People are hearing about a new State housing requirement, often referred to as the MBTA Communities mandate. Depending on how this new law is applied, it could have a dramatic effect on Plymouth. Learn more by reading below.
Following a public comment period regarding its proposed requirements for implementing the new MBTA Communities Law, the Massachusetts Department of Housing & Community Development has published its regulations. A copy of the complete document can be viewed below.
The Town and its state congressional delegation made numerous requests for modifications, explaining the potentialy catastrophic effect of requiring the Town to allow developers to build literally thousands of multi-family units within a half mile of Cordage Park. In response, the Department stated that they understood that the proposed regulations would impose untenable requirements on towns such as Plymouth and that changes would be made to the final regulations. Despite that promise, the published final rules do not differ in any meaningful way from the propossed regulations. That means that Plymouth, like many other communities, will be required to allow construction of multi-family housing at a density far beyond that permitted by existing zoning.
The only "concession" made to Plymouth in the new regulations is the acknowledgement that since we no longer have active train service we are not considered an MBTA Community. However, we are still considered an MBTA Adjacent Community (due to the existence of train service to Kingston). for Plymouth this is essentially a difference without significance.
Under the MBTA Communities law, a community with an active MBTA train, bus, or ferry terminal needs to allow construction of multifamily units within a half mile of that facility. The number of new units which must be allowed in that zone is equal to 15% of the total number of existing housing units (both single and multi-family) within the entire town. Since Plyouth no longer has an active MBTA Commuter Rail station, that requirement no longer applies. But since Plymouth is next to a town that does, it is instead required to create a zoning district of 50 acres convenient to Kingston which allows construction of new multu-family units equal to 10% of its total housing units.
So what does this all mean? In short, Plymouth has to allow, as a matter of right, the construction of 2,807 multi-family housing units in a 50 acre area reasonably convenient to the Kingston MBTA station, meaning North or West Plymouth.
As previously reported, this law doesn't require Plymouth to actually construct that number of units, only to allow them to be built as a matter of right (meaning no variances or special permits). The failure to comply with this law means that Plymouth would no longer be eligible for StateWorks grants. According to our Public Works Director, Plymouth has received over $10 million from such grants in recent years.
David R. Smith
Wicked Local USA TODAY NETWORK
PLYMOUTH - The MBTA is not restoring commuter rail service to Plymouth this July as local officials and legislatives had hoped, and there are no plans on the horizon to do so.
“The MBTA continues to evaluate both ridership and service levels across the entire commuter rail network,” MBTA spokesperson Lisa Battiston said. “No decisions have been made to this point about adding or restoring service. Commuter rail ridership remains about 50 percent below pre-pandemic levels.”
The T received $2 billion in federal COVID aid over the course of the pandemic, the remaining amount of which was used to increase the fiscal 2023 budget to $2.55 billion, an 8 percent increase compared to the previous year.
That the ‘23 budget was the first to be balanced for the first time in just over 20 years and did not include the restoration of service to Plymouth decreases the likelihood service will be restored any time soon, especially as the T is facing deep deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years alone.
State Rep. Matt Muratore, R-Plymouth expressed both dismay at the decision and sympathy for the looming fiscal crisis at the T.
“Although I am disappointed that train service will not be restored in Plymouth this summer, I understand that the MBTA was not immune to impacts of the pandemic, and I know that they will continue to evaluate service restoration as they recover,” he said.
He also acknowledged the reality of continued low ridership.
“In addition to staffing challenges, it’s hard to increase or restore service when ridership is still down 50 percent from before the pandemic, as many people continue to work remotely or even avoid trains because they are still fearful of contracting COVID.”
The mix of disappointment and opposition is the same now as when the station’s closure, which took place April 2021, was first announced the previous November in an effort to reduce the fiscal '22 budget.
According to the November letter from legislators, Plymouth was the only station to have its service eliminated as part of those cuts.
State Sen. Susan Moran, D-Falmouth, expressed hope service could be restored.
'Restoring the train service at Cordage Park in Plymouth is critical,” she said. “This is Plymouth's only train station and provides economic stability and growth to the entire region.”
She noted that the Harborwalk apartment development, next to the T station at the Cordage Commerce Center, which will contain 675 units at full buildout, was developed on the premise of the commuter rail service at its back door.
The November 2020 letter was signed by Moran, Muratore, Rep. Kathy Lanatra, D-Kingston, and former Rep. Randy Hunt, R-Sandwich.
