MBTA Communities Multifamily Zoning Requirement

Photo Bus 62 Photo multifamily apartmentsPhoto 2 story attached houses

A Massachusetts state law signed by the Governor in January, 2021, requires towns and cities within the MBTA service area to make provision in their zoning for multifamily housing. Now codified as Section 3A of the Zoning Act (Chapter 40A), the law requires that:

An MBTA community shall have a zoning ordinance or by-law that provides for at least 1 district of reasonable size in which multi-family housing is permitted as of right; provided, however, that such multi-family housing shall be without age restrictions and shall be suitable for families with children. For the purposes of this section, a district of reasonable size shall: (i) have a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre, subject to any further limitations imposed by section 40 of chapter 131 and title 5 of the state environmental code established pursuant to section 13 of chapter 21A; and (ii) be located not more than 0.5 miles from a commuter rail station, subway station, ferry terminal or bus station, if applicable.

Since Bedford does not have any of the identified major transit facilities, its multifamily zoning district can be located anywhere in town.

The law also includes penalties for non-compliance, in the form of ineligibility for certain state grants, and authorizes the Department (originally the Department of Housing and Community Development, later the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities) to promulgate compliance guidelines.

The thinking behind the law lay in a widespread concern that housing production is insufficient to meet the region’s needs, and a desire to promote transit-oriented development as a land-use strategy having multiple benefits.

The Guidelines, which interpret and amplify the text of the law, were issued by DHCD in late 2022 and a digital Compliance Model and Sample Bylaw were added in early 2023.

The Guidelines specify some categories of land that will be excluded from counting as having any capacity for multifamily housing. These include most publicly-owned land, water bodies and wetlands, protected open space, rights-of-way, Zone 1 wellhead protection areas and certain institutional land. There are also some categories of land for which a caution is expressed. These include wetland buffer zones beyond the prohibition area, land subject to flooding, priority habitat for rare species, Zone II wellhead protection areas and prime agricultural land. (see maps of Excluded and Sensitive land in Bedford below)

The Bedford Planning Board is studying potential ways to bring the town’s Zoning Bylaw into compliance with the new law. Any zoning amendments will need to be passed by Town Meeting, and public input will be invited along the way. The Town submitted a broad Action Plan for its process in January, 2023, as required for interim compliance. The Annual Town Meeting in March, 2024 is the target for bylaw amendment(s). Full compliance is required by the end of 2024.