After months of tense back-and-forth, Arlington on Wednesday night became the largest community yet in Greater Boston to pass new land-use rules to comply with a state zoning law that requires communities served by the MBTA to zone for denser housing.
The new zoning was the subject of impassioned debate — both supporters and opponents turned out to public hearings about the plan in droves — but was approved by Arlington’s Town Meeting in a landslide; only 35 of the body’s 252 representatives voted against it. The plan needed a simple majority to pass.
Under the new zoning, three- and four-story apartment buildings will be allowed along the town’s major commercial arteries, Massachusetts Avenue and Broadway in East Arlington, without special approval by a town zoning board. Buildings up to five or six stories, depending on the specific location, will be allowed if 25 percent of their units are set aside for affordable housing or if space on the ground floor is designated for commercial businesses.
“Arlington has done a lot of great work setting goals and making visionary statements,” said Claire Ricker, the town’s director of Planning and Community Development. “This is a plan that actually delivers us closer to reaching those goals. It was time for some action.”
The zoning passed Wednesday is Arlington’s answer to the MBTA Communities law, a 2021 measure that mandates cities and towns with access to transit zone for multifamily housing. The idea was to encourage towns to begin allowing the type of housing that many of them have shut out for decades; communities with access to the T’s rapid transit — the Red, Orange, Green, and Blue lines — need to have their zoning approved by the end of this year.
Arlington, just past the northern end of the Red Line, was not required to approve its plan until the end of 2024, but the town approved new rules quickly so that it can participate in a new state pilot program that will allow 10 cities and towns to ban the use of fossil fuel energy in new construction. To qualify for the pilot, communities must either meet an affordable housing threshold or have passed a new multifamily zone under MBTA Communities.
In all, 177 cities and towns are required to submit MBTA Communities plans; Arlington will be the seventh to have done so, according to a spokesperson for the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, though several of those have simply submitted districts that existed before the law took effect. Earlier this year, Lexington was the first town to file new zoning; none of the 12 communities with rules due by the end of this year have done so yet.
MBTA Communities has turned into something of a local political battleground that has pitted some towns against the state, and some residents against town officials who are trying to comply with the rules. Adding fuel to the fire is the state’s warning that it will pull important municipal grant programs from communities that don’t go along, along with threats of lawsuits from the attorney general or outside legal groups.
For Arlington, which at 46,000 people is one of the largest communities in Massachusetts to be governed by Town Meeting, the process was not an easy one. The town held more than 25 meetings on the zoning rules, and opponents put out public statements and gathered signatures on a petition to put more limits on the new zoning rules. Tensions ran so high at one meeting of the town’s redevelopment board that the police had to be called.
Even Wednesday night, Town Meeting members who were opposed to the plan proposed several amendments — all rejected — that would have sharply cut it back. One resident suggested the town forgo the gas ban pilot in order to spend more time working on the zoning, and called the land-use tweaks “the largest changes in Arlington in our lifetime.”
“Without amendments [the proposal] is too large,” said Carl Wagner, a Town Meeting member who suggested the zoning would increase demand for town services, and thus increase property taxes while doing little to help create more affordable housing. “It will make living here harder for people on fixed, lower, and middle incomes. It will promote only an affluent class.”
Arlington’s new rules will now be reviewed by the Housing and Livable Communities Office to determine if they meet the state’s guidelines.