In the charming seaside town of Rockport there’s a rebellion afoot — not just against opening up the community to more affordable housing, but against the entirely sensible new state policy of clustering housing around transit hubs.
The Rockport commuter rail station is currently, well, nothing to brag about. It’s home to a small and partially vacant strip mall, a drugstore, and a shop that sells everything you forgot to bring to the beach plus beer and wine. There’s also a large and largely vacant parking lot.
So last May, at a special town meeting, Rockport adopted new zoning bylaws that would put it into compliance with the Baker administration’s new rules aimed at increasing multifamily housing in the 175 cities and towns that are served by the MBTA.
The plan, which passed by a slim 89-83 margin, called for a 12-acre “transit-oriented village” near the Railroad Avenue commuter rail station — the end of a train line that starts in Boston and covers much of the North Shore. Prior to the passage of the Housing Choice law in 2021, approval of zoning changes would have required a two-thirds town meeting vote.
Some of those on the losing side filed a 10-taxpayer suit earlier this month against the Town of Rockport, the Department of Housing and Community Development, and the attorney general, charging the administration’s regulations — and the entire Housing Choice law — are “unconstitutional.”
Never mind that this summer the town was so short of help to staff local restaurants that some had to curtail their hours and a few never reopened at all. That too is part of the problem the Housing Choice law was designed to alleviate. More high-density, affordable housing could attract workers being priced out of a community many of them grew up in. (According to state statistics, a paltry 3.9 percent of the housing units in Rockport are subsidized.)
The new rules, finalized in August, are expected to create an estimated 283,500 new units of housing statewide — less than the 344,100 originally envisioned under a more sweeping proposal, scaled back by the Baker administration under pressure from smaller communities which are near but don’t actually have train stations in their communities.
In the suit, the Rockport taxpayers allege that in adopting the law the Legislature “has attempted to coerce the municipalities to adopt MBTA zoning districts which it, itself, is not constitutionally empowered to draw. The coercion comes in the form of a statutory denial of access to specific grant programs.”
They’re referring to the teeth in the new rule: MBTA communities that don’t comply will be shut out of the Housing Choice Initiative grant program, MassWorks, which provides grants for infrastructure, and the Local Capital Projects Fund.
Some communities have looked at the grant money being offered and given some serious thought to saying thanks, but no thanks to changing their zoning. There were early rumblings in Newton, Belmont, and Milton along those lines.
The Rockport suit, following the administration’s scaling back of the regulations, represents round two of the rebellion.
Other rebels have appeared along the state’s South Coast, where the $1 billion South Coast Rail project is about 90 percent complete. That means Fall River and other communities along the new route will become part of the MBTA district — and subject to the new housing law. (Voters in Fall River and New Bedford will be asked to ratify participation in the MBTA service area by referendum on Nov. 8.)
But in the no good deed goes unpunished category, that vote has already given birth to the No to Rail campaign. One of its leaders, Nelson Vasquez, told a recent community meeting on the issue that the zoning requirement “removes local control as to what gets built around these train zones.” It doesn’t, but sometimes you can’t keep a bad idea down.
And the town administrator of Kingston, on the Old Colony Line, told the Contrarian Boston newsletter that he’d consider closing down that town’s commuter rail station as a way around the law — although he concedes he doesn’t know if the town has the power to do that.
So, yes, let the silly season begin.
Housing, as critical as it may be to economic growth in this state, is still like waving a red cape in front of NIMBY warriors. Housing clustered around transit can represent a lifeline for local business and a car-free lifestyle for its residents.
“If we are not creating more housing across the state, you will see more businesses and folks go to North Carolina and South Carolina and Texas and Florida,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey told the Globe editorial board. “Our destiny is tied to this happening.”
Healey is a fan of transit-oriented housing, but getting more of it done will indeed be a critical issue for the state’s next governor.
“You use carrots, you use incentives, you use sticks, you use the bully pulpit,” she added.
Right now the “sticks” aren’t very big — just pockets of state money from those three grant programs.
All 175 MBTA communities face a Jan. 31, 2023, deadline for filing an action plan with the state, including “preliminary zoning strategies” and a timeline. It will be the first broad indication of how much pushback the policy will get — and whether the next governor needs to have more “sticks” at the ready.
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