WESTFORD — As the state grapples with its housing crisis, a future zoning bylaw would allow additional multi-family housing in Westford.
A new state regulation requires communities serviced by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority to update their zoning bylaw to accommodate additional multi-family developments. Westford is one of 177 communities served by MBTA service, as the town is adjacent to Littleton, which hosts a stop on the Fitchburg commuter rail.
The regulation requires these communities to create a zoning district where multi-family housing is allowed as-of-right, where developers may proceed without needing a special permit, variance, zoning amendment, waiver, or any other discretionary approval.
A new advisory committee has been charged with creating parameters around the future bylaw proposal that is slated to be presented to voters during Annual Town meeting next March.
Redeveloping existing parcels
A number of parcels are considered for this new zoning district. Under the current law, the town must zone at least 50 acres of space to allow for multi-family developments. However, 25 acres must be contiguous, and for any zoned area to count towards the town’s total, it must be at least five acres in size.
A number of district locations, such as Technology Park East and Technology Park West are under consideration for inclusion in this future district. These properties, according to Director of Land Use Management Jeffrey Morrissette, are 100% leased but only utilized 20% to 40% of their capacity.
Members of the committee, including Planning Board member Darrin Wizst, expressed support for mixed-use development in the area.
“It makes sense to have a mixed-use [at Technology Park East]. I’d support that. As we look at the overlay district in general, you have more flexibility,” he said during an Aug. 3 meeting.
Other members of the committee, such as member-at-large Samuel Palmer say this type of development could “make it marketable for people that live there.”
Another suggested space for mixed-use development was Nashoba Valley Ski Area, which recently was included in a new commercial recreation zoning bylaw amendment to allow for additional recreation opportunities on the property.
Preliminary concepts for the future of the property would include four-season recreation with multi-family residential properties on the base of the parcel.
Parcels could also be included in this future district even if they will not count towards the state’s requirements.
“You could say ‘we won’t get credit for this [parcel]’ but [including] it would benefit the town,” said Morrissette.
Maintaining open space, some parcels ‘off the table’
Parcels above Route 40 are under consideration by the committee, but committee chair and Select Board member John Cunningham urged caution in maintaining open space in town.
“The town has an interest in maintaining that [open space],” Cunningham told the committee. “I think we should be cautious about that.”
Other properties, like Graniteville Materials on North Main Street, appear to be off the table for redevelopment at this time. Residents, including Sherry Hasche, expressed resistance to future developments at the quarry.
“We have been having problems with the company for months. Our roads won’t bear the amount of traffic. We don’t feel it’s in our best interest to have that many units put up in the quarries,” she said.
Affordability, maximum density and open space
The current regulation does not require a community to impose affordability requirements, however, members of the committee hope to require that 10% of new units meet some affordability requirement.
“I’d like to see the affordability and the amenities,” said Wizst.
Currently, Westford does meet its goal of 10% of its subsidized housing inventory, with 1,069, or 11.97% of 8,929 rental units subsidized, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The state would also require the town to impose a minimum 15-unit-per-acre density per lot for developments under a future bylaw. However, the bylaw could impose a maximum of 15 units per acre per lot, where many on the committee felt it would be an “easier sell for Town Meeting.”
Existing properties, like Bell Westford, have an average of approximately 10 units per acre, according to Morrissette.
Other regulations, such as a four-story maximum building height and 1.5 parking spaces per unit were also considered.
“It’s not Boston, it’s Westford,” said committee member and Zoning Board of Appeals member Scott MacKay.
Compliance with state law
The regulation requires towns to comply with the new regulation, with Attorney General Andrea Campbell advising communities that do not comply could risk civil action and liability under state and federal fair housing laws. The regulation does not provide any mechanism for communities to opt out of the law.
Though the town must create a new zoning district, the town is not obligated to construct any new units once the district is created.
“All we have to do is create the potential for the units. We don’t have to make good on the yield, all we have to do is create the potential,” Morrissette told the committee.
A draft bylaw must be completed and sent to the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities by Dec. 15 for review ahead of Annual Town Meeting in March 2024.