Council Continues Discussion of MBTA 3A Zoning

By Adam Swift

The state’s Section 3A zoning requirements continue to be a hot topic of discussion at Town Council.

By the end of the year, the town will be expected to present an approved multi-family zoning district to the state as an adjacent MBTA community under Section 3A of the state’s Zoning Act.

The purpose of Section 3A is to encourage the production of multi-family housing by requiring MBTA communities to adopt zoning districts where multi-family housing is allowed as of right, and that meet other requirements set forth in the statute.

Tuesday night, town Planning and Community Development Director Rachel Kelly addressed some of the questions raised by councilors about the 3A zoning over the past several weeks.

Councilors and residents who spoke on Tuesday night continued to state that the zoning change, which calls for zones with the potential of building at least 882 multi-family housing units, puts an unfair burden on a town which has a small area and is already densely populated.

Several councilors also spoke out against the pressure the state is putting on Winthrop and other communities in the state to change their zoning against their will.

Council President Jim Letterie said he was ready to vote against approving any Section 3A zoning changes for the town.

“I’ll state again, I’m a no, I’m a no at 800 units, I’m a no at one unit,” said Letterie. “Not because of the number of units, but because we are being told what to do with our town.”

Letterie noted that there is already substantial growth in Winthrop without the MBTA zoning in place.

“We are going to make this number, not because they tell us to, but that is what we are doing,” he said. “That’s the way the CBD (Central Business District), that’s creating x amount of units. We just shouldn’t be told, I think it is unconstitutional and I am a no.”

Precinct 2 Councilor John Munson said the town has to look at the best way to fight back and address the pressure being put on the town by the state.

“There is no way we would be able to afford a new school and all the public safety we would need if we were forced to comply, there’s just no way,” said Munson. “We are at 105 percent capacity now, we would have to build a new school. Where is that $85 million going to come from?

“It doesn’t make sense to be forced into this.”

Several councilors said the town needs more information about the penalties it faces if it does not comply with the zoning. Councilor-at-Large Max Tassinari said the council should meet in executive session with the town attorney to discuss its legal options.

Town Manager Tony Marino said it will be difficult for the town to comply with the 3A guidelines, which is one reason why the town drafted a letter to Governor Maura Healey asking for relief from the guidelines.

“If you’re going to comply, you need to be at a minimum (classified) as an adjacent small town, or you are going to push back and go the other route,” said Marino. “But that is really the only way it is going to work is if we all push back. Town managers, when I was in my prior town three years ago when this first came out, we all wrote letters and pushed back.

“This one size fits all doesn’t work.”

Kelly addressed some of the questions about the timeline for the zoning changes, as well as the potential penalties the town faces if it doesn’t comply with the state.

According to information provided by Kelly, MBTA communities which do not comply with Section 3A would not be eligible for funds from the state’s Housing Choice Initiative, the Local Capital Projects Fund, and the Massworks Infrastructure Program. In addition, the communities would risk liability under state and federal fair housing laws.

Also, compliance with the law may be taken into consideration when applying for a number of planning and land use grants through the state.

Kelly noted that there is currently not a way to apply for a variance from the state, and that communities that fail to comply with the multi-family housing districts are subject to civil enforcement action.

Councilors also raised questions about whether the town needs to use the zoning districts drawn up in a previously completed study. Kelly stated that work done in 2023 was a small-scale grant used to collect baseline data and create a starting point for Winthrop’s 3A efforts, and that the zones were not set in stone.

In her presentation, Kelly stated that existing multi-family units in the town would not count towards compliance in any of the proposed districts. She stated that the town must have zoning that allows the required units to exist within the chosen 3A districts, regardless of how many units exist there currently.

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