It has been an all-out sprint this year for 12 communities in the core of Greater Boston as they scramble to write new state-mandated zoning that allows for multifamily housing near transit.
Local officials have held countless public meetings and endured bitter debates about how tall buildings should be and where they should be built in order to meet a year-end deadline for communities served by the main lines of the T.
But not in Braintree. Residents in the suburb at the southern end of the Red Line have yet to see a single zoning map. And they won’t until late November, one month before Braintree’s plan is due to be submitted.
Officials in Mayor Charles Kokoros’s office have been working on the zoning behind closed doors, said members of the Town Council and planning board, who must vote on the proposal but haven’t seen a draft yet. Public presentations were originally scheduled in the spring but have been pushed back several times. Now some worry the delays will leave little time for public debate over what may be the most significant change to the town’s land-use rules in decades.
“We were supposed to have maps six months ago,” said Town Councilor Elizabeth Maglio, who is supporting Kokoros’s opponent in the upcoming mayoral election. “We have to vote on this in the next two months. What if the Town Council or the planning board has an issue with the zoning? What if we want something revised? We have run out of time to do this the right way.”
Presenting the zoning for the first time at the end of November, Maglio and Town Councilor Joseph Reynolds said, might not leave enough time to even have a second meeting on the zoning. And, they said, it makes the council and the planning board responsible for ensuring that the town does not miss the deadline.
Kokoros, whose office oversees the planning department, did not return a request for comment Thursday. He is up for reelection on Tuesday and said at a recent mayoral debate that the town “will comply” with the law.
“I have been fighting for the residents of Braintree to not be overwhelmed with multifamily housing,” Kokoros said. “We are working for you, the citizens of Braintree, to make sure that they get this thing right and that we don’t rush it.”
MBTA Communities, which the Legislature passed in 2021, mandates cities and towns with access to transit zone for multifamily housing. It’s a bid to help offset the state’s deepening housing shortage by requiring suburban communities to allow more apartments and condos than many typically have before. Communities on the Red, Green, Orange, and Blue lines must approve the new zoning by the end of this year, while towns served by Commuter Rail have until the end of 2024.
If they don’t, they risk losing out on state grant programs that distribute tens of millions of dollars to communities each year for infrastructure improvements and other municipal needs. Reynolds estimated that Braintree could stand to lose anywhere between $2 million and $7 million in state funds annually.
Towns that fail to meet the deadline may also be subject to legal action from the state attorney general or advocacy groups. Most communities have complied with early stages of the law, though only a handful have actually passed new zoning. All the other cities up first have had far more robust debates than Braintree.
“The stakes are too high for us not to get something done by the deadline,” said Kim Kroha, president of the zoning board. “[This] pretty much just eliminates the public process altogether. Residents’ voices aren’t going to be heard.”
Housing has emerged as a major issue of late in this town of 39,000. Earlier this year, neighborhood opposition killed a housing development proposed on the parking lots of the South Shore Plaza. And in 2019, residents protested over an effort to rewrite the town’s zoning code.
It has also been a point of contention in Tuesday’s mayoral election, throughout which Kokoros has positioned himself against “overdevelopment.” Some town councilors have accused Kokoros of waiting to release the zoning plan until after the vote, so as not to anger some of his supporters who have opposed new housing efforts.
The area that councilors believe the planning department is hoping to rezone for housing is a strip known as the Ivory Street corridor, a stretch of land near the town’s Red Line station that is home to a number of blighted industrial buildings.
Meredith Boericke, the Town Council president whose district includes the corridor, said officials have been talking about rezoning the area for years, and that MBTA Communities presents motivation to do so.
“MBTA Communities gives us a chance to get this done,” said Boericke. “I just want us to do it the right way.”