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West Newbury grapples with small town compliance to MBTA zoning law

The MBTA Communities Act is an attempt to tackle the states' housing crisis by forcing communities served by public transit to make room for tens, and in some cases, hundreds, of new units. Compliance with the law is mandatory, according to an advisory issued last year by Attorney General Andrea Campbell “in response to some confusion” regarding the act’s requirements.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Impassioned West Newbury residents weighed in this week over steps the town must take to comply with a new state zoning law that allows for the construction of multifamily housing in communities located in and around an MBTA service area.

The MBTA Communities Act aims to address the state’s housing crisis by increasing housing density in communities served by public transportation. But the law, approved by former Governor Charlie Baker, has drawn widespread criticism, particularly in small towns, because it could open the door to the creation of hundreds or thousands of new housing units.

Voters in Milton last month overwhelmingly overturned a decision by the town to create a zoning district to comply with the law. Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell responded by filing a lawsuit against the town.


Pushback is now rippling through several smaller communities serviced by the MBTA, such as West Newbury, a town in the Merrimack Valley, sandwiched between Haverhill and Newburyport stops on the commuter rail.

Under the law, West Newbury is considered an “adjacent small town” served by the stations, meaning it is subject to the least amount of housing required under the law, according to Dillon Sussman, a landscape architect working with local officials to develop the zoning.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the town’s planning board, members discussed two areas eyed for the zoning: the former Knapp’s Greenhouses on Route 113 and the Dunn property on Main Street. Combined, the two parcels open up 34 acres of land for development, officials said.

The town has already had several community forums on the MBTA zoning issue. The planning board is charged with making a recommendation on the zoning that will be up for discussion at the spring town meeting on April 29.

Several attendees at Tuesday’s meeting said commuter rail stops in Haverhill and Newburyport do not encourage residents to use public transportation. Raymond Cook, a member of the planning board, acknowledged “this is hard” for the town to open the door to large new development.


But he said local governments must do their best to weigh community concerns and still meet a deadline of December 2025 to comply ordered by Governor Maura Healey’s administration.

“Philosophically, I like [the law],” Cook said at the meeting at town hall that was also accessible online via Zoom. “But I set a bunch of that stuff aside and come to the conclusion that what we need to do now is the minimum that we have to do to comply.”

Several residents noted that they moved to West Newbury for the quiet setting and peaceful greenery that the town of around 4,500 residents provides. The same residents voiced concern that a development’s impact on noise and traffic could turn the town into the very place they managed to “escape.”

“We all worked our way out of Lawrence because we know what living in an urban environment means,” said one resident.

Another planning board member, Deborah Hamilton, clarified that West Newbury is “not going to become Lawrence,” which is also on the MBTA commuter rail line.

Instead, she said she’s hoping additional units will allow new families to move to West Newbury, an option they might now have without the zoning. ”When I moved here 28 years ago, everybody who worked in [town hall] lived in town,” said Hamilton. “Who can afford to do that today?”


Other residents asked about the consequences of not complying with the law. In addition to facing a state lawsuit, Milton is also at risk of losing state grant funding, officials have said.

Sussman said should West Newbury not comply with the law, the loss of state funding and potential legal ramifications are at stake. Still, some residents suggested taking the chance, considering the impact of traffic and demands on public services multifamily developments could have on the town.

“It might be cheaper to hire a lawyer,” one resident said. “There’s a lot of unknowns, there’s a lot of costs that no one is considering,” said another resident.

Scotty Higgins, a resident who called in over Zoom, said he’s worried the new units will bring more children to a school district that is already understaffed.

“We have this great new high school and middle school which we spent so much money on,” Higgins said. “Will they be able to fully staff it with teachers to account for the increase in number of students?”

Lila Hempel-Edgers can be reached at lila.hempeledgers@globe.com. Follow her on X @hempeledgers and on Instagram @lila_hempel_edgers.