Over the past few months, the Planning Board has dedicated several public work sessions to developing a proposal that would bring Lexington into compliance with the state’s new transit-oriented multi-family zoning requirements. On Wednesday, the Board voted unanimously to bring its draft proposal to a Feb. 1 public hearing where residents will have additional opportunities to comment and make suggestions before Town Meeting considers approving the article this spring.

The requirements

The State Department of Housing and Community Development’s new guidelines, finalized last August after passage of the MBTA Communities law, require communities served by public transit to establish “at least one zoning district of reasonable size” for multi-family housing. The law seeks to spur development of multi-family housing in MBTA communities across the state as both the Commonwealth and the nation face a housing crisis, Planning Board Chair Robert Peters explained in an interview.

“As a state and really, as a country, we are not producing the amount of housing needed,” Peters said. “For most of our suburbs, [multi-family housing] has not been … up to now, permitted by right … this is really a very different approach to zoning than what we’ve done in Lexington and in the state previously.”

While establishing new zoning does not mean multi-family housing will automatically be built, the change should reduce barriers to multi-family projects for developers, Peters said.

Lexington is classified as an “adjacent community” under the new guidelines, meaning it is generally expected to create less multi-family zoning than rapid transit or commuter rail communities. Adjacent communities are required to create new multi-family zoning districts that can accommodate a “multi-family unit capacity” of 10% of their total housing stock; for Lexington, that amounts to a required capacity of 1,231 multi-family units. Because the law mandates that the new multi-family zoning have a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre, Lexington needs to designate approximately 82 acres total on which this density is allowed in order to reach a 1,231-unit capacity, including about 41 contiguous acres. (Lexington’s total land area is 16.4 square miles, or over 10,000 acres.) 

To avoid losing access to state grant funding, the Town must pass zoning that brings it into compliance with these new guidelines by the end of 2024.

The Planning Board’s draft proposal

The Planning Board has proposed new Village Overlay Districts with three different height tiers that would apply to different areas across Lexington. The proposed zoning includes about 10 different parcels around town because no single area considered by the Planning Board would suffice to bring the Town into compliance with the new law, Peters said.

An overlay district goes on top of existing zoning, creating additional options without canceling out the underlying zoning. “It provides a bit more flexibility and…requires less tinkering with the underlying zoning districts,” Peters said. 

This approach will allow the Town to preserve some of its underlying commercial zoning in some of the proposed overlay areas, which Peters said is desirable in part because commercial properties are an important source of revenue for the Town as they are taxed at a higher rate than residential properties: “We’re very concerned about the gradual erosion of existing commercial space, so…we wanted to have a variety of underlying zoning.”

The Planning Board’s proposed overlay districts exceed the 82 required acres, partly because the Town needs more housing and should explore a range of options, Peters said. Beyond the new state zoning requirements, the Town’s recently adopted Comprehensive Plan and town-wide survey both highlighted Lexington’s acute need to increase its diversity of housing options.

The additional acreage also allows the Planning Board some wiggle room to adjust the proposed districts in response to community feedback without falling out of compliance with the new requirements: “As the hearings progress, there may be legitimate reasons articulated for removing or reducing a proposed district, so…we wanted to allow ourselves some flexibility.”

The three height tiers included in the proposed zoning vary from 40 feet, or about three stories, for a low-rise district; 60 feet, or about five stories, for a mid-rise district; and 70 feet, or about six stories, for a high-rise district. The proposed low-rise district would apply to parts of the Town including East Lexington; the mid-rise district includes Lexington Center; and the high-rise district would apply to areas at Hartwell Avenue and Maguire Road, where manufacturing zoning already allows heights up to about 115 feet.

These height caps will likely be subject to continued debate during the public hearing. At Wednesday’s meeting, while board members voiced a general consensus on the low-rise and high-rise height parameters, the board is split on whether 60 feet is too high for the mid-rise district. Community members have expressed concern about excessively tall buildings changing Lexington’s “character” at multiple Planning Board meetings.

