***Thursday, Nov. 2, at 6:30 p.m.: The Planning Board holds its second public meeteing on the new zoning mandate. It will be held in-person at the Veterans School Performing Arts Center.
More than 150 people Zoomed into a virtual public meeting Oct. 26 to discuss new state zoning requirements that mandate denser, multi-family housing.
The meeting, led by the Planning Board, aimed to gather community input on how best to comply with the law which requires MBTA communities to adopt zoning changes allowing multifamily housing by right in certain districts.
Marblehead is classified as an “adjacent community” under the law since it borders two MBTA communities with train stations, Swampscott and Salem. As such, the town must rezone at least 27 acres at a minimum density of 15 units per acre, with the ability to construct around 900 total units.
Residents raised concerns through the chat function about impacts on traffic, town infrastructure, parking, schools and Marblehead’s historic character.
“This will affect the character of the town. This will affect traffic and will affect the schools,” Thomas Peach wrote in the chat. “It will not matter where it goes in town. Unlike larger towns we have no ‘disused’ areas suitable to this sort of development.”
Others saw benefits like housing options for seniors, affordable units and increased tax revenue. One woman said the mandate should be broken up.
“For many reasons, I recommend spreading several districts across the town; to minimize traffic, putting at least one zone near the Salam or Swampscott line,” wrote someone named Nancy.
Some argued the mandate should be opposed entirely, and one resident suggested the town join a lawsuit to stop the mandate’s implementation.
The Planning Board emphasized the zoning changes must be adopted by December 2024 or Marblehead risks losing state funding and facing potential lawsuits. However, rezoning does not necessarily mean development will occur.
“This is a zoning mandate, not a construction mandate,” said Planning Board member Marc J. Liebman. “Rezoning simply allows denser housing in permitted areas but does not require building.”
In her presentation, Town Planner Becky Curran Cutting said Marblehead already has various multifamily housing at high densities scattered around town. But to comply with the law, the town needs at least one zoned district of the minimum size and density that allows multifamily use without any additional discretionary review or approvals.
Possibilities include expanding existing districts that permit multifamily by special permit, applying “Smart Growth” overlays — which generally promote walkable, sustainable development near public transportation — in pedestrian-friendly areas and rezoning large open parcels or underutilized buildings.
Cutting said the board will continue gathering input at an upcoming in-person public workshop. Draft zoning proposals will then be presented at future meetings before going to Town Meeting for a vote in May.
“The more feedback we receive, the better we can tailor recommendations specific to Marblehead’s needs,” Cutting said.
Some residents criticized the virtual format for lack of public speaking and transparent conversation. In the chat, another called it “borderline comical” and said “this typing crap is not conducive.”
In response, Planning Board Chairman Robert Schaeffner explained the challenges of managing public comment in a large Zoom format but said an in-person meeting will allow more discussion.
Cutting said the board will review all feedback and consider locations residents recommend exploring further.
She encouraged residents to reach out via email at RebeccaC@marblehead.org to stay informed of future zoning meetings and proposals.
The Planning Board aims to have a draft rezoning plan completed by early next year to meet the 2024 compliance deadline.