It described the project as a transitoriented 40R development, the purpose of which, as defined on the mass.gov website, “encourages communities to create dense residential or mixed-use smart growth zoning districts, including a high percentage of affordable housing units, to be located near transit stations, in areas of concentrated development such as existing city and town centers, and in other highly suitable locations.”
'The development was planned to be located near a train station, and it is imperative to honor that agreement with operational transit,” Moran said. “I advocated, along with my colleagues, to reverse this closure.”
The basis for believing service would be restored is not clear, even among the legislators who spoke in favor of it last year. A search of MBTA press releases at the time did not find any announcement related to the Plymouth station.
Service to the station was infrequent when it was operational, with the Kingston stop, a couple of miles up the track, serving as the usual terminus.
The impact of keeping the station out of service, whatever the frequency, is also not lost on local organizations whose goal is to promote local tourism.
“While we are aware that the MBTA is experiencing any number of problems, it is not satisfactory that service to the South Shore and particularly to Plymouth... is not happening,” See Plymouth President and CEO Lea Filson said. “One of the largest numbers of visitors to Plymouth comes from the Boston area, so what the MBTA may see as a minor route cancellation has an enormous effect on our ability to attract tourism here.”
I have reviewed the State statute, the Regulations, the proposed Guidance, and the Housing and Community Development published FAQs. Based on those, I hve prepared the following answers to some of the questions facing Plymouth in addressing this new requirement.
Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 40A, sets forth certain requirements for zoning in the Commonwealth. A new section, 3A, has been enacted which requires certain zoning changes in so-called MBTA Communities, which are those cities and towns served by MBTA subway, commuter rail, bus and ferry services. Because we have an MBTA commuter rail station, Plymouth is considered one of those communities.
Under Section 3A, the State is requiring MBTA Communities to make certain zoning changes within ½ mile of their MBTA facilities.
There are a number of calculations called for under the proposed regulation, but in broad terms, It would require that Plymouth create at least 1 district of “reasonable size”, which the regulation defines as at least 50 acres, the majority of which is located within ½ mile of the MBTA station. In that new district, Plymouth would have to allow multi-family housing, suitable for families and children, without age restrictions (meaning no age 55 and over communities) to be built as of right.
Under this new regulation, there are also two minimum density requirements for this new district. The first is a general requirement to allow a density of 15 units per acre. The second is a more specific requirement, stating that each MBTA community create zoning which allows for this district to contain multi-family housing equal to a certain percentage of its overall housing stock. Plymouth must comply with both requirements.
Plymouth is considered an MBTA Commuter Rail Community, which the State says must allow multi-family development in this new district equal to 15% of its total housing stock. Per the 2020 US Census, Plymouth had 28,074 housing units. That means that in this zoning district Plymouth would have to allow for a total of 4,211 multi-family housing units.
If they were built as a matter of right, yes. If they were built by special permit, no. The way the regulation is written, the district must allow for these units to be built as a matter of right, and only those units constructed under that right count towards the calculation.
The new regulation does state that we can create an overlay district to achieve compliance, but it can’t be a collection of small, non-contiguous parcels. At least one portion of the overlay district land areas must include at least 25 contiguous acres of land, and no portion of the district that is less than 5 contiguous acres will count toward the minimum size requirement.
No. The regulations require that the zoning apply to the entire district, or the entirety of the parcels in the overlay district, meaning Plymouth cannot comply with the regulation by simply allowing for multi-family development in a few discrete locations.
No. The guidance to the new regulation states that it is not a mandate to construct a specified number of housing units, nor is it a housing production target. Section 3A requires only that each MBTA community has a multi-family zoning district of reasonable size. So the law does not require the production of new multi-family housing units within that district, and the State is saying that there is no requirement nor expectation that a multi-family district will be built out to its full unit capacity.
We then wouldn’t be eligible for funds from:
(i) the Housing Choice Initiative;
(ii) the Local Capital Projects Fund; or
(iii) the MassWorks infrastructure program.
The State describes the MassWorks infrastructure program as the largest and most flexible source of capital funds it provides to municipalities and other eligible public entities primarily for public infrastructure projects that support and accelerate housing production, spur private development, and create jobs throughout the Commonwealth.
The regulations don’t specifically create a waiver procedure, nor do they say one isn't available. Given that we currently have no train service, Plymouth should try to obtain some relief from this particular regulation. But it is important to note that even if Plymouth wasn’t considered an MBTA Commuter Rail Community, it would still be subject to this regulation as a Commuter Rail Adjacent Community (due to the presence of the MBTA Station in Kingston). That would still mean Plymouth would have to meet these requirements, only with a reduced number of units (equal to 10% of its housing stock), and subject to a different location (one closer to the Kingston line).