Frequently Asked Questions about the OSRD article
1: Most zoning bylaws require a 2/3rds majority. How come the OSRD bylaw only requires a simple majority?
In January 2021, Governor Baker signed into law a comprehensive bill that included Housing Choice legislation, which is intended to deal with the severe housing shortage in Massachusetts. The belief is that this shortage puts Massachusetts at a competitive disadvantage compared to states where housing is plentiful and less expensive. Zoning changes such as the OSRD that address specific state priorities, such as the need for more multifamily dwellings and the protection of natural resources, fall into the category of zoning laws that require a simple majority.
2: What are the requirements around inclusionary housing in the OSRD and how are these decided?
An inclusionary housing unit has permanent restrictions on household income that control the price of sale or rent over time. Inclusionary is an umbrella term that comprises housing that is intended to be attainable for workforce or other middle income occupants, and housing that meets the state criteria for the subsidized housing inventory. The amount of inclusionary housing in an OSRD is defined in the bylaw language and depends on the size of the development in gross floor area (GFA) and the number of market rate units. The bylaw requires that inclusionary units be substantially similar to market rate units in size, layout, location and access to common areas. Details about household income requirements for these units would be decided in consultation with the Select Board, the Housing Partnership Board, and the Commission on Disability and be incorporated into associated regulations. A number of modifications to the bylaw language around inclusionary housing were made in response to resident suggestions.
3: How would an OSRD be different than our existing Special Permit Residential Development?
Compared to even a few years ago, there have been few recent SPRD developments, and just one in 2021-2022. Those SPRDs that have been constructed incorporate few inclusionary housing units. While there are many factors involved, the high profitability of single family home construction and the comparative ease of their permitting are likely to be factors in the trend away from multifamily housing development in Lexington. It is possible that by requiring site plan review instead of a special permit and by including incentives for the preservation of open space and historic buildings, more developers will find OSRD attractive for certain sites.
4: With Site Plan Review instead of Special Permit review, the detail of the regulations becomes very important– but they haven’t been written yet. How can we be confident the regulations will achieve the intent of the OSRD bylaw?
It would have been ideal to see draft versions of the regulations, and we would like to see that considered for future zoning articles. That said, the development of regulations is a public process in which interested residents can and should play a role. No OSRD will be approved to go forward until the regulations are in place. Some commentators on the OSRD bylaw asked for certain items of high importance that would typically be in regulations be promoted and these are now in the bylaw language we are voting on. An example is the details of responsibility for managing Open Land following occupancy.
5: Why shouldn’t we wait to vote on this article until we can see the proposed regulations?
The question of whether we should wait is a complex one that comes down to your perception of the comparative risk of moving forward versus that of doing nothing right now. We can predict that in the current “hot” housing market if the bylaw is not passed the current trend which favors large single family homes over denser forms of housing is likely to continue. Given LexCHSG’s priorities of addressing the need for attainable housing, preserving open space, and preserving historical buildings–we see the risk as greater in not passing the bylaw.
6: How come OSRDs are not required to be sited near transportation corridors?
Because of the dual priorities of preserving open space and creating new housing, there may be few sites that would initially meet both these criteria. This is different than the expected MBTA Communities zoning which is specifically designed to be close to transportation corridors and will likely have limited open space required.
The problem of suburban sprawl is built into our current zoning laws, and most Lexington residents live in areas where they need or prefer to use a car, including those people who live in most of our current townhouse developments. It is the opinion of LexCHSG that overuse of individual cars should be addressed more broadly if it is seen as a priority for Lexington. This should not be used as a reason to specifically limit the development of needed cluster housing.
In the future, people who live in single family homes or cluster housing may come to see the advantage of using public transportation. Fortunately, because we use buses, routes can change and schedules augmented to respond as demand changes.
7: Wouldn’t the Town have better control over what gets built with a Special Permit process instead of “By Right with Site Plan Review?”
“By right with site plan review” is somewhere in the middle in terms of the amount of control the Town and abutters have to control the character of what gets built. There is more control with a special permit process and less control with single family home development. We currently have Special Permit Residential Development options that a developer can use to build cluster housing, but their use has become increasingly rare in recent years. We should acknowledge that the control we appreciate can be viewed as a disincentive to developers who have the option of building a conventional subdivision on the same site.
8: What would the buildings in an OSRD look like?
Some aspects of an OSRD, such as building height and maximum size of the building are controlled by bylaw language. The bylaw also specifies that there will be design guidelines that will be part of regulations that further constrain building “look-and-feel.” The most likely product of these rules are two-story townhouses arranged in buildings of two to four units each.
9: What was the process for bringing the OSRD article to Town Meeting?
Zoning articles can be brought forward to Town Meeting at the request of the Planning Board, as a petition by a property owner, or through a citizen’s petition. In the case of the OSRD, the article was brought forward at the request of the Planning Board. Feedback from the community was sought in a public hearing on February 23. Residents were reminded in the hearing that suggestions for improvements could also be made by contacting the Planning Board via email. Most suggestions for improvement for the article came from the Historical Commission, Lexington Cluster Housing Study Group, the Sustainable Lexington Committee, and Town Meeting Member Matt Daggett. Some of the suggestions were sent as correspondence to the Planning Board and others were raised orally during the Public Hearing. These suggestions were reviewed during deliberations by the Planning Board on March 2 and March 16. Through the deliberations some but not all of the suggestions made by these contributors were incorporated into the final draft of the article. This is the version which is now published on the Town Meeting page and will be the subject of debate.
10: What is the same and what is different between the approval processes for special permits and by-right with major site plan review?
What is the same:
Both reviews require a detailed analysis of project plans by members of the Town’s professional building and planning staff to assess compliance with bylaws and regulations.
Both reviews require public hearings to present plan details with direct notification to abutters. There is an opportunity for the Planning Board and public to suggest modifications and to ask questions of the applicant.
In both reviews the Planning Board can impose conditions on an approval to ensure the projects meets criteria before occupancy
What is different:
Length of time for Planning Board decisions: Site plan review decisions are rendered in 2 months or less while special permit decisions take 4-6 months or more
Special permits require 4 out of 5 positive votes for approval, site plan review requires 3 out of 5 votes.
Special permits can be rejected based on Planning Board judgment, whereas with by-right zoning, a project that complies with all bylaw and regulation language must be approved
Regulations to support by-right zoning need to be written at a lower level of detail to make the requirements for approval clear to all stakeholders.
The similarities and difference are summarized in the table below: