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Rezoning Debate Heats Up In Newton After Voters Ousted Pro-Housing Councilors

With weeks left before a state-imposed deadline, Greater Boston cities and towns are in the home stretch to comply with the historic MBTA Communities Law and enact new zoning plans to allow more housing development.

Of those that need to comply by the end of the year, one of the most prominent has been Newton. The wealthy Boston suburb saw a contested election this month, in which voters ousted pro-housing elected officials, and continues to see scathing debate among a divided city council.

The city has yet to vote on its new zoning guidelines, with city council meetings held last week and Monday night in which lawmakers failed to end debate and hold a vote. The discussions have created a rift among city councilors and among residents who differ on whether the city should allow more housing.

Newton For Everyone organizers gather outside of Newton City Hall on Monday night.

"There are clearly two sides that are not doing a lot of listening to each other and they are pretty much set on where they want to go," Charles River Regional Chamber CEO Greg Reibman told Bisnow Tuesday morning. "At the end of the day, I'm pretty confident that they will agree to at least approve something that's compliant to the law."

Classified as a rapid transit community under state law, Newton needs to approve by right zoning for 8,330 housing units by the end of the year. The city has four Green Line and three Commuter Rail stations. The city's draft zoning map, Village Center Overlay District Version 3.1, has just fewer than 10,000 units zoned by right.

But nearing the end of the discussion and a vote to take place soon, those who have followed the process closely say the rezoning plan will be scaled back from all 13 of Newton's village centers to just five to get the measure passed.

"That's unfortunate because I think it will mean that some parts of the city would benefit greatly from the ability to add more housing, to develop its retail base and create more vibrancy, while the other villages will be left behind, in a way," Reibman said. "But on the other hand, it's going to be significant improvements for Newton to be able to make changes that it hasn't been able to make in 70 years."

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller sent an email blast last week pleading for councilors to vote for at least the six village centers and MBTA stations that meet the zoning requirements for the housing law: Newton Centre, Newton Highlands, Waban, West Newton and Newtonville, along with the Newton Highlands Eliot MBTA stop.

"In contrast, going ahead with zoning for all 13 village centers / MBTA station areas right now clearly makes a lot of Newtonians uncomfortable," Fuller wrote. "I think the City Council voting 'Yes' on those six village center / MBTA station areas that meet the MBTA Communities Act zoning requirements is a good approach right now."

The same day as the first city council meeting after the election, Massachusetts Housing Secretary Edward Augustus Jr. wrote a letter to Fuller reminding the mayor that communities that don’t meet the minimum requirements under the new state law will be ineligible to receive grants through the state’s MassWorks, Housing Choice and HousingWorks programs. 

Newton received a $2M MassWorks grant last year, the letter says. Augustus also said the communities that go above and beyond the housing requirements could receive priority in transportation investment, something that Newton's commuter rail stations are in dire need of.

"In closing, I hope that the City Council carefully considers its vote on the VCOD and does not lose sight of the well thought out plan to remove zoning barriers that will ease the process to build more multi-family housing near transit and near existing village centers," Augustus wrote. 

In the decade ending in 2020, just over 1,100 new units, or roughly 3% of Newton’s total housing stock, were developed in the city, the Boston Globe reported. With little new housing coming into the area, housing prices are some of the highest in the state, with the average single-family home selling for $1.6M, according to The Warren Group.

The city's proposed Village Center Overlay District map

City residents have been passionate about the cause, with organizations raising up in favor and against the upzoning and opposing yard signs popping up that read "Save Our Villages" and "Newton For Everyone."

The Newton for Everyone Coalition, a partnership between eight local groups, is in favor of the plan. Save Newton Villages, which was organized in response, opposes the zoning changes, MassLive reported.

"We want to be sure that the uniqueness of each village continues to thrive as it is and make sure that the mom-and-pop small businesses continue to thrive as they are," Save Newton Villages President Caroline Kraft told community news site Fig City News last month.

The sentiment around the zoning law seemed to take shape in the city's election two weeks ago, when several councilors that had promoted the zoning draft lost their seats to candidates sponsored by the Save Newton Villages group, The Newton Beacon reported.

Reibman said the election created an even more divided city council, but the ousting of members supportive of the bill doesn't paint the full picture of how residents feel about the zoning law.

"It was a very low turnout election and there was, in my view, a lot of misleading information, and it's easy to stir anger and fear of change among people," he said. "I don't think it truly represents where Newton is as a community in general. I think there's a lot of openness to change."

However, the election won't have an impact on what needs to be passed before the state’s Dec. 31 MBTA Communities deadline, as the new city council won't take office until Jan. 1. The election outcome has been a driver for some councilors to push this zoning forward without any more changes or amendments tacked on.

"I think enough is enough," Councilor Alison Leary said at a Monday night city council meeting. "We want to give every opportunity to make this zoning work. We've worked three years on it, we've gone over this same zoning two or three times, and I'm just not willing to compromise more. I think we've compromised quite a bit."

During Monday night's meeting, one councilor argued that small businesses in main villages could benefit from by right zoning, so they wouldn't be subjected to obtaining a special permit and going through extensive planning to bring on a project to help sustain their business.

Other amendments have looked to slice off several properties designated for the rezoning, with city councilors saying that the units taken away wouldn't bring the city out of compliance with the state law.

Storefronts on Union Street in Newton Centre

One councilor proposed to take three historical properties in the city's biggest village, Newton Centre, out of the rezoning. The vote ultimately failed, with other councilors arguing that removing these properties could negatively impact their future.

"We need to help our buildings to be able to sustain themselves, and the best way to do it is to zone them so that they can make the decision to use the building in a way they can best get their financial reward from it," City Councilor Victoria Danberg said.

City Councilor Andrea Kelley proposed adding properties on Border Street in West Newton on behalf of the small-business owners who argued the addition would help their businesses in the long term. Kelley said that the businesses reached out to her after learning their properties weren't included in the upzoning of the village.

"Where else would be more appropriate but in this area next to the train tracks and the Mass Pike, and the village center at this edge, to do something like this," she said. 

The Newton Centre Green Line stop

Kelley's proposal could increase the plan to include approximately 430 new housing units and answer the small-business owners' call to be included in the plan.

However, the councilors that had initially overseen the area argued that flooding issues would disproportionately harm any future development. Another city councilor hit back on that claim, accusing councilors opposed to the amendment of using minor flooding as an excuse not to zone the area and support the businesses that want to be a part of the plan.

"What's really disturbing about the letters we've received is that, under the guise of trying to help these business owners with a flooding issue caused by poor engineering, to use that as a way to eliminate the zoning for this area where these property owners in particular really want this zoning," Councilor Deb Crossley said. "It's a problem, but it's irrelevant to zoning."

Another remaining issue the council needs to decide on is whether the Auburndale area should be included in the final draft.

The city has spent decades trying to upgrade its three commuter rail stations in Newtonville, West Newton and Auburndale by seeking various funding avenues but has yet to take advantage of many opportunities. It wasn't until recently that some city councilors opposed having the center as part of its MBTA Communities plan.

The city will continue to discuss the plan either during its regularly scheduled city council meeting Dec. 4 or at a special meeting on Nov. 29 or 30. Reibman said the decisions that councilors make in the coming weeks will be important, as it will be difficult to pass more rezoning after the Dec. 31 deadline. 

"Newton has been so divided and exhausted by this fight that I would think that the new city council will be reluctant to do anything," Reibman said. "That's why this is so important right now. I think it will take a few years before Newton is ready to go back and look at rezoning or village centers."