Frequently Asked Questions

What is zoning and why is it important?

Zoning is a key tool used at the local level to shape a municipality through requirements for land use. It provides the legal framework for what can and cannot be developed on a parcel of land, including the types of uses that are allowed, size and siting of structures, amount of required parking, open space considerations, and more. Well-crafted zoning should tell the private sector about what kind of development the Town wants to see and where.

Why not just “opt-out?”

Opting out is not an option. The Attorney General, issued an advisory to municipalities clearly stating that noncompliance with the MBTA Communities Law will be considered a discriminatory action.

“All MBTA Communities must comply with the Law. Communities that do not currently have a compliant multifamily zoning district must take steps outlined in the DHCD guidelines to demonstrate interim compliance. Communities that fail to comply with the Law may be subject to civil enforcement action. Importantly, MBTA Communities cannot… avoid their obligations under the Law by foregoing this funding. The Law requires that MBTA Communities “shall have” a compliant zoning district and does not provide any mechanism by which a town or city may opt out of this requirement.

“MBTA Communities that fail to comply with the Law’s requirements also risk liability under federal and state fair housing laws. The Massachusetts Antidiscrimination Law and federal Fair Housing Act prohibit towns and cities from using their zoning power for a discriminatory purpose or with discriminatory effect. An MBTA Community may violate these laws if, for example, its zoning restrictions have the effect of unfairly limiting housing opportunities for families with children, individuals who receive housing subsidies, people of color, people with disabilities, or other protected groups.”

In addition to being discriminatory, it must be noted that many of the Town’s Plans note the need to encourage additional housing through the redevelopment of key areas of Town. Compliance with the MBTA Communities Law is one strategy the Town has available to provide additional housing choice and diversity.

How much discretion does each MBTA community have with respect to where a multifamily district is located?

A multi-family zoning district must be located within 0.5 miles of a transit station, with at least half of the district’s land area within the 0.5-mile radius, when that is possible. Where it is not possible to locate a district within 0.5 miles of a transit station, cities and towns otherwise have considerable flexibility to decide where to locate these districts. These districts may be located where there are existing single-family, multi-family, commercial or other existing uses and structures, or in areas ready for redevelopment. DHCD strongly encourages cities and towns to consider multi-family districts where there is existing or planned pedestrian and bicycle access to a transit station, or that otherwise are in areas of concentrated development. Regardless of location, each community must demonstrate that the zoning allows for multi-family housing that meets or exceeds the required unit capacity and at a density that meets the statutory minimum.

Andover MBTA Communities requirements

What is Unit Capacity?

Unit capacity is a legal envelope of allowed buildings; an estimated count of technically allowed dwelling units. 

Unit Capacity image

Image source:

How dense is my neighborhood currently? 

Andover Station

Half Mile Radius around Andover Station Opens in new windowBallardvale Station

Half Mile Radius Ballardvale Station Opens in new window


What about Traffic and Parking?

One of the primary goals of encouraging development near transit and along or near commercial areas is to reduce reliance on cars, and to make cycling and walking more convenient. By building more housing with convenient access to public transportation and commercial and civic opportunities, we give people more choice in how they get to work, school, shopping, and leisure opportunities, reducing the need to drive for every trip.

What are Zoning Overlay Districts?

Overlay districts are zoning districts that have been superimposed over existing districts, in accordance with the Zoning Act, to create new requirements and opportunities. They are often used to protect sensitive environmental features, such as aquifers and wetlands, to promote the adaptive reuse of historic properties, and to allow greater flexibility or additional uses, particularly with residential or commercial use.