Taking a Closer Look at the State’s new Transit Oriented Development Law


As part of the State’s 2021 economic development and housing legislation, communities with a transit station, including commuter rail stations, are being asked to re-examine their zoning to allow multi-family housing as a by-right use (versus by special permit if at all). 

Manchester needs to undertake a detailed analysis of how we might best respond to this new law.  As a starting point, the Selectmen will be hosting a public forum likely in March as part of their regular meeting to review the parameters of the new legislation.

Despite the well documented need for more diverse housing options in communities and general public support for increased housing choices, we continue to struggle to create such housing.  Often local zoning prioritizes single family homes and places substantial restrictions on other housing types.

By encouraging communities to adopt new zoning districts, the new law attempts to move communities toward greater diversity in its housing stock at least near transit stations which are a state subsidized asset providing real benefit to host communities.  Basic tenants of the law are that:

  • The district must be of “reasonable size.” (Draft regulations say a minimum of 50 acres.)
  • Multi-family housing must be allowed at a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre.
  • This multi-family housing must be allowed “as-of-right.”
  • The zoning district must be no more than ½ mile from a commuter rail station (a half mile radius totals some 500 acres thus only 10 prcent would be needed for the new district)
  • Allowable housing must be suitable for families with children and have no age restrictions.

Further guidance to the new law is provided in guidelines that the State is developing. The draft guidelines, available and open for public comment until March 31, focus on how communities can use their zoning regulations to ensure any new development fits the community’s character.  It is important to note that this new law does NOT include a production mandate or a requirement to build new units.  It requires multi-family housing by right zoning, but not housing production. Actual production will depend on a number of factors including landowner interest, developer interest and market dynamics. Our current zoning already allows much greater density than property owners typically pursue.   

The new law also does NOT have anything to do with “Chapter 40B” which allows developers to bypass local zoning in communities where less than 10 percent of a community’s housing is affordable as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  The law has nothing to do with the permitting of individual projects, nor does it mandate affordability restrictions should units be built, though a community may require an affordability restriction if it desires.

A portion of the Town’s zoning map shows the 500 acres within ½ mile of the commuter station. The General District, shown in blue, lies completely within the ½ mile zone (red circle).  All changes to meet the new law’s requirements therefore could be met within the General District alone. 

The General District currently contains about 550 housing units.  Under current zoning this could nearly double to 1080 units.  And there are multiple examples of lots with a density much greater than 15 units/acre today – 12 Summer Street has a density equivalent of 72 units an acre, 2 school Street has a density equivalent of 50 units an acre and 1 School Street has a density equivalent of 91 units an acre. There are also alternatives to a single zoning district with a consistent density of 15 units per acre. Communities can choose to zone for 15 units an acre density within a 50-acre zone or they can look to a more moderate density across a larger zone or have subdistricts with varying amounts of density and housing types.  

Communities could also create their multi-family districts or subdistricts through the 40R process, which includes financial incentives for including affordable units. 

So how does the community decide what approach is best

?  The Board of Selectmen will host a public forum to discuss the new zoning law, answer questions and solicit resident input.  The Planning Board working with the Town Planner however, will  then take the lead in identifying and assessing the town’s various options for complying with the new law and creating zoning that will allow the diversity of housing the Town needs. Ultimately we have until the end of 2024 to develop new zoning in order to be in compliance with the new state initiative.

We have time to carefully consider the law and its implications.  We encourage your participation throughout the process. 

sustainable transport, sustainable urban planning, transit-oriented development, board of selectmen, department of housing and urban development, planning board, 40a