After a controversial one-day delay, Milton voters Wednesday will give their final verdict on a new land-use plan that would, for the first time, open pockets of the traditional suburban town to denser apartments and condos.
The vote is a referendum on the town’s plan to comply with the state’s controversial MBTA Communities law, which mandates cities and towns served by the T allow for multifamily housing. Voting was supposed to take place Tuesday, but the forecast of significant snow prompted town officials to request a delay from a Norfolk County judge, which was approved.
So now polls will be open Wednesday instead — from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., snow or shine — with results expected that night. The town and campaign organizers on both sides worked to spread the word about the delay to voters, and some are worried that the change in schedule may affect who shows up to vote.
Regardless of which side residents choose, the vote will reverberate throughout Eastern Massachusetts.
The law is at the center of the state’s bid to dig out of its massive housing crisis, and a push by Governor Maura Healey’s administration to ensure that communities that have long resisted new housing play their part.
But it has ignited debates in communities across the region, and with some 130 set to write their own MBTA Communities plans this year, how Milton residents vote will help shape the response all over Eastern Massachusetts.
Here’s what you should know.
Why is Milton having a referendum?
Officials in Milton worked for more than a year on formulating a plan that complied with the requirements of the law, and Town Meeting OK’d the zoning late last year, 158 to 76.
Under the law, 12 communities with access to the T’s “rapid transit” system — the Red, Blue, Green, and Orange lines — had to submit compliant zoning plans to the state by the end of 2023. The state considers the Mattapan Trolley an extension of the Red Line, and so that deadline applied to Milton.
But some residents who opposed the rezoning were not satisfied with the Town Meeting vote, and began gathering signatures under a little-known section of the town charter that allows for referendums if a certain percentage of the town population signs a petition in the week after the vote. All told, those residents — who have now become leaders of the “No” campaign — were able to gather some 3,000 signatures to put the matter to a vote in the town of 27,000.
What would the plan actually do?
Under the state’s MBTA Communities guidelines, Milton has to zone for at least 2,461 additional units of housing.
Milton officials spread that out across six new zones in a few key stretches of town, including an area around the Mattapan Trolley Station, the Eliot Street Corridor along the Neponset River, East Milton Square, and Granite Avenue near the Dorchester border.
In most areas, the new zoning would allow multifamily developments of two-and-a-half stories by-right — meaning they don’t need a special permit granted by the town. A few stretches, including on Granite Avenue and around the Mattapan Station, would allow taller buildings, between four and six stories, depending on the exact location. The zoning changes would cover 1.9 percent of the land in the town’s 13 square miles.
Why do people oppose the plan?
The “No” campaign says they do not necessarily disagree with the broad concept of allowing more multifamily housing in town, but have several key issues with the plan.
One of their main concerns is that too much of the zoning, they say, is clustered in East Milton, an area that is already comparatively denser than other parts of town, putting an unfair burden on the residents there. (The zoning in East Milton Square would limit all new multifamily buildings to two-and-a-half stories and cap the number of units that can be built on a given lot.)
The No campaign also contends that new multifamily development on Granite Avenue, which leads into Boston, will add traffic to a road that is already frequently jammed. They say there are environmental concerns for that particular area, too.
They also believe that the town’s requirement under MBTA Communities is too big, and that the state should not have classified Milton as a “rapid transit” community because the Mattapan Trolley is slow compared to the system’s other rapid transit lines and can only hold a limited number of riders. The town asked the state to change the designation last year, and the state declined. If the state had changed Milton to an “adjacent community,” the town’s zoning requirement would have been reduced, though the state has not switched any town’s designation by request.
How many new homes could be built under the zoning?
The plan would satisfy the requirements laid out by the state, theoretically opening up space for more than 2,400 new units. That number is likely a significant overestimate, though, because it is calculated by a complex state formula that does not take into account existing building footprints.
An independent firm that conducted a “build out” analysis for the town last year found that the town would more likely see around one-third of that figure built. Even that would most likely happen over a long period of time, and could be hindered further by high interest rates and other economic conditions.
Development may also be strained in areas zoned for lower height limits, which developers say make it challenging to build enough units for a project to make financial sense.
What happens if Milton votes no?
Leading up to the election, state officials have warned that Milton may be punished if residents vote down the zoning plan.
Attorney General Andrea Campbell has threatened legal action if the town fails to comply with the MBTA Communities law. Legal experts told the Globe last week that any lawsuit would likely be fairly straightforward, and that the results of the referendum could be overturned. Some residents worry that if Milton loses a lawsuit, the courts or the state could draft new zoning for the town.
Any lawsuit would be a significant test of one of the state’s most powerful housing laws, potentially giving new teeth to the Healey administration’s bid to compel cities and towns to build more.
And the administration has warned that the town could miss out on a long list of state grant programs. Milton’s town administrator said in a letter last month that the town has received some $1.7 million since 2021 from the grant programs the Healey administration has said it could revoke.
A “No” vote could also bring up tricky questions at the local level. Under the town charter, once an article is brought to Town Meeting, it cannot be brought back for two years. So, in order to have another vote on MBTA Communities zoning, the town would have to draft a new plan that is different enough to be voted on. And there is no clear definition of how different is different enough for a new vote.
Which means Milton could be having this debate for a long time to come.