Zoning Proposal Alert
Article 34: Please support the McKenna Working Group Amendment to bring multi-family housing to Lexington
Massive overreach of the state's MBTA Communities Multi-family Zoning Law (Section 3A) requirements:
- In scale: 227 acres, 4+ times of the state compliance requirement of 50 acres;
- In timing: 20 months, three Town Meeting opportunities, ahead of the 12/31/2024 deadline.
- No official unit capacity and gross density analysis as recommended by the state compliance guideline letter. A conservative estimate is 3,405 units, a 28% increase in Lexington's total existing housing stock.
- By-right permits with site plan reviews.
- The town is not allowed to impose size limit in MBTA Communities zones. Smaller-sized (<2,500 sq ft) housings units would unlikely be built.
We support our town's efforts to reach its goals in the Comprehensive Plan, especially the #2 goal on housing. We would support a zoning article that complies with the state mandate and zones 50 acres in Lexington under the MBTA Communities Multi-Family Zoning Law, and articles that would likely yield smaller, more affordable/attainable homes.
However, despite their stated purposes, the proposed bylaws in Articles 33 and 34 are biased toward the interest of developers instead of the town or residents, would unlikely yield the smart growth and housing diversity Lexington needs, and potentially compromise other important goals in the Comprehensive Plan.
In addition, the Planning Board has not released any data or data-backed projections on the potential maximum number of housing units either of the two articles would yield. Without the necessary data or analysis, Town Meeting is not equipped to make informed decisions on the proposed bylaws that would irreversibly affect Lexington.
If you are concerned, elected officials need to hear from you
Select Board members have voted 5-0 to support Article 33 and 2-0-3 (2 for and 3 wait on 3/8/2023) on Article 34. The proposals are scheduled be voted on at Annual Town Meeting on Monday 4/10.
Without the necessary scrutiny, these two articles may pass at the Town Meeting. After which the community would be left with either accepting the new zoning bylaws or a costly referendum.
The Select Board: firstname.lastname@example.org
Your Town Meeting member: email@example.com for Precinct 1, replace "1" with your precinct number
The Planning Board: firstname.lastname@example.org
What is Article 33?
The stated purpose of Article 33 is "to provide incentives for builders to choose to produce developments that provide smaller homes, include affordable homes and create a variety of home building types not readily available in Lexington, rather than conventional subdivisions."
The proposal (motion) would make all multi-family development by-right, same as single family homes, except with a Site Plan Review. In effect, it would allow a developer to purchase and combine any two adjacent conforming lots in Lexington and build up to 8 units by-right.
Simple majority (>50%) votes at Town Meeting are needed to pass.
If Article 33 passes, revising it by making it more restrictive would require a 2/3 super majority vote, while to further enhance multi-family developments would require simple majority (>50%).
Why is Article 33 problematic?
Unanswered questions: Town Meeting Members have not been fully informed of the ramifications of this article. The scale of change this proposal would affect has not been communicated, understood, or digested.
- How many acres of lots in Lexington would currently qualify for this bylaw? (While no official number has been given, one estimate is around 50 acres.)
- Would this bylaw allow a developer to purchase and combine any two adjacent conforming lots and build up to 8 units by-right under the Compact Neighborhood Development (CND) provision? (The answer is "yes" according to our calculation.)
Missing or contradicting info:
- Examples in the presentation are not by-right construction projects, contradicting to the claim that Article 33 would yield that kind of result. For example, the Concord Riverwalk and Lexington Meadow were both approved with special permits, neither is by-right construction.
- Data has shown that developers build to the maximum allowed by the zoning bylaw in Lexington, which is why it is important to understand the multi-family unit capacity and potential single-family size.
- There was talk that further regulations will be written, but Town Meeting is asked to vote without seeing them. This is in addition to the fact that regulations might not be enforceable if they were more restrictive than the proposed zoning bylaw.
- Claims in the Purpose section "Encourage the preservation and minimum disruption of outstanding natural features of open land and minimize impacts on environmentally sensitive areas;" or "Encourage sustainable development through the use of green building practices and low-impact development techniques;" are not backed up with enforceable language in the motion.
Further relaxing already "the most relaxing zoning":
- Data, as well as real estate flyers, have shown that Lexington has more relaxed zoning than neighboring towns. There is no need to relax zoning laws further for Site Sensitive Developments (SSDs) or CNDs to by-right permit. Special Permit is necessary as it allows the town the needed control over aesthetics and creative development solutions that SSDs and CNDs may require.
