Attorney General Andrea Campbell speaks to reporters on June 29, 2023. Photo by Chris Lisinski | State House News Service

Even as she takes Milton to court for flouting the MBTA Communities zoning law, Attorney General Andrea Campbell would like to tamp down murmurings that a rebellion is on its way.

Though Campbell and housing advocates publicly consider Milton to be anomalous in rejecting a sweeping housing law requiring multifamily zoning near public transit, the attorney general’s suit aims to establish the state’s ultimate power to create and enforce the law before any other cities or towns start to bridle.

“The bright spots are – and frankly this needs to win the day – Milton is an outlier,” Campbell said on The Codcast, CommonWealth Beacon’s weekly podcast. “Most communities are coming into compliance. The rapid transit communities are in compliance, all of them. The only one that isn’t is Milton. And so we have continued to work with Milton every step of the way, and then obviously kept my word in terms of suing this municipality because they choose not to come into compliance. Because it’s my job to enforce the law as it is.”

Most communities are willingly complying with the law, Campbell notes, highlighting a recent interaction with a Dedham official working on compliance. Only two towns – Milton and Holden – are considered “non-compliant” by the state, with Milton the only town to deliberately blow past its deadline to submit a zoning plan earlier this year.

Holden, along with 128 other commuter rail communities and adjacent communities, faces a December 31, 2024, deadline to submit plans to the state for evaluation. After Campbell brought suit against Milton, Holden’s town manager reiterated that the town does not intend to comply.

As a former Boston city councilor, Campbell says she understands the importance of local control, but there are limits.

“In some contexts that may be true that you might be able to say no at the local level, but it’s probably rare,” she said. “The state trumps. And it’s as simple as that.”

Milton argues that the guidelines of the MBTA Communities zoning law lay out zoning district rules in a way that the town claims are “arbitrary and capricious, unconstitutional, and otherwise unlawful.” The town also claims that the law does not give Campbell the authority to enforce it.

As far as Campbell’s office is concerned, the state is on steady ground legally. Beyond that, the lawsuit serves as a moral corrective to discriminatory housing policy, she said.

“What I love about this law is not just that it’s mandatory, and that the Legislature was crystal clear on that, and that we have to enforce it,” said Campbell, the first Black woman to hold the state AG post. “When you think about the history of housing laws in Massachusetts, in this country, they have been exclusionary, excluding certain people from living in a certain community, including myself and folks before me, cutting off their ability to not only choose where they would want to live, but also the ability to buy a home and build wealth for their families. This law allows us to focus on housing as a tool to close the racial wealth gap, to create more inclusive communities, and it is very inclusionary in its intent. That’s a beautiful thing that I think sometimes gets lost in the conversation.”

In challenging the lawsuit, and their “rapid transit” designation, Milton argues that the trolley system that extends through its neighborhoods from the Ashmont end of the Red Line in Dorchester is not comparable to the subway system. Milton officials have indicated they will probably challenge the town’s designation and move to develop a rezoning plan that could theoretically yield less than half of the units called for as a rapid transit community.

The attorney general, a 41-year-old Mattapan resident, was familiar with the infrastructure in question well before she took the state’s highest prosecutorial post. The state housing office, in Campbell’s view, clearly established the Mattapan Trolley Line as rapid transit with plenty of notice.

“Milton, of course, like every other rapid transit community, has been fully aware of what that is,” she said of the trolley line. “They receive funding from the state and from various sources to support that system. It’s a public good that they have access to. I have access to it as well, living in Mattapan, and have taken the trolley and used the trolley to get to Ashmont, to go downtown. I think that question has been asked and answered. And I think people forget that they are going to get significant improvements to that line. And as they build more housing on the line, there’s more development actively happening. It is readily available to folks to take and of course to be a transit-oriented community.”

Her sharp focus on housing is somewhat of a departure from her campaign promises, Campbell notes. She ran pledging to create a gun violence prevention unit, a reproductive justice unit, an elder justice unit, and a police accountability unit, all of which Campbell says are up and running.

A new housing unit, announced last year, is still getting off the ground. It is designed to work with municipal leaders, stakeholders, community-based organizations, developers, and others trying to bring about “more housing that is affordable and accessible to communities,” Campbell said.

Though she won’t get the springtime fast-track at the state’s highest court to decide the thorny issues of state and local zoning control that she asked for, the full Supreme Judicial Court will consider the suit later this year.

“We, of course, wanted a shorter time frame, just so that there’s no confusion out there,” Campbell said. “And this can have the effect of creating or attempting to create confusion. The court put that off until October. That’s fine. It’s still enough time. And so we want to continue to make our arguments that we have the authority, one, to enforce this law. The second is that it’s mandatory. Third, Milton must come into compliance. And then we’re gonna continue to work with them on doing just that, while not making this an adversarial process.”

This article first appeared on CommonWealth Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

In Milton Dispute, Campbell Will Work with the Town, but ‘the State Trumps’

by CommonWealth Beacon time to read: 4 min