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The MBTA Communities Act is shaping the Town Meeting election

April 27, 2023  Updated May 9, 2023 at 5:32 p.m.

There’s a huge crowd on the May 2 ballot: 129 people vying to become Brookline Town Meeting members and to play a significant role in determining the town’s future housing landscape.

Eighty-seven seats are up for grabs in Brookline’s legislative branch, more than a third of the total 255 seats in the body.

Town Meeting weighs in on nearly every substantial issue facing Brookline, but housing policy is drawing the bulk of the attention this year.

That’s because Brookline has to respond to the controversial MBTA Communities Act by the end of 2023. The law requires communities on MBTA routes to have at least one zoning district of “reasonable size” within half a mile of the T, where multifamily housing will be allowed to be built “as of right,” without special permits or project-by-project approval from local governments.

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Housing, development major battle ground

In the last several years, advocacy groups have formed battle lines over issues of housing and development in Brookline, and the new law has created a rallying point for both sides.

Two groups, Brookline for Everyone and Brookline by Design, have for the last several years endorsed candidates for Town Meeting and other town-wide offices, hoping to elect office holders who share their views.

Broadly, Brookline for Everyone advocates for more aggressive housing policies that help create housing of all types to meet the affordability challenges in Brookline.

“Brookline must change its zoning bylaws to encourage the creation of complete, walkable neighborhoods with mixed-use and multi-family homes near public transit for all income levels,” the group says on its website.

Brookline by Design argues for a more deliberate, planned approach that takes into account, among other things, preserving the town’s character and “historic assets.”

New growth and development should be “predictable and appropriate,” the group says on its website.

In last year’s election, which was particularly important because redistricting meant that every Town Meeting seat was up for grabs, around 89 percent of Brookline by Design’s endorsed candidates won, compared with 75 percent for Brookline for Everyone.

This year, Brookline by Design has endorsed 70 candidates in Town Meeting races, compared to Brookline for Everyone’s 64 endorsements.

Heat brings new faces

The heat around Brookline’s housing debate has brought new faces to the Town Meeting races, on both sides of the argument. First-time candidate Anne Turner, a 35-year resident of Brookline, is running in Precinct 3, south of Coolidge Corner. She has been endorsed by Brookline by Design.

Turner has been heavily involved in neighborhood politics, including working on the creation of a Neighborhood Conservation District. She’s worked, she says, to protect and preserve “green space and front porches” against “unchecked developers” who are building oversized, unattractive homes.

The MBTA Communities Act motivated her to get involved townwide.

Density, community involvement are issues

“Brookline is already one of the densest communities in the state, and I would have liked to see us get more credit for the density that already exists, and then to marble in additional density where we can, without this feet-to-the-fire element and lack of community involvement,” she said.

Brookline for Everyone has also endorsed first-time candidates, including Michael Rubenstein, who’s running in Precinct 13 on the west edge of Brookline.

The debate over the new law also pushed him to run for Town Meeting.

“There’s a deep tension on this issue in Brookline. And I knew that it was going to come up for a vote in November at Town Meeting, and with the current membership, it was probably not going to pass,” Rubenstein said. “So I made the decision to get in the race to see that I could help move the MBTA Communities Act implementation in Brookline forward.”

Preliminary MBTA Communities Act proposal questioned

There’s already an ongoing fight about the town’s preliminary proposal for compliance with the act, which involves creating a new type of zoning district on Harvard Street, which the town says will “facilitate new mixed-income housing production without threatening demolition of older housing stock.”

Town officials also say the plan would lead to “modestly-paced” housing and commercial growth and maintain Harvard Street’s “3.5 to 4 story Main Street character.”

Broadly speaking, Brookline for Everyone supports the plan and Brookline by Design opposes it. Among the key issues raised are whether the town could preserve the first-floor businesses that currently thrive along that stretch of Harvard Street.

But the town’s proposal is a work in progress, and there’s still time for modifications. The final Town Meeting vote on compliance will likely take place in November, ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline.

You can read about all candidates for Town Meeting in the election guide of the League of Women Voters of Brookline.