In a highly anticipated vote Wednesday evening, Town Meeting Members approved Article 34, the Planning Board’s multi-family zoning proposal to comply with the MBTA Communities Act, with 107 votes in favor and 63 opposed.
The proposal, which creates 227 acres of overlay districts for multi-family zoning in 12 areas around Lexington, including the Town Center, is intended to help alleviate the Commonwealth’s housing crisis by following state guidelines requiring communities to zone for multi-family housing near public transit. Town Meeting rejected two proposed amendments to the original article prior to its vote.
Lexington made a statement with the timing and scope of its zoning proposal. The Town is the first community in Massachusetts to comply with the state law, per the Boston Globe, and the plan includes far more than the required 50 acres.
“This is a chance for Lexington to lead,” Mike Kennealy, the former Secretary of Housing and Economic Development in Governor Charlie Baker’s administration, said in a Town Meeting session on Monday. “Isn’t that what we want to do? Be out there early and show what’s possible.” Commuter rail and adjacent communities like Lexington are not required to comply with the law until the end of 2024.
Kennealy, a Lexington resident, spoke in favor of Article 34 at both sessions of Town Meeting this week. Kennealy led the team that developed the compliance guidelines for the state zoning requirements.
“The Planning Board’s zoning motion was intentionally designed to be an effective bylaw that actually produces homes for people that need them,” Planning Board Chair Robert Peters said on Wednesday. “It took 30 years or more to get into the housing crisis, and it will take another 30 to stabilize housing costs and to produce housing for our needs going forward.”
Lexington’s two at-large Town Meeting members from the state delegation, Representative Michelle Ciccolo (D-15 Middlesex) and State Senator Mike Barrett (D-3 Middlesex), both voted for Article 34 Wednesday evening.
“It is absolutely clear that this Commonwealth needs far more housing, and we have an opportunity to do something truly transformative and great for our community and for the Commonwealth,” Ciccolo said on Wednesday. She praised the Planning Board for its public process developing Article 34, and added that the proposal is “not perfect; we can continue to improve upon it and iterate it more at future Town Meetings, but I think the time is now to pass this article.”
Article 34 required a simple majority vote to pass. While most zoning articles require a ⅔ vote, a recent state law change allows zoning changes that permit more housing to pass with a simple majority.
Debate on Article 34 unfolded over two nights of Town Meeting. On Monday, members voted to reject an amendment that would have adjusted height requirements, reduced the zoning districts from 12 to seven, cut the proposed acreage for by-right multi-family zoning to about 100 acres and added a little more than 30 acres of multi-family zoning under a special permit.
The amendment, proposed by Dawn McKenna (P6) and drafted by a working group of about a dozen Town Meeting Members a week before, was intended as a consensus among members with different viewpoints.
“We believe our amendment strikes a good balance between the need to take a significant step in addressing our housing goals and the concerns raised by Town Meeting Members and the public about potential impacts in the original article,” Barbara Katzenberg (P2) said on Monday. “This proposal provides some breathing room if the pace of change is faster than expected.”
But the majority of Planning Board members argued that by cutting out most of the centrally located zoning districts, including Lexington Center, the amendment would create exclusionary zoning.
Joshua Apgar (P3), speaking in support of the original motion without amendments, referenced the story of Jesus being born in a manger because there was no room at the inn, which he called “a 2,000-year-old story about mixed-use zoning and a multi-family housing shortage.”
“Will we be the generation that finally opens up the door for our history, for our schools, for our community?” he asked. “Or will we be yet another generation that says, in Lexington, there’s no room at the inn?”
Apgar added that individuals who can’t afford to live in Lexington can’t advocate for themselves because they are not represented by Town Meeting.
Center Committee Chair Jerry Michelson (P5) added that his committee believed excluding the Center from this zoning would be a mistake, and would hurt its long-term viability as a retail hub.
The vote on the working group’s amendment was one of the closest Town Meeting has seen this year: 85 members voted against the amendment, while 80 voted for it, with seven abstentions.
At Wednesday’s session, Lexington Center continued to be a flashpoint for debate. An amendment proposed by member Todd Burger (P9) would have subjected the Center to a special permit approval process for multi-family zoning, which Burger said would help implement an additional layer of control on the Center’s historic and human-scale appearance. His amendment also proposed requiring step-backs to mitigate shadowing in the Center.
The amendment gained support from the six present members of the Center Committee, as well as five members in support and one opposed from the Economic Development Advisory Committee and three of five Select Board members.
Members including Gerry Paul (P4) were swayed by Burger’s amendment, and were troubled by the level of division suggested by the near-tied vote on the working group’s amendment two nights earlier. “I voted in favor of the working group amendment because I thought that might bring more people along,” he said. Paul supported the idea of a more restrictive special permit process for Lexington Center, and also thought the small changes of Burger’s amendment could help “bring people along and maybe restore a sense of community that we normally have here in Town Meeting.”
But Town Meeting rejected the amendment with 56 votes in favor, 107 opposed and 11 abstentions. Members who opposed the proposal argued that the site plan review approval process proposed by the Planning Board would constitute a thorough enough review process without discouraging developers from building housing, whereas requiring a special permit could preclude any development. Select Board Chair Jill Hai and Representative Ciccolo also expressed concern that including a design requirement like step-backs in zoning was bad practice.
Member Robert Rotberg (P3) moved to have Town Meeting take separate votes about Lexington Center and the remainder of the zoning plan. Separating out votes requires support from at least 25 other Town Meeting Members. But after the motion was made and at least 25 Town Meeting Members expressed support by standing, several members raised points of order questioning whether it was appropriate to separate out Lexington Center from the full article. Town Counsel Mina Makarious explained that legally, the motion was permitted.
When Brown asked members in support of separate votes to stand a second time following the points of order, she only counted 22 members, and rejected the motion to take separate votes.
Lexington resident Geoff Waite attended Town Meeting on Wednesday to speak against the Planning Board’s proposal. Waite collected about 650 signatures within the last week on a petition to postpone Article 34. “Let me be clear that the views I’m presenting are not against the principle of multi-family and inclusionary housing,” he said. Waite said that the level of community awareness surrounding the proposal was too low given its scale and potential impact, and that he and other community members were especially concerned about the heights allowed under the proposal.
Salvador Jaramillo (P5), a junior at Harvard and one of the youngest members of Town Meeting, spoke about his own personal experience shaping his staunch support for Article 34 on Wednesday. “My family lives in multi-family housing; without it, we wouldn’t be able to live here in Lexington,” he said.
“When my family dealt with financial hardship and eventual homelessness, we were told by many people in this town that we didn’t belong in Lexington and we should move somewhere else,” Jaramillo added. “How do you think it makes me feel when some people from a point of great privilege say that they don’t want the type of multi-family housing that I live in because it looks ugly?”
Kennealy responded to a concern raised by Town Meeting Members that the proposed zoning would not meaningfully increase the Town’s supply of affordable housing. The Planning Board’s proposal requires up to 15% of units in larger developments to have an affordability restriction, a number board members said was the highest economically feasible percentage according to a recent study.
“If you’re in favor of affordability, you need to be generally in favor of more supply,” Kennealy said.
McKenna served notice of reconsideration on Wednesday. Notice of reconsideration is the first step necessary to reopen an article, but does not guarantee the article will be reconsidered.