MILTON — After more than six hours of debate over two nights, voters at Town Meeting on Monday approved their most significant zoning change in nearly 100 years, loosening the town’s construction rules to encourage more multifamily housing developments, as required by a historic and controversial state law.
Supporters of the new zoning plan cheered when the final Town Meeting votes were tabulated: 158 votes in favor of the new zoning to 76 against. The measure needed a simple majority to pass, and the town needed to approve a plan by the end of the year to be in compliance.
In arguing for the proposal, Town Meeting member Chris Hart asked his fellow voters to think about the “common good, not what is just within our borders but how we are connected to the communities around us.”
“Think about the rule of law,” he added. “You might not like this law … but surely you support the rule of law and we should be as a town in compliance with the law.”
Opponents of the plan argued that the town is acting too quickly for such a momentous zoning change, and that Milton should slow down and write better zoning, regardless of the Dec. 31 state deadline. At a meeting on Dec. 4, some town meeting members sought to persuade the body to delay any rezoning vote until May 2024, but that failed by a vote of 159-91.
Town Meeting member Denny Swenson urged a “no” vote on the zoning article. “I’m not saying never,” she said. “I believe we can and will do better for the town of Milton.”
Swenson told the Globe that opponents will begin immediately to gather signatures to trigger a ballot vote on the zoning ordinance by the town’s registered voters, as permitted under the town’s charter.
“Volunteers are lined up to start collecting signatures,” she said. “People feel they haven’t been respected or heard in this very rushed process.” She said the group must collect at least 1,062 signatures — 5 percent of the registered voters of the town — within seven days, not including Sunday, to bring the question to the ballot box.
Milton is among a dozen communities served by MBTA rapid transit — the Blue, Red, Orange, Green and Silver lines — facing a year-end state deadline to amend zoning to permit more condos and apartments, largely around transit stations. The historic rezoning statute, known as the MBTA communities law, is a dramatic intervention aimed at addressing the region’s housing crisis. The law obligates about 177 communities served by the MBTA to approve new zoning districts to make it easier to build multifamily housing; deadlines for commuter rail and adjacent communities are in 2024 and 2025.
As part of a multipart series on the region’s housing crisis, the Boston Globe Spotlight team analyzed the stakes of the debate over the MBTA communities law, and Milton’s history of restricting development in a special report in October.
The point of the MBTA communities law is to stimulate home building to help alleviate an unprecedented housing crisis in Greater Boston. The median selling price for single-family homes in Greater Boston hit a record high of $910,000 in July, with Milton at $928,000. The state’s mandate to rezone, however, runs counter to Massachusetts’ long history of local control over development and calls on suburbs to encourage multifamily housing in ways many have long resisted.
Milton now joins Brookline, Newton, and Somerville in approving rezoning before the communities’ year-end deadline. Failure to meet this deadline risked legal action by the state attorney general’s office.
Under the law, Milton is required to amend its zoning to permit at least 2,461 new units of multifamily housing. That number represents how many units would be technically possible within the new zones; the actual number of units ultimately built is expected to be considerably fewer, given how much land within the zones is already developed.
Milton’s new zoning plan, put forward by the Select Board, consists of six subdistricts. Roughly speaking, the new zones would be concentrated along the Eliot Street corridor roughly parallel to the Mattapan Trolley line, along part of Blue Hills Parkway, and in East Milton Square and along Granite Avenue. Developments proposed under the new zoning would be subject to a site plan review by the Planning Board, which would not have the power to reject projects that comply with the zoning, but could impose reasonable conditions to reduce effects on traffic, stormwater runoff, and other items, according to town officials.