"Eeny, meeny, miny, moe"—EDC Picks Top 3 Zoning Priorities


The Economic Development Sub Committee “Plus” – otherwise known as the Franklin for All Steering Committee, met Wednesday, Aug. 10 in the Council Chambers to come together after individually ranking key priorities related to zoning, identified by the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission team.

And, it was a replay of many of the same disagreements about goals and priorities among the members, compounded by the absence of any agreed upon method of presenting each participant’s views and ultimately coming to a shared recommendation.

In response to expressions of concern about losing control of the town’s identity with changes in zoning, Councilor Cobi Frongillo erupted and complained about the fear mongering. Instead, Franklin just needs to get out of the way of the developers; give them simple rules and see what the come up with, he suggested.

But Greg Rondeau, Chair of the Planning Board, shot back with a warning about the dangers of too-loose regulations, citing events in the 1990s, when developers threw up projects and then left town, often leaving unfulfilled promises and problems that the town had to solve.

In the end, the group got to a short list. At the insistence of Town Manager Jamie Hellen, they narrowed it further to studying a 40R overlay district, downtown parking, and regulations to encourage Accessory Dwelling Units (aka ‘in-law’ apartments).

Ironically, since much of the focus of the Franklin for All Steering Committee has been on appeasing the MBTA and the high-density requirements embedded in the state’s 40R law, the next day, Thursday, the state offered a refinement of some of those regulations – a final set of multi-family zoning rules that half of all municipalities in Massachusetts will soon have to meet if they want to preserve their access to important sources of state funding.

An economic development law that Gov. Charlie Baker signed in January 2021 requires that every MBTA community have at least one zoning district near a transit station in which multi-family housing is allowed as of right. There are 175 cities and towns that will now have to comply with requirements under the law, and those with greater access to MBTA service will have greater obligations.

The high cost of living in Massachusetts is pinching family budgets and making the state appear less desirable for business growth. The lack of available housing units in the state contributes to high prices and the Baker administration said that the "lack of zoning for multi-family housing is a barrier for new housing development in Massachusetts." On Wednesday, the Department of Housing and Community Development released the final guidelines for determining whether an MBTA community is in compliance with the new law. Reportedly, some communities served by bus, notably Hull, complained loudly enough about the onerous requirements that they were dropped or modified for those communities. 

"As you review the guidelines and begin work to comply with the new law's zoning requirement, keep in mind: If Massachusetts is to remain a desirable place for individuals, families, and businesses, then we need to confront the housing crisis together," Being perhaps slightly disingenuos, Secretary Mike Kennealy and Undersecretary Jennifer Maddox wrote in a letter to all MBTA communities this week. "This law is not a housing production mandate. It is all about setting the table for more transit-oriented housing in the years and decades ahead -- which is not just good housing policy, but good climate and transportation policy, too."

What will be the impact of these “final” regulations? In response to our inquiry, Town Manager Hellen provided the following response:

“I have not had a chance to completely read through the near 30-page guidance yet, but from previous proposals and the summaries I have seen at State House News Service and the Mass Municipal Association, it appears the Town's zoning will already comply with a portion of the regs. Relative to many other communities, Franklin is in a good - not great - position with the final regs. Both the Franklin for All study and the most recent DHCD approved Housing Production Plan also have recommendations that will help the town reach these regulations. In fact, we timed those studies perfectly to coincide with the state regulations. We should have plenty of data and recommendations to begin public conversation on zoning.

“One thing to note is maintaining compliance with these regulations is important. The Town performs very well and we are competitive with the grants programs that would be sacrificed if not compliant. As we just saw with the most recent MassWorks grant process ($2.3 million Grove Street project), the lack of a Complete Streets policy hurt the town's application in 2020 and after a policy was adopted, the town was awarded more points and we received the grant. Compliance with state goals like this is in our favor the overwhelming majority of the time.

“One of the biggest questions will be whether a new incoming Governor has a different view and proposes changes to these regs? At some point, the most important factor at the local level is having a firm understanding of the path ahead. In order for communities to propose, debate, educate and/or implement revised zoning, cities and towns need to know what is the target we are aiming at. And if targets keep changing, it just freezes our ability to make the zoning changes we need to make and stymies housing production. Making substantial changes in zoning can take a very long time to get done. There is no Amazon 2-Day Prime option for major zoning reforms. They can take months and years to draft, revise, develop, research and get local approval. And that does not take into consideration the years it will take for the development community to adapt to those zoning reforms and then actually design, permit, finance and construct the housing units. As you know, that part of the housing equation can take years as well.

“The Franklin for All Steering Committee selected a few items for the staff to prioritize from their meeting this past week from those above-mentioned reports - looking at a. In addition, inclusionary zoning and the MBTA regs will also be items likely coming soon. I hope to have a timeline for these items by the end of September and when they may come up for public meetings. Regardless of the immediate reaction to the regs, the above topics are the ones that will be coming up later this fall," added Hellen.

--SHNS & Franklin Observer

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