By Adam Swift
There was a full house at Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting, with many residents, as well as councilors, raising concerns about a potential major change in zoning in Winthrop.
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.
But both councilors and residents who spoke on Tuesday night stated 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.
Towards the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the council approved sending a letter drafted by Council President Jim Letterie, with some revisions, to Governor Maura Healey and other state leaders to outline those concerns the town has with the 3A zoning requirements.
Letterie said there are still many questions about the 3A zoning, such as if the town could be fined if it doesn’t comply, or what grants the state may take off the table for noncompliance.
“Everything I have read, there is nothing definitive,” said Letterie. “But from every information I have right now, I am dead against this, I want to be clear about that. But as a council, we have to make sure we are doing what is best for Winthrop, and I don’t think this is best for Winthrop.”
Letterie and several others noted several times that from what they have seen in the state requirements, there are no benefits to the town. He added that Town Manager Tony Marino and councilors Joseph Aiello and Suzanne Swope helped give input in the letter he wants to send to the governor.
The letter notes that Winthrop needs to maintain its identity as a welcoming, small community of 1.6 square miles on the shores of Boston Harbor.
“Demands to build more housing via the MBTA Communities 3A zoning mandate are at odds with one another,” the draft of the letter states. “While we agree that we could add some housing in a planned and organized manner, 882 units are beyond our capacity.”
The letter then goes on to list the town’s concerns with the zoning and requests for special consideration from the governor’s office.
The letter requests that Winthrop be reclassified under the zoning requirement so that it would only have to provide zoning for allowing for 5 percent of the total housing stock in town, rather than the 10 percent at which it is currently classified.
In the letter, Letterie also requests an extension of one year for approval of the zoning changes to Dec. 31 of 2025, in line with the request to be reclassified as an adjacent (MBTA) small community.
This extension would give the town council, planning board, and consultant time to analyze the town’s current housing stock.
Given the existing dense neighborhoods, limited land mass, and flooding issues in the town; Letterie requested that the minimum size of the necessary multi-family zoning district be reduced from 12 to 10 acres.
“This would allow us the flexibility to meet the unit requirement without unfairly burdening one or two neighborhoods,” stated Letterie.
In the letter, Letterie also noted that Winthrop has an underutilized MBTA bus service that is being reduced in the upcoming MBTA bus route changes that were proposed last year.
“With 25 percent of our population being senior citizens, and many unable to get to the existing and soon to be modified bus stops, we request the flexibility to create this zoning further away from our limited MBTA bus routes,” stated Letterie.
Also noted is that there are very limited development and redevelopment opportunities in the town, and that the town’s narrow streets make it difficult to accommodate additional on-street parking.
“Unlike other communities, Winthrop is unique,” Letterie continued. “We have additional parking and risk from MWRA and Logan Airport. For example, our proximity to Logan Airport causes air and noise pollution.”
In addition, Letterie stated there are also risks associated with traffic and potential emergency response to the MWRA facility at Deer Island.
“Given everything listed above, we reiterate that Winthrop is unique and has been placed in the wrong category as an adjacent community,” Letterie continued. “Winthrop is a small sliver of land threatened by population, rising tides, aging infrastructure, high density, and a limited commercial tax base. Please consider our request for a new classification and a reduction in the MBTA district’s egregious requirement as we are truly a unique community with challenges that do not fit the one-size-fits-all of the MBTA communities 3A guideline offered by the Commonwealth.”
Letterie said he sees the letter as a first step with addressing the issues with the 3A zoning.
“Instead of being the bully, we try to do the right thing and have the state make allowances for us and see how this goes,” said Letterie. “I am hoping the governor will take this seriously and have some sort of response to this.”
Council Vice President Hannah Belcher said she believed the letter did a good job hitting all the points that have been brought up by residents in meetings and in emails over the past several weeks regarding 3A.
Councilor-at-Large Rob DeMarco said he is a firm no on approving the 3A zoning for the town, however, he said the letter is a very respectful first step to send to the governor.
Precinct 2 Councilor John Munson said he believes the most important part of the letter is the request for a delay of the 3A zoning plan and approval for the town.
“When you are asking for a reclassification, you are asking for the 882 (units) to be reduced to 441, and that is still a lot,” said Munson. “I would really press home the delay part, because quite frankly, I think that might be the best strategy. If we can delay, we don’t have to be fighting lawsuits with the state, we don’t have to be losing money and opportunities from the state, but at the same time, we don’t have to comply.”
Aiello said he believes the letter takes the high ground of trying to get some accommodations, without the town having to give up any of its options.