Amesbury's Progress on Expanding Housing Choice for All
The City is embarking on two long-range planning efforts that will result in updated policies and strategies for housing development in Amesbury:
Master Plan Housing Element: The Housing Element of a Master Plan identifies and analyzes existing and forecasted housing needs and proposes goals and objectives in order to preserve, improve, and develop new housing that meets the needs of a community. For each objective a series of action steps are then outlined to help achieve these. The Master Plan Housing Element includes:
A public process to help identify community values, educate participants regarding the limitations and possibilities, and inform patterns of development consistent with these values so that decisions are made based on relative consensus, that they are informed by the community’s common values, and that they guide decisions about housing location and type, and plans regarding related amenities such as open space, jobs and services. On March 29th, we held the Amesbury Housing Summit, drawing over 100 residents, businesses, developers, local leaders, nonprofit organizations, and regional and state agencies to discuss our housing needs and how we can overcome them together. The presentations and infographics from the Housing Summit are posted, and the summary of findings is coming in May 2023. All of the feedback will be considered as we draft the Housing Element of the Master Plan.
A statement identifying the goals and policies of the municipality as relates to the preservation of existing and the development of future housing units.
A recognition and explicit connection drawn between housing goals and other master plan goals such as the preservation of open space and the reduction of dependence on single-occupancy vehicles for transportation.
The City began work on updating its Master Plan – I Amesbury 2030 – in 2021, and several chapters of the Plan have already been completed. Work on the Master Plan’s housing element will start in November and is scheduled to be completed in April 2023. The Housing Element will serve as a guide to the sustainable development of new housing and support maintaining existing housing for all residents in Amesbury. It also hopes that the recommendations will guide us to getting to and maintaining 10% affordable units and also to better understand which of the affordable units are not counted by the State as being affordable and how to work with landlords to maintain their affordability. The underlining principle remains that young people, older adults, people with disabilities, families of different sizes and forms, teachers, police officers, fire fighters … all can find a home that they can afford and that meets their needs.
Housing Production Plan (HPP) Update: A HPP is necessary for monitoring changes in the City’s stock of affordable housing units and for identifying opportunities to create additional affordable housing to meet the needs of Amesbury residents. The State’s Chapter 40B sets a 10% affordable housing goal for communities. Those under this threshold can receive proposals for affordable housing developments that can be approved by Zoning Boards of Appeals (ZBA) under flexible zoning. Consisting of a housing needs and demand assessment, analysis of development constraints and opportunities, and housing goals and strategies to achieve them, HPPs serves as a guide for communities that are under the 10% threshold. Once the HPP is locally adopted and state approved, it can be certified by the Massachusetts of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), if the municipality demonstrates progress in in producing affordable housing. Having a certified HPP means the ZBA can deny a comprehensive permit for a specified period of time. DHCD provides guidelines for developing the Housing Production Plan.
The HPP complements the Master Plan housing element: while the Master Plan presents long-range goals and policies and recommends implementation strategies on a ten-year horizon, the Housing Production Plan focuses on shorter-term strategies and actions that can be accomplished in the five-year period of the plan.
Every five years the City prepares a Housing Production Plan (HPP). Amesbury last updated its HHP in 2018. The Merrimack Valley Planning Commission is currently working with the City on the HPP as part of a regional Housing Production Plan effort.
Zoning Ordinance Updates
Inclusionary Housing Ordinance:. An Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance is a policy requiring developers to provide a certain percentage of units that is available, accessible, and affordable to low or moderate-income households. Most often such an ordinance is only applied to projects above a certain size (e.g. number of units). This is because if a developer is required to provide affordable units below a certain threshold, the project may not be financially feasible.
Currently Amesbury has an Affordable Housing Ordinance that requires that 15% of a multi-family housing development with 8 units and above, be affordable. A number of affordable units have been created using this policy. The City is currently reviewing the ordinance with the goal of strengthening it so that it results in more smaller, affordable units to be available to returning students, the City’s workforce, and others that desire smaller dwelling units. The update would include meeting Fair Housing Standards and required updates, as well as ensuring more new housing developments incorporate affordable units in the future.
Accessory Dwelling Unit Ordinance (ADU): An Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Ordinance is a policy that allows a small home that can be attached or detached from the main, larger single-family home. Accessory Dwelling Units are self-sufficient housing units and contain a kitchen, a living area, bathroom and sleeping area. Many municipalities allow and even encourage the construction of ADUs in order to increase the supply of affordable housing. Often they are used by an elder family member so that they may live affordably and in close proximity to their adult children, but can be used to house any number of persons wishing to live in smaller, more affordable housing.
The City currently has an in-law apartment ordinance, but it requires that the inhabitants of the units be direct, blood relatives. Amesbury will take direction from the development of the Housing for All element of the Master Plan and create an ADU ordinance that reflects the need for housing and be more inclusive.
MBTA Communities Zoning
Recent State legislation has created a mandate for communities in the MBTA service area to provide zoning districts that allow multi-family housing without the requirement for a special permit or other discretionary approval process. MBTA Communitiesare those communities served by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) or are adjacent to a town or city served by it. In fact, 175 cities and towns count as MBTA communities. These communities need to show incremental progress to achieve this mandate, and Amesbury is currently compliant with achieving those steps. The most recent step was to submit an Action Plan for final compliance (adopting the zoning districts), which the City completed on January 26th. Check out our Action Plan here.
