READING – And you thought building a new senior center was a challenge.

The Select Board Tuesday night heard from Community Planning and Development Commission chair Heather Clish and Community Development Director Andrew MacNichol about how Reading plans to comply with the MBTA Communities Law.

It won’t be easy.

The law, passed in 2021, applies to the 177 municipalities in the Boston metro area that are served by the MBTA. The goal is to create more affordable multifamily housing with new zoning to promote denser and more transit-oriented housing.

But the rules on how to do it are complex and even baffling. And you’re not alone in thinking that Reading must have already accomplished this with the developments on Haven, Gould, Chute, etc. But none of the developments in Reading’s Downtown Smart Growth District count toward the state mandated 1,493 units that Reading needs. That’s because there needs to be 15 units per acre and none of the new developments are that dense. The new growth downtown has kept Reading’s inventory of affordable housing above 10 percent and thus kept 40B developers away. But it won’t keep the state away.

“For Reading, the Smart Growth District was, for planning purposes and for getting more units in closer to the train, this was absolutely the right thing to be doing,” said Clish. “The MBTA Communities Law, basically ups the game of what communities have to do. Even with what we’ve done in terms of our by-right zoning, what people can do without having to come to CPDC, basically has not been enough. And we are by far not the only community that must grapple with this now.”

Lexington has been in the news recently after embracing the new law. But other communities are unhappy with the law and have protested to no avail. While hoping the state relaxes the regulations at some point, Reading’s plan is to push ahead and plan for what more multifamily housing would look like in Reading and where would it go. The town has already filed an action plan with the state, which keeps Reading in temporary compliance.

“What you’re imagining now is what many people will imagine, when they read about this,” said Clish of the thought of building even more developments in an area that many feel is already packed. “What’s really important is, we don’t have the answers yet and we want the community to engage with us in getting the answers.”

Phase 1 of that engagement will ask residents about the preferred types and locations of future multi-family development in Reading, meaning close to the train station.

“We don’t know how this is going to happen. At CPDC we’ve batted around some ideas. We can’t, for instance, allow eight units on a little teeny Green Street. They wouldn’t quite buy that. So, for now, I think the message is, that the town will be doing technical research and presenting some options. We also be asking for the community’s input.”

To date, community input has meant working to spread out development to make it more palatable for all. But the state wants just the opposite.

“It makes the community engagement of how we zone for this even more important. We know that people were reluctant at Town Meeting to have high density. That came through loud and clear.”

The community engagement will be done in two phases and start next month. The town will launch a new website, distribute flyers, conduct a survey, and meet people where they are, from beer gardens on the Common to board and commission meetings. Phase 2 of the engagement will involve a series of forums. The town must be in compliance by December 2024. Because of that, MacNichol wants to have everything in place to go before the April 2024 Town Meeting.

If the town isn’t in compliance by December 2024 the price could be steep. The town could lose access to grants, the Housing Authority could lose funding, and the state could take legal action. All this work will cost the town money but the state announced a grant program recently to assist communities with the new law. The grants will be for up to $100,000.

Reading’s application was supported by State Representative Brad Jones, State Representative Rich Haggerty, and State Senator Jason Lewis. Tuesday night the Select Board also signed off on its support.

Prior to the CPDC presentation, the board was in a celebratory mood, endorsing four proclamations.

The first was for National Public Works Week (May 22-26). The week includes what Fidel Maltez called a ”small celebration” Thursday to thank the town’s DPW team. The second was for Arbor Day (April 28), which is required for the town to maintain its designation as Tree City USA. Reading has held this designation for 37 years. Next was Pride Month (June) and the final proclamation was for Juneteenth, which will be celebrated in Reading on June 24 on the Town Common.

With a 5-0 vote, the board approved FY24 non-union classification and compensation schedules. It was the culmination of more than two years of work and it was presented to the board by Human Resources Director Sean Donahue. The goal of the revised compensation schedules is to attract and retain good people in Town Hall.

The Select Board voted 5-0 in support of raising the Cost of Living increase for retirees by 2 percent, making it 5 percent for FY23. Normally this is done at Town Meeting but a state law signed in November allows the Select Board to increase the amount up to 5 percent. Retirees typically receive a COLA increase of up to 3 percent.

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