(EDITOR’S NOTE: Special Town Meeting Article 1 asks “To see if the Town will eliminate multi-family housing in the central business and neighborhood mixed use districts defined in the Wilmington zoning bylaws.” If this article passes, no new apartments, condos or townhouses can be built in town. The one exception would be through the state’s 40B program. (The town may become susceptible to 40B projects if its affordable housing stock falls below 10% of its overall housing stock after the 2020 census.) 40B housing projects do not need to follow local zoning regulations. Such developments can be higher, bigger, and denser than what’s normally permitted.)
Many voices have been raised in recent weeks warning of the potential costs to Wilmington of additional multi-family development. Some have gone so far as to suggest that these costs, particularly in the form of increased school enrollment, could bankrupt the town. I believe the costs would be significantly lower than many fear.
People have long assumed that an increase in housing units leads to an increase in the school population. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (the public regional planning agency serving the 101 towns of greater Boston) has looked at the data and last year published a study concluding that “the conventional wisdom that links housing production with inevitable enrollment growth no longer holds true.” Not only have demographic trends (with baby boomers’ children aging out of school and subsequent generations having fewer children) led to a sharp decrease in school enrollment generally, but those towns that have experienced an increase in enrollment have done so largely irrespective of housing production, as a result either of their highly desirable school districts (Belmont, Brookline, Lexington) or their much-more-affordable-than-average housing stock (Revere, Everett, Chelsea, Lynn). Wilmington’s school population has mirrored the general demographic trends, falling 9.14% from 2011 to 2017 (from 3732 to 3391 students).
For those interested in reading more, the MAPC study is available at www.mapc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/MAPC_HousingEnrollment_Final.pdf and general school enrollment data can be found at http://www.doe.mass.edu/infoservices/reports/enroll/default.html?yr=1011.
Concerns have also been raised about increased traffic and other infrastructure burdens. While such burdens are undoubtedly real, they can be mitigated. First, multi-family development is not permitted as of right in any zoning district in Wilmington. Instead, in those two districts in which multi-family development is possible, it requires site review and a special permit. The Planning Board thus must be involved and determine, together with the developer, what mitigation measures may be appropriate. Second, multi-family development will generate revenue for the town (unlike other ideas that have been floated for large parcels of developable land, such as town acquisition or taking by eminent domain), which revenue can be used towards services many believe the town already needs, such as construction of a fire sub-station.
Multi-family development can advance many of Wilmington’s stated goals. It can preserve open space, by allowing developers to concentrate units on a portion of a site, rather than having to build out the entire site with sprawling single family lots. It can also provide a greater variety of housing units, including those that may be more accessible physically and monetarily to our seniors.
Given the robust Boston area economy, development will occur. Leaving development to neighboring towns may seem like a good idea, but likely will result in Wilmington bearing many of the consequences, such as increased traffic, while generating none of the revenue. Multi-family development need not undermine Wilmington’s character. Done correctly, it can improve the town.