-family homes that provide more affordable places to live such as multi-family developments have fallen off significantly in the last several decades, largely due to the lack of zoning for multi-family housing.
By allowing multi-family housing in communities located near transit, new housing can eventually be created with more walkable neighborhoods. This is not just good housing policy, it is good climate and transportation policy, too. The goal is to make it easier to create more housing closer to the places that residents and visitors go every day, such as local shops, jobs, schools, restaurants, parks, etc. Locating this housing outside of existing residential districts could provide residents with better access to local jobs, services, and other destinations by reducing drive times, increasing the potential for non-auto transit, and making it easier to provide mass transit options to those in the area.
What is required for the zoning district?
Chapter 40A Section 3A mandates several elements in the zoning / district:
- Multi-family housing must be allowed as-of-right. This means that a multi-family project is not prohibited nor does it need any discretionary permits (such as a special permit or variance) to be allowed. The typical Site Plan Review process before the Planning Board would still be required, but no special relief is needed for the use.
- It must be of “reasonable” size, which the Commonwealth has defined as a minimum of 50 acres in total area. The district does not have to be contiguous, however, and can contain parcels in different areas with a minimum area of 5 acres and at least one contiguous area of 25 acres.
- It must have a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre. For Tyngsborough, this translates to a potential capacity yield of 750 units. However, the Zoning Review Committee has worked with NMCOG to identify three separate areas to minimize the likelihood of development being proposed for all of that capacity at the same time, or all in the near future.
- There can be no age restrictions applied.
- It must be suitable for families with children.
What criteria was used to identify potential parcels and areas to include in the district?
Working with NMCOG, the Zoning Review Committee and the Planning Office sought out scenarios that combined at least three district areas to address the following concerns / criteria:
- Proximity to the Retail Corridor along the northern part of Middlesex Rd. would provide the businesses there with more foot traffic and vehicle counts to support continued economic development.
- Minimize the traffic impact on the center of Town, specifically at the Bridge.
- Accessibility to Route 3.
- Maximizing the area of the district that would contain existing structures to mitigate the immediate potential of development while remaining in compliance with the law.
- Proximity to major routes and thoroughfares such as Route 110 (Littleton Road), Route 40 (Groton Road), I-495, Route 3.
- Proximity to pedestrian and biking infrastructure, such as sidewalks and bike lanes.
- Proximity to shopping areas and/or places of employment.
- Proximity to schools.
- Proximity to recreational opportunities such as sports fields, trails, fitness centers, and commercial recreation (such as playing fields, Kimball’s Farm, or Nashoba Valley Ski Area).
- Protection and preservation of the environment, such as wetlands or wooded open spaces.
- Inclusion of affordable housing.
- Potential for redevelopment of abandoned, vacant, or underutilized buildings and building lots.
- Presence of site constraints that may make development more difficult, such as wetlands, ledge, or steep slopes and grade changes.
Could there be positive impacts for Tyngsborough?
While this Zoning Change is a mandate from the Commonwealth, it does come with opportunities to provide positive impact on the Town from diversifying the housing stock to supporting the commercial corridor of Middlesex Rd. Some potential positives include:
- Diversifying the housing stock with additional types of housing.
- Create additional housing (rental or ownership) that is priced lower than new single-family dwellings.
- Provide more options for people who want to live in Tyngsborough, or who want to stay in Town, but cannot afford to do so, or cannot find options to downsize.
- Multi-family housing near, retail shopping, major transportation routes, etc. means families and individuals that live in the district may be more likely to walk or bike to destinations and have easier access to employment and amenities.
What happens if Tyngsborough does NOT adopt such a district?
Failure to comply with the law means the Town would become vulnerable to civil enforcement action by the State (the Attorney General has already released a statement addressing that), and potentially risk liability under Federal and State fair housing laws.
The community would also become ineligible for a wide range of state grants that it has regularly been a recipient of. Including, but not limited to:
The MBTA Communities Zoning Law
Mass Housing Partnership (MHP) MBTA Communities Webinar Series (Fall 2022):
- MHP Webinar Series Main Webpage
- The Case for Complete Neighborhoods, MHP
- Water and Wastewater Basics for MBTA Communities, Hancock Associates
- Complete Streets & Neighborhoods for MBTA Communities, Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC)
- Encouraging Family-Friendly Housing in MBTA Districts (MAPC)
- Getting Started for MBTA Communities (DHCD* & MHP)
- Exploring Housing at Different Densities, Southeast Regional Planning and Economic Development District (SRPEDD)
- Siting Your District for Adjacent Communities, SRPEDD
- Making the Case for Affordable Housing: Local Engagement & Narrative Change, CHAPA
- Site Plan Review, Barrett Planning Group & KP Law
- Including Affordability in Your MBTA District, MAPC