Under this legislation Amesbury is designated as an “Adjacent MBTA Community” and will have to create one or more zoning districts in the City that will allow at least 789 multi-family units. This requirement could be satisfied in concert with one or more of the planned housing projects. This will ensure that the City remains eligible for several state grants. Potential benefits include providing a greater variety of housing stock, additional housing that is priced lower than new single-family dwellings, and more options for people who want to move to Amesbury or who want to downsize in Amesbury.
This doesn’t necessarily require the City to change direction in its housing policy: Amesbury’s existing and proposed smart growth districts will likely address a portion of the MBTA multi-family housing quota, while projects in areas like the Lower Millyard District and near the Golden Triangle can support additional residential development. It is also important to note that the MBTA Communities requirement is for the City to allow multi-family development, and does not mean that all zoned areas will actually see new development in the near term.
How does creating zoning for multi-family housing help the housing crisis?
The lack of zoning for multi-family housing is a barrier for new housing development in Massachusetts. By allowing multifamily housing near transit, we can create new housing in walkable neighborhoods closer to transit. This is not just good housing policy, it is good climate and transportation policy, too. The result of transit-oriented development is:
More housing closer to the places that we go every day, such as local shops, jobs, schools, restaurants, parks, etc.
Better access to work, services, and other destinations by increasing mobility and utilization of public transit
Reduced reliance on single occupancy vehicles, which helps in our larger effort to confront the climate crisis
Concurrent with these broad long-range policy planning projects, the City is also engaged in five large and complex planning and zoning efforts that are designed to encourage the development of new housing and mixed-use neighborhoods in several areas of Amesbury.
Amesbury’s Lower Millyard is an older industrial area that is evolving into a mixed-use expansion of the City’s vibrant downtown core. The Lower Millyard already has a variety of amenities including Heritage Park, the Powwow River, the Riverwalk, the Amesbury Senior Center, the Costello Transportation Center,a parking deck, and a growing business ecosystem with small manufacturers, makers and three breweries. The area is zoned Central Industrial with a Lower Millyard Overlay District. There is interest from several parties in redeveloping older industrial properties in the Lower Millyard. The City has recently undertaken two planning projects to evaluate redevelopment options, and will need to look at rezoning and financing strategies to achieve a beneficial outcome.
The City is proposing to establish a Smart Growth Overlay District in the area of Route 110, Clarks Road and Elm Street. Smart Growth Districts are a zoning tool authorized by Massachusetts law, Chapter 40R, to encourage concentrated, appropriately scaled development in appropriate areas that have the infrastructure to support such development. The goals of the proposed East End Smart Growth Overlay District are to encourage mixed-use redevelopment of the existing commercial areas around the intersection of Route 110 and Clarks Road and Elm Street and to provide an appropriately scaled and designed transition between the commercial and residential neighborhoods. Adoption of a Smart Growth Overlay District will give the City more control over the process for creating well-designed, mixed-use development.
The area bounded by I-95 on the east, I-495 on the northwest, and Elm Street on the southwest has been the subject of planning and development interest for a number of years. The area is currently within an Office Park zoning district and as well as two overlay districts: the Commercial Fashion Center Overlay District, which was created to accommodate a specific proposal that has since been abandoned); and the Priority Development Overlay District, which allows expedited permitting for large-scale commercial development. More recently, the market for development of the Golden Triangle has shifted away from these in favor of residential development.
Similar to the East End Smart Growth Overlay District, the Amesbury Village Gateway Smart Growth Overlay District at the intersection of Routes 110 (Haverhill Road) and 150 (Hillside Avenue) was created to encourage higher-density residential development close to I-495 exit 118. The first development in this district is Amesbury Heights apartment complex. The City is looking at potential amendments to the 40R district to accommodate a multifamily condominium development on the adjacent Gorman Farm property.
Smaller Redevelopment Projects
Along with the five large planning and zoning projects that have the potential to transform significant areas close to regional highways, there are also several smaller projects across the City that could provide modest numbers of new affordable housing units. Some of these are directly controlled by the City; others may need City involvement in the way of zoning, permitting or other mechanisms.
Two City-owned parcels on Cynthia Lane/Cynthia Road off of Whitehall Road, containing about 3 acres, are currently being considered for disposition to allow development of a small affordable housing project.
The City owns a parcel off of Clinton Street which could be a good candidate for future housing development. It is adjacent to other large parcels which could provide us the access to the parcel and allow for a larger development of starter homes. More research is required to proceed with this.
“While many of our colleagues at Imarc take advantage of remote work, our presence in Amesbury’s downtown is a benefit for those that do come in on a regular basis. This tends to be our local employees, who use our collaboration space and venture out for lunch and coffee. With the increased competition for housing space, many people are struggling to find places to live locally and are being forced to leave the area. When that happens Imarc’s space loses some of its value and Amesbury businesses lose a potential patron.”
- Patrick McPhail, Partner, COO, Imarc, A Digital Agency