Rockport is facing a potential legal challenge to some of the ways it plans for the town.
The challenge is part of a legal document that takes issue with Rockport’s planning direction and also seeks “declaratory relief” against the town and the state Department of Housing and Community Development for its efforts to implement a new Massachusetts Bay Transportation zoning law.
“Now comes the Plaintiffs, residents and abutters in the town of Rockport, who seek declaratory relief that certain pro-development policies and statutes challenging long-standing zoning laws are unconstitutional and illegal under state law,” reads the document.
The new state law requires that an MBTA community shall have at least one zoning district of “reasonable size” in which multifamily housing is permitted and also calls for a minimum density of 15 units per acre.
Plus, the law calls for any development in an MBTA community to be located no more than ½ mile from a commuter rail station, subway station ferry terminal or bus station.
In August, the state issued its final guidelines to determine if MBTA communities were in compliance with the new law.
On Monday, Planning Board Chairman Jason Shaw cast doubt on the validity of the document in question.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “It really has no significance.”
The document states it was to be filed in Superior Court; although it is not dated nor does the document have a document number attached.
The document does list as defendants: The town of Rockport, Department of Housing and Community Development, and Attorney General Maura Healey’s office. About 10 plaintiffs are named on the document.
Shaw said he doubts the measure will move forward but he added it could result in unneeded costs for the town.
“All it will mean is the town will have to defend it and incur legal fees,” he said. “Ultimately, those fees will have to be paid for by the taxpayers.”
Zenus Seppala is a Rockport resident and signatory to the document. He feels the town has “abandoned any effort to establish an affordable housing trust.” Seppala formerly served on the town’s Government and Bylaws Committee.
“The state (has determined) that localities have to have high-density affordable housing,” said Seppala. “If the cities and towns don’t do that, they are subject to having certain grants withheld.”
Seppala said he would like to see the town implement “the will of the people,” which was exemplified by the passage of the affordable housing trust measure back in 2017.
“It hasn’t happened so far,” he said. “You can look through all the town of Rockport and see that it has never happened. The selectmen have had a mandate from Town Meeting to create an affordable housing trust. But they’ve never done it.”
Attempts to reach attorney Michael Walsh, of Walsh & Walsh LLP in Lynnfield, for comment on the document were unsuccessful.
The state department’s website holds multifamily zoning districts need to be close to transit hubs in the state. The site maintains: “Massachusetts is in a housing crisis.”
State officials point to Massachusetts having among the highest home prices and rents of any state in the nation. Plus, the agency contends rising costs have dramatically increased financial pressures on low and middle-income families, forcing them to sacrifice other priorities in order to pay housing costs.
“These high costs are a disadvantage as we compete economically against peer states,” reads the DHCD website. “The risk of future job growth moving outside Massachusetts is rising due to the high costs of living.”
In January 2021, Gov. Charlie Baker signed the new economic development law called “An Act for Enabling Partnerships for Growth.” The law was aimed at the production of new housing units for the state.
The signatories to the document against Rockport take issue with the way DHCD determines standards for density of new developments, requiring at least 15 housing units per acre. Also troubling, the signatories contend, is the new law “heavily promotes the use of accessory units (so-called ‘mother-in-law’ apartments).
In addition, the signatories contend the Legislature lowers the threshold of voting for such zoning changes from a ⅔ majority to a simple majority.
Plus, the lawsuit holds the MBTA has been slow to implement the new law.
“The state government has been slow implementing the MBTA zoning law,” the document contends. It was only in March 2022 that DHCD published for comment draft regulations for the formula of qualifying MBTA zoning districts,” the document reads.
Stephen Hagan can be reached at 978-675-2708 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.