Affordability requirements?

One of the most common misconceptions Peters hears about the new zoning concerns affordability requirements. “What I hear most frequently is that the primary goal [of these new guidelines] was creating affordable housing,” he said. “And really, the primary goal for the state was to create housing…we think the goal was by creating housing, more supply will drive the market to have more affordability.”

The final state guidelines allow communities to include affordability requirements within the multi-family zoning, but do not mandate this. Under the guidelines, a community can choose to require that up to 10% of units in a multi-family project within the zoning district have an affordability restriction. Lexington’s proposed zoning would take advantage of this option and go further. The Planning Board has proposed a supplemental article seeking to raise that percentage to 15% of units – something the state guidelines allow if a municipality conducts an economic feasibility analysis to “determine if it is still viable on the development side so that a developer would actually be willing and able to do a development with that level of affordability,” Peters said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Planning Director Abby McCabe said she felt confident that a 15% affordability threshold would be economically viable for developers and that a feasibility study would uphold this figure, but added that any figure higher than 15% would likely be unfeasible. “I think [a requirement of 20%] pushes development away a little bit, or those market-rate units are that much more expensive,” she said, because the developer would likely hike up their prices to compensate for profits lost on the required affordable units.

The guidelines specify that the DHCD will not approve any affordability requirement exceeding 20% of units.

A process shaped by public input

Since last fall, the Planning Board has held several public meetings and an interactive housing workshop to narrow down options for the best locations to establish the new required zoning. During that process, members have observed greater community interest in some areas, like Lexington Center, while opposition to other areas has led them to be taken off the table.

One of those areas, Wilson Farm – which, despite being a farm, has underlying single-family residential zoning – was eliminated in response to significant resident pushback. 

In December, Lexington resident David Fairman circulated a petition that was signed by more than 200 community members opposing rezoning Wilson Farm for multi-family housing. Fairman, a professional mediator, said he had attended a mid-December Planning Board meeting out of “professional interest.” But as a community member, he was surprised to learn that Wilson Farm was among areas being considered for multi-family zoning, and was concerned that changing the farm’s underlying zoning might incentivize its owners to sell. He initiated discussion on his Liberty Heights neighborhood listserv and began investigating possibilities for preserving the farm as open space with neighbors before deciding to circulate the petition.

Signatories stressed that they supported the intent of the new MBTA multi-family zoning requirements but wanted Wilson Farm to be preserved as open space, not developed, should its owners ever sell.

Fairman commended “the really deep dive and huge amount of work that the Planning Board has done to be thoughtful and sensible and sensitive to how the [zoning] areas get designated and how the uses within those areas get bounded.”

“Having said that…I think this was one that was just a little bit off base, but the rest of it I really think they’re doing an excellent job,” he added. “And this is not easy.”

“We heard exactly what the concerns are,” Peters said of the community feedback, adding that the board received a notably high volume of written and verbal public input about its consideration of Wilson Farm. “From our perspective, it’s important to note that including Wilson Farm or not including it makes it no more or less likely that the property is preserved into the future since the underlying zoning is residential, single family.” That said, “based on what we heard from the public and the fact that there was no consensus of thought among the board, that district is one that we chose to remove from the proposal.”

A Wilson Farm representative declined to comment on the petition. “The Wilson family supports the decisions of the town committees and appreciates all their hard work,” Customer Service Representative Christine Edmonds wrote in an email.

Fairman has asked the Conservation Commission’s land acquisition sub-committee to explore possibilities for preserving WIlson Farm land in the future.

As the Planning Board continues to refine its proposed zoning through the public hearing process, Peters encouraged additional public input moving forward. 

“We’re certainly bringing a far better proposal to the hearings than we had when we started the exercise three months ago,” he said. “I expect through the hearing process, it will still most likely evolve, and what will go to Town Meeting will be improved.”

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