Local Leaders Fret Over Accessory Units, Local Control


The Massachusetts Municipal Association supports Gov. Maura Healey’s policy-heavy, $4 billion housing bond bill, but there are pockets of concern among some city and town leaders, especially as the state deploys other carrots and sticks to generate more production.

A handful of local officials warned lawmakers Tuesday that the wide-ranging legislation Healey filed takes too heavy a touch in certain areas, infringing on the local control that community leaders cherish and that opponents contend is often used to stall development.

Virginia Crocker Timmins, vice chair of the Chelmsford Select Board, told a legislative panel her colleagues are especially concerned about the part of the bill that would allow accessory dwelling units by right in single-family zoning districts.

“It not only obliviates single-family housing zoning throughout the state, but it completely usurps the rights of each municipality to set criteria for this type of usage that’s tailored to that municipality,” Crocker Timmins said.

Chelmsford, a Merrimack Valley town of about 36,000 people, already has its own bylaws in place to regulate ADUs and grants permits “on a reasonable basis,” Crocker Timmins said. She warned that opening the door to allowing additional units in single-family zones could put more strain on Chelmsford’s sewer network and other infrastructure.

The ADU-by-right measure is just one piece of many in the bill Healey filed in the fall, alongside ideas like sealing no-fault eviction records and controversial measures like allowing cities and towns to tax pricey real estate transactions and then use the revenue for housing investments.

Lowell Planning Board Vice Chair Gerard Frechette said while he believes the funding and tax credits in the bill will bring benefits to many cities and towns, he’s also worried about “potential negative impact” from ADU reforms.

“In a community like Lowell that has legal conforming single-family building lots as small as 3,000 square feet, and our largest single-family lots being only 10,000 square feet, the by-right ability to create two-family rental houses in every single-family zone could have a detrimental effect on various areas of the city,” Frechette said.

Healey administration officials previously projected that its accessory dwelling measure could generate as many as 10,000 new units over five years.

But Crocker Timmins said Chelmsford’s community development director estimated the town alone would have as many as 4,500 properties that could become eligible for ADUs under Healey’s proposal. She said the town “cannot respond to that in terms of infrastructure or what our residents want for their quality of life.”

She linked her concerns about parts of Healey’s housing bond bill to another housing-related statute that’s emerged as a flashpoint: the so-called MBTA Communities Act, which requires communities near T service to allow multi-family housing by right in certain areas.

“It’s to a point where the pace is becoming inaccessible for the municipalities to keep up. We would strongly recommend that the Legislature take pause to proactively engage the municipalities and the constituents on this aspect of the bill to adequately inform the process and the decisions being made,” Crocker Timmins said. “Once it’s in place, it’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to restrain it. We think local control should be maintained and that municipalities should be able to tailor as appropriate for each municipality.”

Administration officials and supporters have pitched the housing bond bill as a necessarily bold push to unlock much-needed housing production, which they believe will drive down the sky-high prices suffocating many residents or pushing them to relocate to other states altogether.

“When people ask me what the issue is I hear about most from my constituency, the answer is housing, housing, housing and housing,” Rep. Christopher Worrell of Boston told his colleagues Tuesday.

The total borrowing authorization in the bill now pending before the Legislature’s Bonding Committee is more than twice as large as the state’s last housing bond bill, a $1.8 billion package former Gov. Charlie Baker signed in 2018.

It would clear the way for $1.6 billion in capital investments to improve the state’s aging public housing stock, inject $800 million into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and steer millions more toward other programs, and roll out more than two dozen policy changes.

Rep. Michael Finn, who co-chairs the Bonding Committee, asked Administration and Finance Secretary Matthew Gorzkowicz during Tuesday’s hearing how the state would manage to stay within its borrowing limits if lawmakers approve the more than $8 billion in bonding that features across the housing bond bill, an economic development bill and an IT bond bill.

Gorzkowicz replied by noting that although the “balancing act” can be a challenge, much of the combined bottom line -- including about half of the housing bond bill -- would reauthorize money already woven into the state’s capital investment plan.

“You have to keep in mind that we already have a base of those authorizations that are being funded in our capital investment plan, and how do we grow that?” he said.

Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll added that the housing bill in particular would carry a significant “return” on the state investment by creating jobs and wrangling one of the most potent policy issues.

“There’s a price of saying no to this that, lost opportunity and lost revenues, that may not necessarily be true for all of our bonding,” she said.

Some real estate industry leaders have also voiced concerns about individual pieces of the package, especially the proposed transfer fee, which won vocal support Tuesday from officials representing Boston and other communities.

Those opponents appeared not to show up in force to repeat their qualms at Tuesday’s hearing, which stretched for nearly four hours.

The right-leaning Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance slammed the local-option transfer tax idea as “100% off the mark.”

“This bill will not bring down the cost of housing in our state and will only exacerbate the decline in economic competitiveness we’ve seen in the last several years which is causing a massive flood of people and wealth out of our state,” said Paul Craney, a spokesperson for the group.

Sen. Lydia Edwards, who co-chairs the Housing Committee that already awarded Healey’s bill a favorable recommendation, chimed into the hearing to tell her colleagues she views the proposal as “a moonshot moment for us as a state and for us as a legislative body.”

“We’re going to be looking back on this decision and how we move this piece of legislation in a way that’s going to impact generations,” the Boston Democrat said.

The Housing Committee had more than four months to review Healey’s bill and convened its own lengthy hearing on the topic in January. Last month, the panel voted to advance the measure without changing a single word.

House Speaker Ron Mariano signaled last month that he plans to “go big” with his chamber’s rewrite of the housing bond bill, which will include language expanding the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority service area.

Referring to the transfer tax measure, Mariano said to business leaders that the state must “explore all options that have the potential to make a real difference” before telling reporters he’s not sure if there are enough votes to advance that provision in the House. 

The speaker said the House would take up the housing bill after its late-April budget debate.

(State House News Service)