SAUGUS — The town’s plans to comply with the state’s MBTA Communities Law remain entirely unclear, setting it apart from other communities in the area, including one of its neighbors. Thus far, the town has failed to explain the details of how a new zoning district permitting multifamily zoning by-right will come to be.
The law requires communities with access to rapid transit, or those adjacent to communities with rapid transit, to create the new zoning districts, where a developer would not need to navigate a complex permitting process to build multifamily housing. Because it sits adjacent to Lynn, which is served by the Commuter Rail, Saugus is required to do so by the end of December 2024. In an action plan submitted to the state earlier this year, town officials said public outreach, in part through Planning Board meetings, would begin in October 2023.
With November nearly complete and no Planning Board meetings scheduled until December, it remains unclear how the town plans to comply with the law.
If Saugus decides to ignore the issue and fails to comply, it will face stiff penalties from the state. To start, the town would be ineligible for several grant programs, including those from which it has previously received funding and at least one that is integral to the Housing Authority’s budget. Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s office could also sue Saugus if it fails to comply with the law.
Given Town Meeting’s history of anti-multifamily-zoning tendencies and the town’s recent moves to restrict development, any plan to permit multifamily housing, including what seems to be the most dreaded word in town — “apartments” — would face an uphill battle with the legislative body.
The town’s planning and economic development director, Chris Reilly, referred the comment to Town Manager Scott Crabtree. Crabtree did not return multiple requests for comment on the specifics of the town’s plan or when his office plans to make it available for the public.
No plan was made public during Planning Board meetings in October and November.
Saugus’ failure to publicize a plan at this point stands in contrast to many other towns in the area. Swampscott has held several public forums seeking community input, and Marblehead has also held a pair. Wakefield, which borders Saugus, has a plan posted on its website and a webpage dedicated solely to explaining the compliance process and the law itself.
Joe Vecchione, a former Town Meeting member who is an architect, wrote to the Board of Selectmen in August seeking information about when the town planned to unveil its compliance plan. At the time, the letter was referred to Crabtree.
During an August board meeting, Crabtree made only vague remarks, indicating that the planning department and outside counsel were “aware” of the law.
“It keeps evolving and changing. Communities are trying to adjust to it,” Crabtree said. “People have obviously been concerned about the amount of housing and the people that are being placed in some of the housing throughout the state.”
A copy of the action plan already submitted by the town indicates that town officials will “explore creating new zoning district(s) and/or overlay district(s) in appropriate location(s)” and “assess existing development projects and pipeline projects.” The plan indicates that officials are seeking consistency with existing zoning and neighborhoods and intend for any plan to fit within the overall goals of the Business Highway Sustainable Development Zoning District adopted along Route 1 several years ago.
Still, any plan would likely face stiff opposition.
During a forum last month, a pair of sitting selectmen, including Vice Chairman Jeff Cicolini, expressed concern about development. Michael Serino said apartments have “too much of an impact on the town.”
“We have to take another hard look at what we’ve done in town, especially on Route 1,” Serino said.
Town Meeting has reflected those concerns.
At Town Meeting in 2022, members voted to cap the height of new developments along Route 1, a move that followed the town’s instituted moratorium on the construction of new housing years prior.
At Town Meeting this year, members also narrowly voted down Vecchione’s proposal to implement a zoning overlay district in Cliftondale Square, which would have permitted new housing. Getting any plan over the finish line would likely require significant communication with members ahead of time and a focus on the consequences of non-compliance.
In an email Monday, Vecchione said he was “disappointed though not surprised” by the lack of public discussion in Saugus thus far.
“I’ve been pretty consistent in my plea for proactive planning in Saugus, and what I’ve seen and heard (or haven’t) thus far is an example of an approach I’ve been critical of in the past,” he said. “I know more than most the importance and challenge of socializing zoning articles before Town Meeting and the public.”
“My hope is, given the urgency of action needed, that the town engages and educates the public regarding the MBTA Communities Law as soon as possible and that we ultimately put forth zoning changes that don’t just check the box for the satisfaction of the state but actually (do) something in enhancing our built environment,” he added. “I hope that the decision-makers in our town have the foresight and vision to be creative and recognize these opportunities.”