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Concerns raised about how state’s MBTA community mandate will affect Hopkinton

by | Apr 27, 2022 | Featured: News, News

Southborough MBTA commuter rail station

Hopkinton’s proximity to the Southborough commuter rail station qualifies the town as an MBTA community and makes it subject to new state laws designed to increase housing near public transit. PHOTO/JERRY SPAR

Much like 170-plus other Massachusetts communities, town planners in Hopkinton have a number of concerns and questions surrounding the state’s mandate requiring zoning for new housing.

The law affects so-called “MBTA communities,” cities or towns that host MBTA service, abut a city or town that hosts MBTA service or have been added to the MBTA. In all, 175 communities are subject to the law passed over a year ago.

While the law does not mandate the actual construction of new housing, it does call for the creation of new multi-family zones. Cities and towns that do not comply run the risk of being ineligible to receive funds from the Housing Choice Initiative, Local Capital Projects Fund and MassWorks infrastructure program.

The regulations do not relate to Chapter 40B projects.

Whether Hopkinton ever actually builds new housing as part of the new district isn’t certain, according to Principal Planner John Gelcich, who led a presentation on the program to the Planning Board at its Tuesday meeting.

“The concern we have internally,” Gelcich said, “is this is going to be a zoning district in name only, and not ever really built out.”

Hopkinton, he pointed out, fits into the initiative because it is within a half-mile of the Southborough Commuter Rail Station. Location of the housing would have to be, at least partially, within a half-mile of the station. The other commuter rail station near Hopkinton is in Ashland, but that is more than a half-mile away from the border.

Gelcich also noted the town has very few available parcels that could accommodate the number of units it would have to build under the state requirements, which in Hopkinton’s case would mean 997 units — at least 15 percent of the town’s total housing units.

“We have to allow for zoning that allows for that type of development by right. We do not need to construct that,” Gelcich said. “It appears at this point that this will probably be a zoning district in name only, because there is existing development there.”

Hopkinton, he continued, is in a different situation than most of the affected communities.

“In certain towns,” Gelcich said, “it may be advantageous to buy up land and build up around a train station. Grafton, for example, has a train station right by [Tufts University’s veterinary school], and there’s a lot of vacant land around there. Potentially, those brick buildings on the other side of the train station could be developed, because Grafton is part of this as well.

“Hopkinton and Southborough are in a unique place. There are already developed single-family homes around the train station. It may not be reasonable for developers to buy up all that land and put up multi-family units.”

The next steps, according to Gelcich, are to determine what the district will look like, then go through the Town Meeting process for district approval.

Asked what the town would be risking if it was not in compliance, Gelcich noted the town’s share of MassWorks funding, which included $5 million for Legacy Farms North in 2014, $500,000 for engineering and design work related to the Main Street Corridor, also in 2014, as well as $3 million in 2020 for engineering, easement acquisitions and costs related to undergrounding of infrastructure for the Main Street Corridor. In addition, he said, MWRA water connections have been funded or partially funded by MassWorks. He also cited potential future infrastructure improvements related to affordable housing and other water improvements, if deemed necessary and contribute to the economic development and/or the available housing stock.

One member pointed out that amount mentioned by Gelcich was about $8 million, accounting for a small portion of the town’s roughly $100 million annual budget.

“This, to me, looks like maybe it could never be built,” Planning Board Member Rob Benson said. “If it ever was built, you’re talking about the amount of housing, this is just something we should walk very carefully around. At first glance, I would never support this type of zoning district.”

Member Dave Paul said the Planning Board should “get moving on this as soon as possible,” but Gelcich cautioned against getting “into the weeds on this without getting more information from the state.”

Gelcich said a model bylaw would be “really helpful, a good starting point for the Planning Board.”

Then, he said, it could be tailored to the town of Hopkinton, versus creating something from scratch. He said other communities that are required to comply might be the first to implement and have development occur before Hopkinton.

“This development probably isn’t going to happen in Hopkinton in the next few years,” Gelcich said.

Vice Chair Mary Larson-Marlowe said it was the board’s responsibility to “put together a reasonable bylaw to comply with this and take it to Town Meeting.”

In response to Benson’s concerns, she said, “Your argument is an appropriate argument for Town Meeting to discuss. I look forward to actually seeing numbers that talk about the cost to the community versus the potential benefit for various programs. But we do have to put together a bylaw.”

Planning Board addresses other items

In other Planning Board news from Tuesday, frustration was expressed with Grasshopper Energy, which has constructed a solar array on Wilson Street. Gelcich explained that the company’s plantings do not match the design plan (more on this here).

The board also voted unanimously to endorse the definitive subdivision plan for Turkey Ridge Estates.

Additionally, the board reviewed the Frankland Road solar decommissioning bond estimate and recommended changes that were well received by a representative from Seaboard Solar. It was slated to be finalized at an upcoming meeting.

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