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Lexington seizes opportunity to pass inclusive zoning reforms

On Wednesday night, Town Meeting passed zoning reforms that pave the way for more multifamily housing in the wealthy suburb.

Bright sun cast the shadow of a tree on the historic Buckman Tavern in Lexington Center.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

For too long, Lexington has been out of reach for too many people. The median home price is around $2 million, and cheaper multifamily housing is scarce. Unsurprisingly, according to the most recent estimates by the US Census Bureau, the Boston suburb’s median household income was just over $200,000 — more than double that of Massachusetts overall. And while the majority-white town has seen a significant increase in its Asian population over the last decade, Black and Latino families only make up 1.2 percent and 2.2 percent of Lexington households, respectively.

Those demographics are a reflection of the town’s history of exclusionary housing policies — a history that Lexington’s Town Meeting finally confronted late Wednesday night. By a nearly two-thirds margin, Town Meeting members passed zoning changes that would allow for more multifamily housing to be built across the suburb. It’s a major step toward building denser housing that is likely to be lower in cost than what most of Lexington currently has to offer, and other municipalities in Greater Boston should follow Lexington’s example.


Inspired by the state’s MBTA Communities law — which required cities and towns that are served by the T to promote the development of denser and more transit-oriented housing — Lexington’s planning board spent a year and a half carefully drafting the zoning reforms that Town Meeting passed Wednesday night. It was a process that diligently considered residents’ input by including more than two dozen public meetings on the matter. And while the state’s MBTA Communities law set minimum standards for towns like Lexington, the final zoning reforms go above and beyond what is required of the town.

The new zoning code was not without opponents. In fact, Town Meeting deliberated over the legislation during two separate sessions this week, which included spirited debate, two failed amendments that would have undermined development, and unsuccessful attempts to use parliamentary procedures to weaken the zoning changes. The process seemed to stretch out so long that as the session wore on, one Town Meeting member said to the person sitting next to her, “This is the Hotel California of Town Meetings” — the one you can never leave.


Opposition centered around familiar fears of seeing too much change too fast. One defeated amendment would have steered denser development away from the center to less walkable parts of town. Some members worried about the potential height of buildings and the possibility that they would obstruct views or block sunlight on Massachusetts Avenue in the town center. Others raised the issue of climate change and whether new development would cut down too many trees. But existing building regulations, requirements to comply with the standards of the town’s Historic Districts Commission, and the fact that denser and transit-oriented housing is good for reducing the town’s carbon footprint quelled some of those concerns.

Though the opposition to the proposal was loud, proponents for the new zoning code were determined. Arguments in favor of the measure ranged from passionate pleas to a retelling of Mary and Joseph’s struggle to find a room at a Bethlehem inn as a 2,000-year-old story about zoning.

Salvador Jaramillo, a Town Meeting member and a student in Harvard’s class of 2024, told his colleagues that without multifamily housing, his family would have never been able to live in Lexington. “How do you think it makes me feel when some people from a point of great privilege say that they don’t want the type of multifamily housing that I live in because it may look ugly or doesn’t fit the essence of this town?” he said. “Are we really setting the bar of entry to be a $1 million dollar house to join our community? Are we really valuing hypothetical aesthetics over the lives and well-being of future generations of this town?”


Eventually, after all the noise, Town Meeting overwhelmingly passed the zoning changes with 63 percent of the vote. The outcome is a double vindication of the new MBTA law: Not only did the law prod Lexington to act, but by lowering the threshold for approving certain zoning changes to a majority vote (instead of two-thirds), it ensured that the effort prevailed.

On its own, the measure won’t solve the town’s or region’s affordability crisis because zoning changes alone don’t guarantee any new construction of multifamily homes. But it’s the first step toward making denser housing happen by simply legalizing it and cutting the red tape that often stands in the way of such construction. And the residents of Lexington deserve credit for taking the lead on making these changes sooner rather than later.

While Town Meeting has officially approved the new zoning code, opponents can still block it by convincing enough voters to strike it down in a referendum, should opponents get one on the ballot. But these zoning changes have now been carefully considered by the public, the planning board, and Town Meeting, and they present an opportunity for Lexington to serve as a model for the rest of the region.


It’s also ultimately a chance for Lexington to change for the better. “When my family dealt with financial hardship and eventual homelessness, we were told by many people in this town that we didn’t belong in Lexington and that we should move somewhere else,” Jaramillo told his colleagues Wednesday night. “I made a promise to myself to prove that people like me do belong here.”

By approving the changes by a wide margin, Town Meeting members showed Jaramillo that people like him do, in fact, belong in Lexington. The opposition should let that be the last word.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.