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It all comes down to this: MBTA zoning fight roils Milton ahead of a key vote on Tuesday

Milton is sharply split on a sweeping new zoning plan designed to loosen the grip of single-family housing on the proudly residential suburb. It is a vote that will reverberate far beyond the town borders.

Milton residents are preparing to vote on a controversial plan that would open key sections of the town to more housing development. People on both sides of the vote held signs at Glover Elementary School on Friday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

MILTON — Drivers in the rush-hour stop-and-go along Granite Avenue to Boston can’t miss it: a blazing red political sign from the most significant local campaign in years:

Late For Work?

Just Wait Until There’s 500+ Housing Units

Vote No On Question 1

The sign is partly the work of East Milton resident Andrea Doherty, who erected it in opposition to a contentious town zoning proposal. “We’re not against new housing,” Doherty insisted in an interview. “But it needs to be better dispersed throughout the town. We feel they’re just throwing it down here in East Milton.”

In the same part of town but on the other side of the roiling debate, Kathleen O’Donnell has been knocking on doors and pounding the message of Team YES: New zoning will be good for the town, good for the region, and has the benefit of not breaking the law, as a no vote would do.

“I think most people get it,” said O’Donnell, a former member of the town’s Planning Board. “The 13th can’t come soon enough.”

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That would be Tuesday, election day in Milton, when voters will decide whether to loosen local zoning to allow more apartments and condos, as commanded by state law.

Or not to.

“It’s so crazy right now — the town is so divided,” said Ian Grigorio, who runs the local Facebook page Everything Milton Ma., one of the forums where the debate has played out for weeks. Grigorio said he gets 10 to 20 complaints a day from passionate partisans about the tenor of the other side’s comments. He defended the debate as respectful for the most part. “Some people don’t think so,” he allowed.

In O’Donnell’s opinion, “It’s been a scream fest for the last 10 days.”

Milton residents outside Pierce Middle School on Friday morning. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The wider repercussions of Tuesday’s decision could make this the most consequential local vote in the town’s history.

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At issue is Milton’s effort to comply with the 2021 MBTA communities law, requiring 177 communities served by the T to rezone to make it easier to build multifamily housing, largely near transit stations. State leaders are counting on suburban rezoning to increase the supply of new homes and help address a regional housing crisis that is driving home costs to stratospheric levels and pricing many working people out of the market.

The legal mandate to rezone, however, has inflamed people in a number of communities who don’t like to be told what to do — but nowhere as dramatically as in Milton, a town of 28,630 people. Like a lot of affluent Boston suburbs, Milton has long made it difficult to build multifamily developments, with zoning designed to protect and encourage single-family neighborhoods.

The town is among a dozen municipalities in the first wave of rezonings, which were supposed to be done by the end of last year. After months of public hearings and debate, Milton Town Meeting in December approved a zoning plan to relax construction rules to encourage multifamily developments in a number of areas around town.

Opponents extended the political battle, however, collecting signatures to trigger a little-used clause of the town charter to override the action of Town Meeting and force the matter to a townwide ballot. Opponents gathered many more than the roughly 1,100 signatures required, and the Feb. 13 election date was finalized in late December.

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That kicked off one of the most intensely fought campaigns in memory.

Volunteers on each side have gone door-to-door. Hundreds of YES! Or VOTE NO lawn signs have been forced into frozen ground. Information cards have cluttered mailboxes. Advertisements have appeared in the local paper. Partisans have YELLED AT EACH OTHER IN ALL CAPS on the internet.

Erin Bradley, a Milton Select Board Member, carries "Yes" signs near the Pierce Middle School on Feb. 9. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
John Keohane placed a "no" flier into the door of a Milton resident. (Erin Clark/Globe Staff)

“It’s taking up a lot of oxygen that’s for sure,” said Tom Callahan, former director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance in Dorchester, and one of the leaders of the YES team in Milton.

Tuesday’s vote will serve as an important barometer of how residents are feeling about the state’s big pitch on housing: that in order to dig out of the shortage, some residents will have to accept denser housing in their neighborhoods.

More than 130 other communities are supposed to rezone under the MBTA communities law by the end of this year — and they are watching Tuesday’s vote.

“If the ‘no’ side succeeds in Milton, it will embolden the NIMBYs in so many communities, and then the state has a mess on its hands in trying to enforce this law,” Callahan said.

