Ultimate decisions expected to be made in autumn at Special Town Meeting

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UPDATED July 31: At least 135 people – many critical, others supportive of the current plan by local leaders concerning zoning for more housing density as required by state law – packed Arlington Town Hall's auditorium Tuesday evening, July 25.

During a public forum hosted by the MBTA Communities Working Group and the Arlington Redevelopment Board, the  event represented the first major opportunity to see the latest zoning map in progress and to voice opinions about it.

Working Group Chair Sanjay Newton greeted the crowd saying that he and fellow group members looked forward to hearing from everyone. Matthew Littell from the consultant group UTILE, then noted that Arlington is an adjacent community, meaning a town next to a town with a train station (Alewife, in Cambridge, walking distance from the East Arlington town line).

2021 state law

The state requires all 175 MBTA Communities including Arlington to devise zoning for a minimum of 10 percent of its current total housing units, which in Arlington equates to 2,046 units. Speakers on Tuesday evening were asked -- but did not respond -- as to how many acres that would be.

But, based on the presentation, Arlington currently is looking at rezoning 176 acres, which could theoretically accommodate up to 15,000 units – nearly exponentially exceeding the state-required minimum.

Town Planning Director Claire Ricker expounded on the zoning map, iteration eight, explaining the particulars and the thought that went into it. She said she plans to submit the plan to the state in August for preadoption review. 

One goal of many officials is to have the town become part of the statewide fossil-fuel pilot program.

The actual vote is to come in October, at the Special Town Meeting. 

Residents speak

After a short break, residents were given 2 minutes each to speak. Newton said that that the group would hear everyone -- and he lived up to that promise. A total of 67 residents spoke.

A majority of the speakers opposed the plan. The most common reason cited was number of additional units that, under the propozed zoning plan, would be allowed to be built. The consensus of the objectors was to urge the working group to zone only for an area that could hold the minimum amount of units required, that being 2,046. Another commonly stated objection was that the proposed setbacks, currently designated as 10 feet, are too small. Others present worried aloud about potentially being taken advantage of predatory developers.

More details, including a representative sample of residents' comments at the July 25 meeting, can be found here.

ACMi video of July 25 MBTA meeting:

Background on state law, housing history

The material below is taken from a perspective piece initially published on YourArlington in May 2023.

Arlington is one of 175 communities served by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, or MBTA, now  working toward compliance with the state’s new MBTA Communities law. The local planning and zoning effort -- led by Claire Ricker, the town's director of Department of Planning and Community Development, the Arlington Redevelopment Board and the MBTA Communities Working Group -- is expected to culminate in a vote to approve a compliant plan at the Special Town Meeting in October.

This state law requires communities served by the MBTA to adopt multifamily zoning “as of right” to remove obstacles to the development of additional housing.Communities not in compliance with this law will be subject to several state-imposed financial penalties.If a Special Town Meeting does not approve Arlington’s MBTA Communities by Nov. 11, 2023, the town will likely lose the opportunity to become one of the 10 first-round Massachusetts communities in the state’s new fossil-fuel plan.

Who the law aims to help

State rules require MBTA communities to develop zoning that can accommodate new housing, specifically targeted for “workforce” residents. Such housing anticipates meeting the needs of schoolteachers, town staffers, retail employees and others who work in Arlington but who often can’t afford to live here.

It may also meet a growing demand among older residents who’ve lived in Arlington for decades and in many cases raised their families here but who can no longer afford the taxes on their family home and would like to stay in town in a smaller home with age-appropriate safety features and within walking distance to stores and cafes.

More information about Arlington’s timeline and information are available here >> 

Arlington is not alone in contending with this issue. For instance, on April 9, next-door Lexington became the first MBTA municipality to submit a required plan in compliance with the state’s new MBTA Communities law. Lexington’s plan exceeds the requirements for housing. Carol Kowalski, Lexington assistant town manager for development and former town planner in Arlington, has said: “Lexington’s minimum was 50 acres, but we zoned for 227 acres. We also allowed a height bonus for retaining commercial on the ground floor in part of the overlay districts. There are three overlays over varying heights. We distributed the district throughout the town, over about 2 percent of the land area.”

See the detailed motion/bylaw language on pages 2 and 3 >>(scroll to page 7 to see the map of the three overlay districts: MFO, VHO and VO).

See the slide presentation for an overview >> 

Per the law, Arlington must develop and approve new zoning laws in the form of overlay districts on existing zones or via rewriting the current zoning laws to permit more multifamily housing to be built “as of right.”

History, concerns

For about 20 years, Arlington has had “inclusionary zoning” laws that require affordable-housing units to be created in multifamily buildings, but, during that period, only 54 units have been created. 

The new state law does not require affordability -- but does expect an increase in density, such as attached one- and two-bedroom townhouses, for new developments.

Rezoning or zoning overlay districts are expected to encourage the development of new housing to comply with the law. While the town hopes to have the zoning passed by November as required, many observers say that it may be many years before there is any noticeable change in the town’s appearance. The effects of new zoning on existing locations depends on when existing owners decide to sell their property.

As Arlington also faces a vote for a property-tax override this coming year to cover its budgeting expectations for the next four to six years, many residents are concerned that more new housing may bring more families wit children, which might then drive a need for more school buildings. However, a counterargument has been made that Arlington is already well supplied with family housing -- three bedrooms or more -- but seriously undersupplied with one- and two-bedroom housing and that therefore such smaller housing configurations would likely not drive up the population of the schools.

New housing construction results in badly needed “new growth,” which might be applied to stabilizing the tax base in town. Arlington benchmarks its “new growth” against several other similar and nearby municipalities.Steve Revilak, Arlington Town Meeting and ARB member, has said in the past that Arlington could use the opportunity for new growth. According toArlington’s Public Annual Financial Reports, Arlington has less new growth than most comparable communities -- and significantly less than the statewide average. 

This news account by YourArlington freelance writer Tony Moschetto was published Wednesday, July 26, 2023. The background material in this article, the beginning of which is noted by a line in italic and also signified by a larger suhheadline, is derived from a news perspective published in YourArlington in May 2023 by Barbara Thornton, a Precinct 16 Town Meeting member with an interest in housing issues and also an active member of YourArlington's advisory board. The article was updated July 28, 2023, to add an ACMi video, and updated July 31, 2023, to add a link to another Moschetto story  from the same meeting that provides comment from those in favor of the map/plan, those opposed and those in between.