At Town Meeting’s sixth session on Monday, members approved a set of zoning changes to a bylaw regulating special residential developments, a set of alternatives to the conventional subdivisions where single-family homes are typically built, with the goal of encouraging the development of smaller and more affordable homes.
The amended zoning permits a variety of housing types on these special residential developments, including multi-family housing. It implements requirements for at least 15% of the total gross floor area in these developments to be designated for affordable housing, with ⅔ of those units specifically eligible for the Subsidized Housing Inventory. And it changes the approval process for developers to build special residential developments from a discretionary special permit application to a site plan review oversight process, which proponents said would be less discouraging to developers while still providing thorough Planning Board oversight of projects.
Town Meeting approved Article 33 as proposed by the Special Permit Residential Development Zoning Bylaw Amendment Committee with 146 votes in favor, 22 opposed and 10 abstentions. The proposal was the result of that Select-Board-appointed committee’s work for more than four years to develop a recommendation following a 2018 Town Meeting citizen petition proposing changes to this bylaw.
“This bylaw amendment was crafted to provide incentives for builders to choose to produce the type of housing identified through LexingtonNext and the Select Board housing goals, rather than the default of large, single family structures,” Jill Hai, Select Board and SPRD Committee Chair, read in a statement expressing the Select Board’s unanimous support of the proposal.
Prior to approving Article 33, Town Meeting rejected two amendments after debating the affordability requirements and the merits of a site plan review or special permit approval process for the developments.
Cindy Arens (P3) proposed an amendment that would have removed an option for developers to pay into the Town’s newly established affordable housing trust instead of providing affordable units when creating developments with six or fewer units. Arens said that the Town should compel all developers building under this bylaw to create affordable housing. “A payment to the trust can only get us so far,” she said.
The SPRD Committee provided the payment in lieu option in these cases because they did not believe that it would be economically feasible for developers to include affordable units in smaller developments. Additionally, the committee had concerns that in smaller developments, an affordable unit would have to be smaller than its counterparts and would stand out more conspicuously, leading to discrimination.
Betsy Weiss (P2), an SPRD committee member and Vice Chair of Lexington’s Housing Partnership Board, said that the proposal would lead to the opposite of its intended outcome. “I have advocated for affordable housing for 20 years,” she said. “I am very concerned that Miss Arens’ amendment, which requires an additional affordable unit for six homes or fewer, may end up with the reverse – no affordable unit, no payment in lieu flowing into the Affordable Housing Trust and only a subdivision of large homes.”
Arens’ amendment failed with a close vote – 77 votes in favor, 93 opposed and five abstentions.
Lin Jensen (P8) and Tina McBride (P7) proposed an amendment that would have kept the special permit approval process previously written into the bylaw instead of substituting site plan review. They said that requiring a special permit would provide the Planning Board with more control over the development process and put a check on developers for community benefit.
Debates about to what extent site plan review is a robust review process compared to special permit have become a recurring topic in Lexington debates about zoning over the past few years, and at this Town Meeting. Assistant Town Manager for Development Carol Kowalski described the difference in her view. “Over time, that threat of denial of special permit can have a chilling effect on the very development that [the] community wants to encourage,” she said. Kowalski described site plan review as a more manageable alternative for developers to navigate, which still requires public hearings and Planning Board input on projects without the threat of a complete veto or interminable process hanging over developers.
Mike Kennealy, Governor Charlie Baker’s former Secretary of Housing and Economic Development and a Lexington resident, said that “if you want me to explain the housing crisis in Massachusetts for the last 30 years, I’ll offer three words that could explain it: suburbs and special permits.”
“It makes it very, very hard to get anything done,” he said.
Jensen and McBride’s amendment failed with 53 votes in favor, 121 opposed and four abstentions.