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With a new requirement to build housing near train stations, towns brace for density — and drama

Jason Shaw, who chairs the Rockport Planning Board, at the commuter rail station.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

When Jason Shaw looks around his adopted hometown of Rockport, he sees a problem: too many people like him.

At 68, Shaw is a retired lawyer from upstate New York who first bought a vacation home here in 2003. Ten years later, he and his wife moved to the North Shore town full time. Today, he chairs the Planning Board in Rockport — where the typical house sells for more than $750,000 and what few rental buildings exist mostly cater to the elderly.

“When you go downtown you see a lot of slow, shuffling steps, a lot of gray hair, old-heads,” he jokes. “This has become a retirement community.”


Now he hopes a new state law may help breathe some new life into the place.

It’s a measure signed by Governor Charlie Baker in February that requires communities, like Rockport, that have an MBTA train station to revise their zoning to allow apartment construction within a half-mile of those stops. It’s one of the most ambitious housing laws to clear Beacon Hill in years, but ten months later many details — like how much housing, exactly how close to the T, and how much should be affordable — remain unclear.

The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development was expected to release those details earlier this year, before the 175 communities affected went to their fall town meetings, where such zoning changes are often voted on.

Instead, town planners and developers alike are still waiting to see what the new law will actually require — and eyeing sites that might make sense to build on. DHCD said last week that it expects to release draft guidelines by mid-December for public comment, and finalize them early next year.

The law reflects one way in which suburban towns have become the front lines of Greater Boston’s housing crisis — which housing advocates say is driven largely by new construction that has lagged population growth for decades.


Boston and other urban communities — where the vast majority of new housing has been built in recent years — already have projects that will qualify under the new law, and will be little affected by it. But suburban towns that have clung to large minimum lot sizes and other zoning rules that hinder dense development will now be compelled to permit at least one project of scale — new supply that supporters say could help to dampen prices and rents across the region.

And while towns can still decide where that project will go, a rule like this coming down from Beacon Hill strengthens the hand of those who lobby for new housing at the local level, said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which advises cities and towns on planning and development issues.

“If you knew the community would be healthier with more multifamily development, and you can’t get it through (town meeting), you would cheer, too,” he said. “For them, the local planners, it’s a real boon if the state requires it.”

In Rockport, where Jason Shaw (above) chairs the Planning Board, a typical house sells for more than $750,000. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Still, the usual concerns about apartment development are likely to roar into public debate. Traffic, a strain on schools and public services, even increased crime are fears often lobbed at proposed buildings in some towns.

Paul Halkiotis, the planning and economic development director in Norwood, is anticipating opposition.


“This is going to be very controversial, and I’m going to be in the middle of it,” he said. “I’m not looking forward to it.”

His town, south of Boston along the Commuter Rail’s Franklin line, has three stations, though it’s unclear if all three will require new zoning. Already residents who think their land may skyrocket in value because of the denser development allowances have reached out to Halkiotis, as have developers with ideas for sites. And some residents have told him they worry more rentals could change the town’s character.

“We just have more questions than answers, right now,” he said.

One thing that’s clear: Projects built under the new law will mostly be market rate. Most expect the new guidelines will require 10 to 15 percent of units set aside at below-market rents, with the rest priced at whatever the local markets will bear. That should help spark more development, said Jesse Kanson-Benanav, executive director of housing advocacy group Abundant Housing MA.

“The goal here is net, new housing,” he said.“ There’s certainly a need for affordable housing. But we also need housing for everyone, at all income levels.”

And developers, especially those that prioritize “transit-oriented development,” are already scouting locations.

Michael Roberts is the regional senior vice president for development for national apartment giant AvalonBay Communities, which operates about 10,000 apartments in Greater Boston. It has built projects in Boston, like a 38-story tower next to North Station, but also precisely the type of suburban projects the MBTA law aims to produce, in towns like Norwood, Hingham, and Cohasset.


It sees more opportunity coming with the new law.

“We’re always looking for new sites adjacent to commuter rail,” said Roberts. “We still think people are going to return to the office (in downtown Boston), and once you get out into the suburbs, that’s a great price point.”

Up in Rockport, Planning Board chair Shaw isn’t waiting for the state guidelines. Like many communities, he and his board have already drawn up a district around their MBTA station they hope will satisfy the state and entice developers. So far, most residents are unaware of the changes that are coming down the line, he said.

“What we’re looking for is young people, who maybe don’t make a ton of money, but aren’t below the poverty line either,” he said. “They (the state) want to allow young people to live in the community. And I’m all for that.”