- SSD would be allowed by right, so that even larger single-family construction than is currently allowed on single family lots or with the existing Special Permit SSD. And by allowing projects with six or fewer dwelling units to merely contribute to the Affordable Housing Trust, assures that no affordable housing will be built in SSDs. With a 15% GFA bonus and allowance to continue to build single-family dwelling units, this allows much larger single-family homes.
- Even with a Special Permit, a significant number of SSDs have not resulted in developments that minimize site disturbance or preserve natural features. Aside from resulting in slightly less grading and preserving a few existing homes, it's been made clear that no other efforts will be made to protect and minimally disturb essential natural, undeveloped, wooded spaces.
- More relaxed zoning in Article 33 would undercut the Open Space Residential Developments bylaw passed last year, making it unattractive and unlikely to be utilized by developers
What is Article 34?
Article 34 is stated to "amend the Zoning Bylaw and Map to create districts for multi-family housing or mixed-use developments by-right". And the description is "This article would comply with M.G.L. c. 40A § 3A by establishing zoning districts on the Zoning Map and amending the Zoning Bylaw to permit multi-family housing and mixed-use developments with an as-of- right approval process."
In the selected zones of 227 acres along the MBTA bus lines, multi-family housing units would be allowed to be built by-right, with site plan review.
Simple majority (>50%) votes at Town Meeting are needed to pass.
If Article 34 passes, revising it by making it more restrictive would require a 2/3 super majority vote, while to further enhance multi-family developments would require simple majority (>50%).
Why is Article 34 problematic?
Overreaching scale: The proposal does not simply "comply" with the state requirement, it exceeded by a multitude of 4+ times: 227 acres vs 50.
Overreaching timeline: The Town Meeting is asked to vote 20 months ahead of the deadline for compliance, 12/31/2024. There is at least one more Annual Town Meeting plus potentially two more Special Town Meetings before then.
- The Planning Board admitted on multiple occasions that the proposal needs more refinement and data analysis, but voted unanimously to bring the article in its current form to Annual Town Meeting now in order to "spur discussion". Town Meeting is a governing body not for discussions but to vote on proposals well reviewed and vetted by the community. What happens if a problematic zoning bylaw is passed?
- The community was assured that any developments would take years to happen, so the potential impact would be spread out over many years. If so, why is it so important the article is being rushed to the Town Meeting now? Additionally why can't incremental changes be made so the results can be analyzed as development happens?
Town Center should not be included: According to the state MBTA communities compliance rules, the town center zone does not count toward meeting the requirement. To include it in Article 34 would give developers the right to build to the maximally allowable mass and density, which has been a consistent building practice in recent years, and minimize input from the town or the community.
Missing data and analysis:
- A Multi-family Unit Capacity Tool ( to "help communities calculate multi-family unit capacity in a consistent, transparent, and data-driven way") was listed in the MBTA Communities Compliance letter. But this data (for the proposed zones individually and in aggregate) has not been made available in any of the forums or communications.
- The scale of change in this proposal has not been communicated, understood, or digested. Though the MBTA communities concept had been introduced last year, the acreage has since been steadily increasing in the Planning Board's presentations, from 82 acres to 227 acres. Town Meeting Member are expected to deliberate and vote on a complex and sweeping zoning change with little data and no impact analysis.
- Based on the Multi-family Unit Capacity Tool, which could yield a maximum density as high as 58 units per acre, it is highly likely that zones of 50 acres can be selected to meet the state requirement for Lexington: 1,231 multi-family units.
- Update: In the latest presentation for Article 34 released on 3/14, it estimates "400-800 new units in 4-10 years" with no details (slide 14). This estimate translates to 1.8-3.5 unit per acre, contradicting the "15 per acre" estimate on slide 11 in the same presentation.
For both Article 33 & 34: what do the town and community lose when dense developments would be built with by-right permits?
In the special permit process, the town and the community have the leverage in shaping a proposed development. Compromises on unit size, height, density, building mass, drainage, sidewalk, tree coverage, and number of affordable or inclusionary units can be made between the developers and the town/community. With by-right development, even with site plan review and regulations, the town cannot deny issuing a permit if the application meets the minimal requirements and does not exceed the maximum limit in the zoning bylaw.
The claim that because by-right construction will be subject to Minor Site Plan Review or Major Site Plan Review, the town and community can have input the same way as special permit is untrue. Site Plan Review can only ensure that the plan meets the minimum requirements in the zoning, the town or community have no right to negotiate anything beyond, anything specific to the circumstances of the individual site.
The claim that "the Special Permit process is so onerous that developers would build conventional subdivisions instead" is not based on facts. Since 2008, when Special Permit Residential Developments for multi-family developments (Balanced Housing) was introduced, 214 housing units have been approved with special permit, vs 49 single-family homes via conventional subdivisions.
The examples of condos in the presentations for Article 33 and Article 34 are built not by right, but through Special Permit (approved by majority of the Planning Board) or Planned Development (approved by the Town Meeting). The only by-right condo example is Lexington Courtyard Place, a 40b construction that has limited green space. Is it the type of development the town and community want to emulate across 227 acres (Article 34) and throughout town (Article 33)?
Are there better ways to address housing issues and encourage smart growth?
Yes, we believe that we can have zoning changes that comply with the state mandate, help address the housing affordability problem, and allow inputs from the town and community in shaping Lexington's smart growth.
A) Article 33:
Vote NO in this Annual Town Meeting.
In the next iteration, one solution is to fold the lower GFA limits and inclusionary units requirements in Article 33 into the existing special permit bylaws. Current Special Permit Residential Development zoning bylaws do not need to be abandoned. They can be refined with the additions of clear expectations and requirements for the number of affordable units and green space, besides building height, living area, mass, and density. Developers have told Town Meeting that explicit requirements give them predictability and help on their planning and designs. With clear requirements, the town and residents would also spend less time in negotiating in every application.
Another solution is to take out Site Sensitive Development (SSD) from by-right permits; for Compact Neighborhood Developments (CND) by-right permits, further refine dimensions, setbacks, open space, affordable units to help yield more attainable units the town needs.
B) Article 34:
Vote NO in this Annual Town Meeting.
In the next iteration, one solution is to
1) select zones of 50 acres that can best comply with the MBTA Communities Multi-Family Zoning Law.
2) The remainder in the 227 acres identified by the Planning Board can be included in a Lexington version of MBTA community: special permit (or by-right permit) overlay district where unit size, density and affordability can be further defined than what is allowed by the MBTA Communities Multi-family Zoning Law, and encourage smaller, and more attainable housing units the town needs.
C) Special Permit yields smarter and more affordable developments than by-right construction:
Wood Village Condos in Carlisle— 18 net-zero possible homes, ranging from 1,800 to 2,400 SF
Concord Riverwalk Condos - 13 smaller homes in net-zero possible Smart Development, ranging from 1,340 to 1,760 SF.
Waterstone assisted living in Wellesley - 20% affordable units (under Wellesley's Residential Incentive Overlay (RIO) district), built by the same developer couldn't include affordable units in Lexington's development, because "Lexington's zoning bylaws does not require affordable units, Wellesley's does.
By-right (or As-Of-Right) vs Special Permit:
A by-right application cannot be denied if it does not violate zoning bylaws.
Special Permit is issued at the discretion of the Planning Board, after public hearings and the town's and community's input on elements such as number of affordable units, building mass, placement of the building(s), sidewalk, conservation of mature trees, open space, traffic mitigation, etc.
Regulations, Minor or Major Site Plan Reviews vs. Zoning Bylaws:
Zoning Bylaw is enforceable. A lax zoning bylaw cannot be salvaged by more restrictive regulations or Site Plan Reviews.
Zoning regulations can supplement the zoning bylaw, but may not contradict or restrict the use that is controlled by the zoning bylaw.
(Minor or Major) Site Plan Reviews are often made after the designs have been completed by engineers and architects. Unless the plan violates the zoning bylaws, even if it may not satisfy all the demands by the town or residents in the site plan review, a by-right permit cannot be denied.
Conforming residential lots:
RO (One-Family Dwelling): 30,000 square feet
RS (One-Family Dwelling) or RT (Two-Family Dwelling) : 15,500 square feet
Article 33 and Article 34 and motions (scroll down to near the bottom)
State requirement for Multi-Family Zoning in MBTA Communities (Section 3A Compliance)
2023 Annual Town Meeting Zoning Amendments (More info on Article 34 here)
Zoning Amendments - MBTA Communities (Deposit of links and months-long outreach and presentations for Article 34)
Table 2 of Section 4.1.1 Schedule of Dimensional Controls