Tonight: Virtual public meeting set to discuss new housing mandates

The Marblehead Planning Board is inviting residents to a virtual public meeting on Thursday, Oct. 26 to learn about new state rules requiring denser housing in parts of town.

Marblehead has until late 2024 to adopt zoning changes that allow denser housing near transit or risk penalties. CURRENT PHOTO / WILLIAM J. DOWD

The requirements are part of a push by the state to encourage more housing around public transit. Under the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Community Law, municipalities served by commuter rail, subway and major bus routes must adopt zoning changes allowing multifamily housing by-right.

Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer said the state is making compliance a “very high priority” by providing resources to help towns navigate the process while also increasing penalties for noncompliance.

“It appears scarier now than what it really is,” Kezer said. “The key component is it’s requiring municipalities to implement the zoning. But it’s not requiring that the housing actually gets built out to the full extent.”

Kezer predicted the zoning changes will be a “big topic” at May’s Town Meeting but said the Planning Board is taking a “deliberative process” to tailor recommendations to Marblehead.

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 total capacity needs to be about 900 units — which is 10% of Marblehead’s housing stock.

If the town doesn’t comply it risks losing state funding and being subject to housing appeals.

The Zoom meeting link is:

The Oct. 26 online session will give an overview of MBTA zoning, Marblehead’s current densities, types of multi-family housing, potential benefits and concerns, and preliminary areas being considered for rezoning.

Town Planner Becky Curran Cutting said common public concerns will likely be about impacts on “stormwater, traffic and schools.”

The board aims to gather community input on how to comply with the mandate in a way that benefits Marblehead. Some worry the state overestimates the town’s capacity for new units since it is largely developed.

Kezer said the town is still evaluating where higher-density zoning would be appropriate. Some areas already allow multi-family housing by special permit, so changes may involve switching those to by-right permitting while keeping design parameters in place.

After the meeting, an in-person workshop — on a date to be determined — will be held to brainstorm options. The board also plans to get perspectives from developers, architects, attorneys and officials regarding schools, traffic and utilities.

The goal is to develop zoning changes that address community needs while minimizing local impacts. The final proposal must be approved at Town Meeting by December 2024.

“There seems to be a lot of focus on the big numbers of how many units this could potentially develop,” he said. “But the reality is going to be much less.”

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