Lexington Center houses/town office sign
Since being appointed by the Select Board in 2018, the Special Permit Residential Development Amendment Ad Hoc Committee has worked to conduct outreach and develop recommendations on how to modify this bylaw with the goal of increasing the diversity of the Town’s housing supply. (Sophie Culpepper / LexObserver)

In a little over a week, Lexington’s Annual Town Meeting will begin, and members will consider about 40 different articles including multiple proposed amendments to the zoning bylaw. While the Planning Board has made crafting an article that would meet state multi-family zoning requirements one of its top priorities, last week board members also recommended approving a separate housing-oriented article volunteers have spent years refining. Supporters hope the proposal can increase the variety of housing types in Lexington and create more affordable and smaller options for existing and future residents – from starter homes, to workforce housing, to downsizers for seniors.

Article 33 would make changes to Lexington’s Special Permit Residential Development bylaw, which details alternatives to the conventional subdivisions that most single-family homes are built on, in an attempt to better incentivize developers to make use of those alternatives. Since 2018, the Special Permit Residential Development Amendment Ad Hoc Committee has worked to conduct outreach and develop recommendations on how to modify this bylaw with the goal of increasing the diversity of the Town’s housing supply. The Select Board established this committee in response to a Town Meeting citizen petition that year proposing bylaw amendments.

“The balancing trick is to find something that someone who already owns a parcel of land which is eligible for a conventional subdivision will find to be an attractive alternative,” said Jill Hai, who chairs both the Select Board and the SPRD Ad Hoc Committee, in a presentation hosted by the League of Women Voters last week. “We can’t force anybody to do anything … so how do we give them an incentive to do something that will still be economically feasible for the person who has made an investment into that property, but provide what the Town has said [in] our values and our interests and our goals is the kind of housing we want to develop?”

Hai specifically noted that the article is consistent with Town goals as laid out in the recently approved Comprehensive Plan.

The committee has proposed four primary changes to the bylaw as part of this article. Committee members hope that the recommended changes will facilitate the creation of smaller, more affordable homes and designs “conducive to neighborhood interaction,” while keeping developments accessible and attractive. 

First, the committee would modify specifications for the Site Sensitive Development option currently included in the bylaw to try to make them more appealing to developers and lead to production of some different housing types. Site Sensitive Developments prioritize the preservation of natural features and historically significant buildings and places, but only allowed single-family homes until now, SPRD committee member Wendy Manz said. As part of Article 33, the SPRD Committee has proposed creating options beyond single-family homes for this kind of development, and decided to limit the size of each building in the development in response to resident feedback, but will not limit the number of units within each building.

Second, the committee would replace the two other currently allowed SPRD development options with a new option called Compact Neighborhood Developments to try to create smaller homes. Compact Neighborhood Developments don’t limit the number of dwellings or dwelling units, but do limit the gross floor area of dwelling units. These units can have a maximum gross floor area of 2,800 square feet (which includes garage and basement space), but must have an average across the development that’s lower – 2,250 square feet. (Living space is typically about 80% of gross floor area, though this is variable – so the homes would feel smaller than the GFA square footage suggests, Manz noted.)

The bylaw also includes a requirement that 15% of developable site area be set aside for common open space in both of these developments to make them more attractive to the community – another change made to the bylaw in response to resident feedback, Manz said.

The third change would establish inclusionary housing requirements in both of these kinds of developments. At least 15% of gross floor area in both of these types of developments must be set aside for affordable housing, with ⅔ of those units specifically eligible for Lexington’s Subsidized Housing Inventory (SHI). To be eligible for that inventory, units must be reserved for residents that make 80% or less of area median income. If developments are on the smaller side, with six or fewer market-rate units, developers can choose to make a payment to the Town’s Affordable Housing Trust instead of providing affordable housing.

As part of the incentive for developers, the bylaw provides 15% more gross square footage than is otherwise allowed for affordable housing, and another 15% gross square footage bonus to subsidize providing those affordable units.

Finally, the committee recommends changing the approval process for such developments from special permit to site plan review. While both processes require public hearings and allow the Planning Board to specify criteria for project approval, special permits give the Planning Board veto power over projects. Site plan review, on the other hand, guarantees the project will ultimately be developed because the Planning Board is not allowed to block the project altogether.

The justification for this change, Manz said, is it makes it more likely developers will actually make use of this zoning option. Site plan review “is not, by any means, a free pass,” Manz said, but makes the approval process “more expeditious and there’s a surer outcome for builders who come to the Planning Board.”

At the Planning Board’s March 1 hearing, Town Meeting Member Tina McBride (P7) expressed concern site plan review would give developers too much leeway. Site plan review seemed like “too much discretion for a builder,” she said. “If we can’t prohibit that, then what is the recourse?”

Associate Planning Board Member Michael Leon also said he would prefer that this article kept special permits in place instead of site plan review. “The potential for significant expansion by right is troublesome,” he said. Leon contrasted this article with the proposal to satisfy state multi-family zoning requirements, which is limited to specific areas of the Town and must allow by-right building by law.

At previous public hearings on this article, a few community members also raised questions similar to those generated by the multi-family zoning proposal about the potential effects any additional denser housing could have on Town infrastructure and services, especially traffic and the school system.

At its March 1 meeting, Planning Board members voted 4-0 to recommend that Town Meeting approve Article 33. Member Robert Creech abstained from the vote, saying he wanted more time to map out some of the potential effects of these developments on the Town, but said he would request a revote before Town Meeting in order to weigh in on the development. (Leon, as an associate member, is not a voting member of the Planning Board.)

The new proposed SPRD bylaw would require a majority vote by Town Meeting to pass. While most zoning articles require a ⅔ vote to pass, state law allows zoning changes that encourage housing production to pass with a simple majority. Town Meeting begins March 20.

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