WAKEFIELD – A new multifamily zoning requirement specific to MBTA communities has local officials a little concerned. The state legislation was passed in 2021 as part of a $262 million economic bond bill. This zoning requirement applies to the 175 MBTA communities on the state, Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio explained to the Town Council last week.

With the new legislation, Section 3A of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 40A now requires MBTA communities to have at least one zoning district of reasonable size in which multi-family housing is permitted as of right. Multifamily is defined as at least 3 units.

Maio noted that for purposes of the legislation, Wakefield has been designated as a “Bus Community,” despite having two commuter rail stations.

The legislation is rooted in the state’s estimated shortage of up to 200,000 housing units. Massachusetts also has among the highest and fastest growing home prices and rents of any state in the nation. According to the Massachusetts Economic Office of Housing and Economic Development (EOHED), multifamily housing near transit creates walkable neighborhoods with climate and transportation benefits, increased utilization of public transit and better access to work/services.

The multifamily district must support a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre, be not more than a half mile from a commuter rail station, subway station, ferry terminal or bus station, have no age restrictions and be suitable for families with children.

The guidelines do not include a production mandate or a requirement to build new units and do not refer explicitly to 40B projects, which allow developers to bypass local zoning in communities where there is not enough affordable housing. Actual production will depend on developer interest, infrastructure (e.g. water/sewer), market dynamics, etc. The multi-family unit capacity is based on a percentage of total housing units within the community. This represents the number of multifamily housing units that can be developed as of right within the multi-family district.

Maio discussed how this could impact Wakefield.

Based on the 2020 census, the minimum multi-family new unit capacity for Wakefield is 2,261 units. For this calculation, Wakefield is considered an MBTA bus community.

Wakefield currently has no zoning district where “multi-family” homes as defined by the statute are allowed as a matter of right. Two-family homes are allowed in the General Residence, Mixed Use, Neighborhood Business and Business Districts.

An MBTA community that does not comply with Section 3A is not eligible for funding from The Housing Choice Initiative, the Local Capital Projects Fund, the MassWorks Infrastructure Program and other discretionary grants. Maio said that noncompliance could impact the following state grants for local projects:

• Mass Works (North Ave Improvements) $2 Million

• Albion Street $1 Million

• Complete Streets $400,000

• Shared Streets $250,000

• Travel and Tourism (Shop Local) $45,000

Maio outlined the timeline as set forth in the legislation.

By May 2, 2022, draft guidelines must be presented to Town Council and the MBTA Community Form must be submitted to DHCD.

Between May and December 2022, a community must complete a zoning analysis, hold public meetings on zoning changes and determine amendments needed for compliance. By December 2022 communities are expected to submit compliance action plan.

Wakefield would need to formally adopt the guidelines by December 31, 2023.

One concern that came up at last week’s Town Council meeting is that nowhere in the legislation is there a mechanism for a town to receive credit for local initiatives like what Wakefield did several years ago in passing Zoning Amendments to encourage development around public transit centers. Maio also noted that Wakefield has done a great job on its own in promoting affordable housing. Another concern was that there is no affordability component under the new requirements.

Maio said that there are still many unanswered question and noted that there’s still a lot of work to do as the actual regulations themselves are still in flux. He added that the Massachusetts Municipal Association opposes the legislation in its current form and has written a letter detailing its concerns.

Maio said that the issues will be looked at in detail over the summer and public forums will be held to inform local residents and gather feedback.