State leaders understand this, too, and they are also watching. Attorney General Andrea Campbell is waving the stick, threatening Milton with lost grants and legal action if the vote fails. Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll loaned her political heft to the YES team at a Jan. 30 campaign rally at the Milton Art Center.

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“We cannot have a housing strategy that says Milton is going to do this, and Boston’s going to do that, and Quincy is going to do something else,” Driscoll told the crowd. At the end of her remarks, almost as an afterthought, she added, “We don’t want Milton to be the only community that’s not in compliance with the law.”

Milton is sharply split on a sweeping new zoning plan designed to loosen the grip of single-family housing on the proudly residential suburb.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A group of five NO voters tried to crash the Driscoll event, leading to a somewhat tense, hushed back-and-forth in the entryway. A few of the YES organizers could be seen pointing — there’s the door. The NO folks ultimately withdrew. A member of the YES team explained later that they had barred the opponents to avoid angry outbursts over the MBTA communities law, such as those at a hearing in Arlington last year, when emotions got the better of people who did not have the opportunity to speak, and officials felt the need to call the police.

The competing campaigns in Milton are closely matched in resources. Yes For Milton raised about $22,000 in campaign donations, according to documents on file at Town Hall. The NO side, under the name Residents for Thoughtful Zoning, raised about $24,000. Both sides reported similar expenditures for lawn signs, campaign fliers, ads, and mailers.

It is a lot of money for such a short local campaign, said Denny Swenson, a former Planning Board member and a leader of the vote NO campaign. “It’s a testament to what a hot topic it is,” she said.

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Milton’s proposal to satisfy the MBTA communities law would loosen zoning for apartments and condos in six subdistricts totaling about 150 acres. Roughly speaking, the new zones would be along the Eliot Street corridor roughly parallel to the Mattapan Trolley line, along part of Blue Hills Parkway, in East Milton Square, and north of the square along Granite Avenue.

Milton is required to rezone to permit at least 2,461 new units of multifamily housing. That number represents how many units would be theoretically possible within the new zones; the actual number of units ultimately built is expected to be far fewer, given how much land within the zones is already developed. That sort of nuance has not seemed to penetrate in the binary fight between YES and NO.

A general principle in YES/NO ballot questions is that getting people to YES is more work, and that NO is the default position for people who are confused or feel they lack enough information to weigh the issue.

Zoning is complicated — the Milton proposal voters will decide on is nearly 30 pages long. The NO side has attacked it with a simple message: Defeat this bad plan and the town can write a better one.

John Keohane, a volunteer from Residents for Thoughtful Zoning, prepared to go door-to-door Friday to encourage Milton voters to vote no on Question 1.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Swenson says she feels good about how the NO side’s “we can do better” message has resonated. “I think there’s a lot of feelings around this issue and when people feel strongly, there is a lot of turnout,” she said.

Matt Morong, a leader of the YES campaign, said that, for the most part, conversations with folks door-to-door have been civil, though a few of the YES campaigners have had doors shut in their faces.

“People are motivated by different aspects of this,” Morong said. “I believe that the zoning is the right thing to do and I welcome the multifamily housing. But I get that there are people who are uncomfortable with new housing, but are going to vote yes because they don’t want the town to break the law. We’ll work with them if that’s where they fall on this.”

Both sides claim support from all corners of Milton. The NO side appears to have a political base in East Milton, the neighborhood cut in half in the 1950s by Interstate 93. East Milton is not an inexpensive neighborhood — Milton doesn’t have any of those — but the neighborhood’s grids of traditional single-family homes on small lots are modest in comparison to the estate homes on the tonier west side of town.

Opponents in East Milton point out that they do not have easily walkable transit within their neighborhood — the Red Line stop nearest to East Milton Square, Wollaston Station, is about a mile-and-a-half away in Quincy — yet they are expected to accept new zoning, dense housing, and the traffic it would bring.

“They don’t really do much to help us out down here,” said East Milton resident Kristen Joyce, who has admittedly developed a reputation as an adamant online voice for NO. “I just want them to change the plan so we’re not so disadvantaged.”

Mike Zullas, chair of the Milton Select Board, who supports the zoning plan, argued that the proposal is already in the Goldilocks zone between the two sides: It is unlikely to produce the dreams of housing advocates, nor justify the fears of residents who dread too much density.

“It’s in the middle,” Zullas said.

Of course, in a fiery political campaign, there is no middle way between YES and NO.


Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him @bostonglobemark. Andrew Brinker can be reached at andrew.brinker@globe.com. Follow him @andrewnbrinker.