Image courtesy of Chelmsford Planning Board

Responding to the MBTA Communities law requiring suburbs to loosen restrictions on multifamily development, the Chelmsford Planning Board adopted a strategy specifically to minimize additional housing development.

Board members reassured an overflow crowd of residents that they ruled out parcels that could accommodate a large development, including a 21-acre office park owned by The Davis Cos. near the junction of Routes 3 and 495.

“If the state is telling me to do something, I’m going to comply, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to make it easy to develop,” Planning Board member Annita Tanini said at the Feb. 28 public hearing. “It’s making as many barriers to entry as possible.”

Instead of rezoning vacant parcels that could accommodate housing projects, the board recommended a section of Route 110 already built out with condominium complexes under individual ownership.

The board also recommends rezoning the former University of Lowell-Massachusetts West campus, where developer Trammell Crow already has begun construction of a 340-unit housing development .

“We also wanted to look at areas that were already highly developed,” board member Chris Lavallee told residents at the hearing, which was continued until March 13. “The reason why is because the likelihood of them being developed in the short term is extremely low.”

As an MBTA-adjacent community located next to commuter rail-served Lowell and Billerica, Chelmsford is required to rezone at least 50 acres where multifamily housing is allowed by-right to allow potential creation of 1,477 housing units, representing 10 percent of its existing housing stock.

The board estimates only 787 housing units could be built under the rezoning plan they’re recommending, subject to a Town Meeting vote this spring.

Still, the board’s strategy generated a backlash at the Feb. 28 hearing. Some residents urged the town to defy the state-mandated rezoning, citing the town of Milton’s recent referendum to overturn its own MBTA zoning law. Some condominium owners said they fear their property values will be diminished, or even taken by eminent domain by the state to build affordable housing.

The Davis Companies owns four parcels at 191, 195, 199 and 201 Riverneck Road spanning 21 acres that are part of the former Mercury Systems campus, including a pair of vacant office buildings and vacant land. Lavallee told residents that the Boston developer reached out to the town asking that the properties be included in an MBTA Communities zoning district.

“If we zoned areas that are open areas or undeveloped and underutilized, like Riverneck Road, those areas are likely to be developed in the short term,” Lavallee said. “We didn’t want that.”

The state Executive Office of Housing and Liveable Communities is responsible for reviewing and approving rezoning plans for 130 cities and towns including Chelmsford that face a Dec. 31 deadline to submit plans complying with the MBTA Communities law. The office did not respond to a message seeking comment on Chelmsford’s proposal.

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell filed suit against Milton after its referendum rejected a rezoning plan approved a Town Meeting last fall.

The board’s guidelines for developments in the new zones are designed to encourage low-density development, including maximum 3-story building heights, maximum 200-foot building lengths and a maximum 24 units per building.

Planning Board members cited concerns about overdevelopment and additional educational costs in pursuing a strategy that responds to the letter of the MBTA Communities law, if not the spirit.

Nearly 83 percent of Chelmsford’s housing inventory consists of owner-occupied housing units, according to U.S. census figures. The town’s median single-family home sales price in January was $578,500, according to data compiled by The Warren Group, publisher of Banker & Tradesman.

Chelmsford ‘Making as Many Barriers’ as Possible to MBTA Zoning

by Steve Adams time to read: 2 min