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Newton City Council Approves Zoning Plan After Scaling Back Housing

After three contentious meetings, Newton city councilors on Monday evening adopted new zoning guidelines to satisfy the state's MBTA Communities Law

Storefronts on Union Street in Newton Centre

The new zoning plan — the most significant one to be adopted by the city in 70 years — is much slimmer than the one first presented to the council, with almost 700 units being slashed.

"We would have liked Newton to have followed the lead of Lexington, Arlington, Brookline and other communities that rose to the challenge of confronting our region’s housing crisis by approving zoning plans that went beyond what the MBTA Communities Law required," Charles River Chamber CEO Greg Reibman wrote in an email blast following the vote.

The new plan would allow 8,745 units of housing to be built as-of-right in six village centers: Newton Centre, Newton Highlands, Waban, West Newton, Newtonville and Auburndale. The number is 415 above the required minimum of 8,330. 

The plan is meaningfully different from the one proposed before the city's Nov. 7 election, in which several pro-housing councilors lost their seats. The prior plan had included all 13 village centers and more than 9,000 housing units. 

The changes were part of a zoning amendment package worked on by Newton City Council President Susan Albright and Councilor Leonard Gentile, The Newton Beacon reported. The package received 21 yes votes followed by two no votes and one absent vote. 

“We congratulate the leadership of councilors Albright and Gentile in presenting a compromise zoning package that the members successfully voted for tonight," Save Newton Villages, an organization that opposed the prior proposal, told Fig City News. "The majority of the councilors were able to rise above their differences and come to a unified vote which was commendable.”

The changes included lower allowed building heights and added parking minimums in certain villages, which some argued could lead to projects not being economically viable. Councilor Deb Crossley said that this could potentially lead to the state asking for alterations to the plan because the last-minute change might not comply.

"We know we are on the cusp of economic feasibility, not profit, feasibility," Crossley said at the meeting. "This is what the state was worried about when they put those rules in place. About the [inclusionary zoning] ordinance and the requirement for first-floor retail."

Councilors also voted to keep Auburndale as part of the new plan. The decision came after Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller received letters from U.S. Rep. Jake Auchincloss and Massachusetts Housing and Livable Communities Secretary Ed Augustus Jr. warning that not including it could lead to less federal and state transportation funding for the neighborhood's commuter rail stop.

The new plan will officially go into effect in 20 days, and it still needs to be reviewed by the state to ensure that it is compliant with the law.

Although some were not entirely happy with the approved plan, many applauded the new plan for a city that hasn't seen updated zoning in decades.

"Updated zoning in six village centers will enhance Newton’s ability to provide housing opportunities that are more affordable for seniors looking to downsize, families just starting out, and people who serve our community," Newton For Everyone Coalition member Kathy Pillsbury wrote in a statement.

The vote came after several other cities and towns, including Brookline, Lexington, Salem and Pembroke, passed rezoning plans to comply with the MBTA Communities Law. Several other communities with rapid transit stations still must pass plans before the state-imposed deadline of Dec. 31.