MIDDLEBOROUGH – Town Manager James McGrail, Town Planner Leeann Bradley and Select Board Chair Mark Germain would like to clarify the Town of Middleborough’s position on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's (MBTA) community zoning requirements.
In January 2021, the Baker-Polito Administration passed a $3.76 billion Economic Development Bill which included the addition of a new provision in the State Zoning Act. The new provision requires all municipalities with MBTA transit service to establish "at least one zoning district of reasonable size in which multi-family housing is permitted as of right."
The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), which is charged with implementing the new law, has recently issued final Compliance Guidelines detailing the criteria by which DHCD will determine whether an MBTA Community is in compliance with the requirements of the new law. According to that guidance, all MBTA communities were required to submit an action plan detailing the steps they intend to take to achieve compliance with the DHCD guidelines by the end of January. The Town of Middleborough is considered an MBTA Community because it has a commuter rail stop on the Middleborough/Lakeville Line. The town is one of 175 MBTA communities that are subject to the new law.
After lengthy and careful deliberation involving all community stakeholders, the Town of Middleborough has respectfully decided to not submit an action plan at this time. While the town is fully committed to ensuring that affordable housing is available for all of its current and future residents, it believes that the lack of flexibility in the DHCD’s interpretation of the new law is not sufficiently tailored to meet Middleborough’s unique circumstances.
"The Town of Middleborough and its different departments have invested a lot of time and resources to housing production, specifically related to affordable housing throughout the town and near our commuter rail stops," Town Manager McGrail said. "We remain committed to continuing to offer affordable housing that works for our town and our infrastructure, however, the mandated housing isn't feasible for us at this time with our other ongoing projects and current infrastructure capacities."
According to a 2020 Census, the Town of Middleborough has 9,808 housing units. To comply with the DHCD’s interpretation of new zoning law, Middleborough would have to establish one or more by-right zoning districts that total at least 50 acres and have a zoned capacity for 1,471 multi-family units. The zoning rule also mandates that these zoning districts must be within a half-mile of the commuter rail station.
At this time, the Town of Middleborough is actively prioritizing and pursuing affordable housing near the commuter rail station and throughout the town.
The state’s Affordable Housing Zoning Law, Chapter 40B of the General Laws, mandates that 10% of housing within a community must be affordable housing. Middleborough has met this mandate with the creation of 946 affordable units, which comprise 10.8% of the Town’s housing stock.
It is notable that these numbers do not include an additional 1,298 units in manufactured housing communities, which would qualify as affordable but are not counted as part of the State’s calculation.
Although the Town has already exceeded the minimum threshold for affordable housing units, it continues to explore opportunities to create more. Currently, there's a Local Initiative Program (LIP) project before the Select Board that if permitted and completed will create 296 units, with 25% of those units meeting the State’s definition of affordable housing.
In 2021, the Town also created a new Smart Growth zoning district in accordance with Chapter 40R of the General Laws to provide housing options that meet the needs of the town's population. The Smart Growth zoning district is expected to feature diversified housing stock at a variety of costs within walking distance of services and public transportation, including affordable housing and other housing types. The law created two zoning sub-districts, both within a half-mile of the proposed location for a new MBTA commuter rail station.
The bylaw requires that developers set aside at least 20% of all new owner-occupied residential units and at least 25% of all rental units as affordable housing for individuals and households making up to and less than 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI).
The town is also expecting a Chapter 40R project abutting the new commuter rail station that will provide for more than 250 mixed-development units, with 25% being affordable housing.
Between the Chapter 40R and 40B projects, the Town of Middleborough is expecting that approximately 600 housing units with over 25% of units being affordable housing options will be built within 0.6 miles of the commuter rail station in the next few years.
Additionally, there are numerous concerns regarding the availability of utilities in the area. The town’s aging sewer system is already nearing its capacity, particularly in the area near the commuter rail station, and the town does not have the resources to accommodate another 1,471 housing units in that area. Under this unfunded mandate, the town and those who use the sewer system would have to pay for plant and service line upgrades to support the mandated housing, creating an extreme burden on community members through drastic increases in sewer connection and user fees.
"Unfortunately, the MBTA's zoning law is a one-size-fits-all scenario for the different MBTA communities within the state and it does not take into account the unique characteristics of each community especially not for the Town of Middleborough," Town Planner Bradley said. "We understand that there is a housing crisis in our state, and our town is continuing its diligent work to provide affordable housing that won't overwhelm our infrastructure or become a financial strain on our community. We will continue to work with all partners to find solutions that bring more housing options to our town."
The Town is in the midst of updating its Housing Production Plan. As part of this update, the Town conducted a survey and data showed that residents strongly stated that they did not support large, multi-family complexes at this time. Instead, residents identified that they are looking for the "missing middle" of small, affordable homes; duplexes or tiny home options.
As such, the town is currently revising its zoning bylaw to allow for attached accessory dwelling units to be allowed by right without the need for a special permit and to allow for detached accessory dwelling units, i.e. tiny homes. The Town hopes that with these alternative housing options, the town can continue to get creative and grow housing opportunities for those who may not be able to afford traditional single-family homes.
"We welcome a conversation with the state and members of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development and the Department of Housing and Community Development to discuss how we could work together to find a resolution that fits the needs of our community," Select Board Chair Germain said. "We're extremely receptive to creating more affordable housing opportunities in the Town of Middleborough, however, we remain committed to ensuring that any housing projects we take on are fiscally responsible for all parties within the town."