Councilors Want State to Rule Haverhill’s Riverfront Plans Comply with New Commuter Housing Rules

Downtown Haverhill commuter rail stop. (WHAV News file photograph.)

Haverhill city councilors want the state to accept existing housing overlay zones on both sides of the river as meeting a requirement to allow multifamily homes by right near rail stations.

Councilors, reacting to a presentation on draft state rules designed to encourage more commuter housing, said they are ready to lobby for relief. City Economic Development and Planning Director William Pillsbury Jr. Tuesday night said he and state Rep. Andy X. Vargas believe Haverhill may already have a district that complies.

Based on that assessment, Councilor Melinda E. Barrett suggested pushing the city’s legislators to include the waterfront area when counting units in that district.

“I make a motion that we send a letter to our delegation, that they include our current housing in our 40R district and our waterfront overlay in our accounting as our inventory that we have already committed to,” she said.

Pillsbury explained legislation, passed as part of an economic development bill passed in January of last year, requires the city to have one or more districts with a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre in an area suitable for families with children. He explained the power to permit housing in those areas would move from the City Council special permit process to city officials.

“As of right means that the construction and occupancy of multifamily housing is allowed in that district without the need to obtain any discretionary permit or approval,” Pillsbury said.

The City of Haverhill, and others serviced by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, will soon be required to provide at least the district within a half mile of a T station. Pillsbury said the district must be at least 50 acres and, in Haverhill’s case as a commuter rail community, must be able to accommodate a minimum of 15% of the city’s total housing stock for multifamily units, which translates to a total of 4,189 units.

He noted, however, this is a zoning mandate, not a housing production mandate. The city is under no obligation to build any new housing. It simply must be allowed by zoning.

Pillsbury also said the final rules will not go into effect until the end of 2024. The state is requiring each city to bring the issue before their city councils now in order to continue to be eligible to apply for various state grants.

“We’re not asking the Council to do anything tonight. We have probably another year or so or longer to be able to implement this, but I do have to come and make this presentation to you tonight so that we achieve interim compliance and that enables us to go forward with state grants in this year.”

As WHAV previously reported, area MBTA communities, such as Haverhill, North Andover, Andover and Lawrence, that do not comply with the new state law risk losing such grants as the Housing Choice Initiative, Local Capital Projects Fund or MassWorks Infrastructure Program.

The Council agreed unanimously to ask the state to consider what Haverhill has already done to increase housing units.

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