State law requires town to identify a total of 27 acres of denser zoning

The Marblehead Planning Board is exploring ways to comply with a state law that requires MBTA communities to zone for multifamily housing.

Marblehead must zone for multifamily housing within 1/2 mile of at least one MBTA bus stop, like this one on Humphrey Street. CURRENT PHOTO / WILLIAM J. DOWD

The mandate will help the state “meet our goals for housing, transportation and climate resiliency,” explained Lily Linke of the Citizens Housing and Planning Association at a Planning Board meeting last week. She said cities and towns that don’t comply may lose state funding and grants and face enforcement in state and federal courts.

“All MBTA communities must comply with the law,” Attorney General Andrea Campbell wrote in an August advisory.

Marblehead has until the end of 2024 to zone a total of 27 acres that allow residential development at a minimum density of 15 units per acre. The zones must be located within half a mile of MBTA transportation and suitable for families with children. The total capacity needs to be about 900 units — which is 10% of Marblehead’s housing stock.

The Board talked about holding a working session later this month to study zoning maps and brainstorm potential locations before launching public outreach.

Member Ed Nilsson emphasized the importance of education, outreach and clear communication to assuage residents’ concerns about adding density.

“The fear goes away if you make a good presentation, excellent graphics and answer questions ahead of time that you think you’re gonna get,” Nilsson said.

Linke explained that Marblehead has significant flexibility in choosing where to place the district and in tailoring dimensional standards like height limits, setbacks, lot coverage percentages and more. The law mandates the allowance of multifamily housing by right, meaning the developer wouldn’t need any special approval by the town or have any set housing-production targets.

“Zoning is meant to create opportunity,” Linke said. “This is about creating capacity for the future.”

All of this comes as Marblehead’s median home price exceeds $1 million. The zoning change aims to facilitate more inclusive, transit-oriented housing.

Massachusetts has among the highest home prices and rents in the nation. The median sale price for a single-family home reached $550,000 in August 2022, a 10.8% jump from the previous year, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. Rental costs have followed a similar trajectory, rising nearly 20% from the first quarter of 2021 to $2,852 in the first quarter of 2022.

A mismatch between supply and demand creates intense competition for available units, particularly affecting lower-income households. Proponents see the new state law as a tool to help narrow the gap and create more inclusive neighborhoods, while opponents argue it overrides local control over development.

Tight deadline

Members plan to leverage guidance from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council throughout the transition process. The Board faces a tight timeline, Town Planner Becky Cutting said.

“Zoning changes must be approved at the May 2024 Town Meeting to meet the December deadline,” she told Planning Board members.

The board discussed holding public forums next month to gather input on preferred locations, sizes and styles of housing, as well as design standards.

Cutting suggested policies to encourage affordable units and using design guidelines to minimize negative impacts. She mentioned engaging residents through “forums, focus groups and surveys.”

“We want to be prepared to answer questions and alleviate concerns about changes in Marblehead,” said Planning Board Chair Bob Schaeffner.

He emphasized understanding options fully before public input.

“There will be much discussion ahead at public meetings before any final decision at Town Meeting,” Cutting said.

Members stressed complex trade-offs around opening up zoning while maintaining quality of life. School impacts and public perceptions pose challenges, but the law doesn’t leave much wiggle room, they said.

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