January 31, 2024 By Carol Britton Meyer
In response to a proposal to rezone a parcel near the intersection of French and Hobart streets currently used as a contractor’s lot to by-right multi-family housing to help meet a new “MBTA Communities” requirement for cities and towns served by commuter rail, ferry, bus, or subway service, dozens of residents participated in a Zoom Planning Board meeting Monday night to listen to the details and to air their concerns.
The proposal calls for a potential 2-1/2 story, 120-unit building on that parcel, which is currently zoned residential and has an historic, nonconforming industrial use, according to Community Planner Emily Wentworth. The Hingham Shipyard areas with existing residential developments are also proposed for rezoning. (See details below). Town Meeting will have the final say.
While Hingham and other affected communities won’t be required to actually build that many units, they must have the potential to do so or risk losing certain significant state grants.
This was the third such discussion in January. At one point, there were 95 people signed into what amounted to a three-hour meeting, including the several Planning board members and staff.
“We’ve received lots of letters and emails from residents,” Chair Kevin Ellis said. “We welcome community feedback.”
While there have been several public meetings about the MBTA Communities requirement, residents of French Street and the surrounding area said many didn’t know of what is referred to as the “French/Fort Hill Street” proposal until this week.
French Street resident John Ferris said he couldn’t imagine “such a monstrosity” in the neighborhood and asked why the town was planning a Town Meeting vote so early — in April — regarding the multi-family zoning proposal.
“We’re not rushing, “Ellis explained. “This is the only Town Meeting before the Dec. 31 deadline [to submit a District Compliance Application to the state]. I understand [neighbors’] frustration, but the board is not looking to hurt anyone or to force anything.
We’re trying to consider what’s best for the town — you [all] are part of the town, and we are taking your comments to heart.”
A way to address state’s housing crisis
The MBTA Compliance legislation was enacted as part of the Jan. 2021 economic development bill signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker as a way to address the state’s growing housing crisis.
Hingham is required to adopt by-right multi-family zoning within one or more overlay districts/sub-districts consisting of a minimum of 50 acres — with a minimum capacity of 1,490 units — under this new state zoning requirement. This number is based on 15 percent of the town’s housing units acording to the 2020 census.
The criteria also includes a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre and that 75 percent of the district or sub-district(s) be situated not more than one-half mile from a commuter rail, subway, or bus station or a ferry terminal — in this case, in Hingham or a transit station in an adjacent town — the Cohasset or East Weymouth commuter rail stations. The remaining 25 percent (12.5 acres) of the required acreage can be located outside of the half-mile radius of any station.
“This [French/Fort Hill Street proposal] would still be within a reasonable distance (a 2- to 3-minute drive) from two transit stations,” according to Wentworth.
Weathervane Court resident John Deeley thinks there should be more of a focus on building community in Hingham, “so people feel like they’re part of the town.”
In addition, he suggested that a number of commercial properties in the area of the Beal Street Stop & Shop should also be considered. “We should be trying to add housing ownership opportunities, not rental housing, for those of middle income, the handicapped, and seniors.”
Lincoln Street resident Laraine Finneran said while the congestion in the area is already “crazy,” perhaps it’s time for people to get used to the idea of MBTA Community zoning.
‘This kind of initiative will only get bigger’
“The government of Massachusetts is now regulating how our towns will be as part of wanting everyone to live together,” she said. “This [kind of initiative] will only get bigger. This is only the first of many where the state will be telling us what we have to rezone and do in our town.”
Stonegate Lane resident Jonathan Roth spoke a number of times in opposition of the proposed French/Fort Hill sub-district.
“This feels a lot like just checking a box. I’m disappointed.”
Manatee Road resident Mel Hernandez said he feels the same way. “The neighbors were blindsided by this. There are a lot of open-ended variables, and more thought should be give to other options.”
A Woodlock Road resident with three young chidren called the proposal “truly horrific from a community feel and financial standpoint. It would hurt the neighborhood and town overall,” she said.
Brookfield Way resident Tim Perkins said it feels as though the MBTA Communities legislation “is really hemming us in. . . . I think we can have a better outcome that still meets the spirit of the law.”
