Greg Reibman

Milton voters resoundingly rejected their town’s MBTA Communities Act compliance plan last week, putting the town at risk of losing significant state grant funding and susceptible to legal action, including possible charges of violating antidiscrimination and fair housing laws.

Given that no one seems to have formulated a Plan B in advance of the referendum, it will likely take months, perhaps years, to see how this all plays out in Milton.

But the results of the Milton vote will likely impact dozens of other Eastern Massachusetts communities that are finalizing their own MBTA Communities compliance plans right now ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline.

And you certainly can’t blame elected and appointed municipal officials in those other communities if they’re feeling a little timid, having witnessed what just happened in Milton and, before that, in Newton.

In retrospect Newton may have dodged a bullet.  In October, the city council was on the verge of endorsing an ambitious city-wide upzoning that went far beyond its MBTA Communities mandate. Then came a firestorm of community backlash and a bitter November election, leading to the ouster of three incumbent city councilors and the defeat of one candidate for an open seat who all supported the “go big” plan.

The November election results – and the threat by opponents to challenge the outcome in a referendum, just as Milton opponents successfully did – lead Newton’s lame duck city council to slash the “go big” plan. By December, Newton’s plan shrunk from 12 village centers to six. Building heights and density were reduced in many of the remaining villages too.

Incentives to Go Small

Newton’s compromise is now, along with nearly 30 other municipalities, awaiting state approval. (Salem’s application has been approved and Lexington has been given conditional approval.)  That’s better than having it subject to a referendum, perhaps, unless you share the concerns of many that the compromised version is going to result in little actually being built in Newton due to, well, all the compromises.

But what would you do if you were a city councilor, select board or planning board member right now drafting your compliance plan in one of the remaining 100-plus MBTA communities?

Do you risk state grants and legal headaches if you go big and possibly have it overturned in a referendum? And if you’re an elected official, are you also worrying about losing your seat if you advocate for anything more than minimum compliance or any compliance at all?

The resistance to changing zoning to allow for more housing density and diversity has existed for decades. Meanwhile, a shortage of places to live is crushing employees’ spirits, crushing our economy and leading to exodus of talent to other states.

MBTA Communities is only one part of the remedy needed to create more housing. But the law was only going to truly be a success if all 177 communities in Eastern Massachusetts each did their share to combat our region’s housing shortage by unlocking new housing opportunities.

Not Working as Designed

By design, MBTA Communities was supposed to immunize local electeds from residential resistance by allowing them to say, “Don’t blame us, the state is making us do this.”

But that’s not what’s happening.  Local leaders are intimidated when we need them to be willing put careers on the line in order to reverse decades of exclusionary zoning laws and make our communities more affordable, welcoming and vibrant.

Of course, it’s not fair to ask local leaders to put their careers at risk if we sit on the sidelines. The business community needs the courage to have their backs.

We need to stand with those who are making hard, politically risky decisions on election days, at town meetings, before city councils and planning boards, and most importantly in our daily conversations. We need to form coalitions with housing advocates, transportation advocates and environmentalists who share our goal to create new smaller, multifamily homes for people in all stages of their lives.

And we need more folks with courage to roll up their sleeves and do the work needed to get Massachusetts building.

Greg Reibman is president and CEO of the Charles River Regional Chamber, serving Newton, Needham, Watertown and Wellesley and writes a free, twice-weekly newsletter on business topics.

Milton’s Vote Shows Local Officials Need Help to Make Zoning Reforms

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min