Wentworth explained that four existing residential Hingham Shipyard developments and another nearby parcel exceed the 75 percent minimum requirement (at 85 percent) and also talked about the proposal to create a French/Fort Hill Street overlay sub-district to fulfill the remaining 15 percent requirement. This housing cannot be age-restricted and must be suitable for families with children.
All sub-districts combined would generate a zoning district unit capacity of about 1,500 units.
Some moderate-priced units could be included
There’s an ability but not a requirement to include some moderate-priced units in MBTA Community zoning projects, which would be “upscale market rate housing and would [potentially] require only 10 to 15 percent affordability,” according to Wentworth’s PowerPoint presentation: “Many beautiful projects in Hingham have affordable units.”
Wentworth noted that any MBTA Communities project would be subject to local regulations and that a new residential use of the French/Fort Hill property “may be less intrusive on the adjoining streets and homes than the current heavy truck traffic and would be more environmentally friendly.”
Some residents, however, feel that the current use would be less intrusive.
“[This parcel] abuts a large area of open space that would provide recreational opportunities for children [if the property were to be developed] and also would provide a buffer for the neighbors,” Wentworth said.
Other than the current owner’s home next door, the nearest single-family house would be more than 400 feet from any such development, she noted.
Neighbors air concerns
Concerns voiced during the meeting and in the letters from residents relate to already heavy traffic in the area and impacts on the neighborhood and property values that could result from such a large building, among others.
When a number of residents asked if information about the other possible sub-districts that were not recommended was available, Wentworth encouraged those seeking more details or with questions to contact her at Town Hall. “I’m happy to talk with anyone about the myriad options we looked at,” she said.
While Hingham’s current proportion of permitted multi-family housing units is higher than many other communities — and much of it is located within close proximity of an MBTA service area — the town’s current zoning doesn’t allow these units “as of right.” These existing developments were permitted either through the special permit or comprehensive permit process.
“Out of the station areas available in Hingham, only the radius around the MBTA ferry terminal at the Shipyard provides sufficient acreage that qualifies as ‘developable land’ under the state law to satisfy the majority of Hingham’s minimum size district and minimum unit capacity requirement,” Wentworth said.
The already developed Avalon Residences, 319 Lincoln St.; the Hewitts Landing Condominiums, 154 HMS Staynor Drive; 91 multi-family units at 111 Fitzroy Drive; and Avalon at the Hingham Shipyard, 152 Shipyard Drive; and The Cove residential development at 350 Beal St., would potentially be part of the same district, while the French/Fort Hill proposed overlay district would be separate but count as fulfilling the remainder of the 50-acre requirement.
According to Wentworth, this area was chosen for potential rezoning rather than a commercial or industrial parcel because the town is trying to preserve the existing tax base and to also expand the number of commercial uses in town.
Also, state law doesn’t allow many types of properties to count toward district acreage, including wetlands, conservation or park land, state- or town-owned property, and institutional land such as private schools.
Hingham in interim compliance
Hingham is currently in interim compliance but is required to develop an action plan soon for related zoning amendments and submit it to the state in order to maintain interim compliance — and also a District Compliance Application by Dec. 31 — or risk losing significant state grants and possible legal action by the attorney general’s office for non-compliance. Town Meeting approval is required to remain in compliance.
There have been staff discussions with representatives of the Democratic Town Committee, the World Affairs Group at the Center for Active Living (formerly called the Senior Center), and owners of parcels that may be rezoned.
The town also received a technical services grant that was used to hire Bohler Engineering to compete a draft compliance model for Hingham and a Housing Choice Grant to complete an economic feasibility analysis to increase inclusionary zoning (a planning tool that requires or encourages a portion of new housing units in a development to be affordable to people with low to moderate incomes).
For additional information about the By-Right Multifamily Zoning Requirements for MBTA Communities, visit the Community Planning Department webpage at https://www.hingham-ma.gov/1013/MBTA-Communities.
The Planning Board will make a recommendation on the warrant article, and the Select Board will also weigh in. The Advisory Committee’s recommendation will appear in the warrant for the April Town Meeting, which has the final say on all warrant articles.