Zoning Reform — how it went in the Senate

We debated the zoning reform bill today.

The final vote was relatively close for a major bill with leadership support — 23 to 15. Senators had a wide range of concerns and the bill sponsors were prepared to and did accept very substantial amendments (notably weakening both the accessory use and the density requirements). These concessions appeared necessary to win the votes needed to pass the bill.

As you know from my prior columns, I committed to support the bill based on my conviction that, for the environment, for economic development and for fairness, we need to find a way to increase housing production near jobs and transit in Massachusetts. I was pleased to speak for and vote for the bill.

But the volume and significance of the changes that the Senate made on the floor — and the close vote — make clear that a House-Senate consensus will not be reached before formal sessions end on July 31.

That’s not a failure. Big bills often need to be moved to a floor debate in order to surface the real issues and force people to define their views.

Here are some of my takeaways:

First, the core principles of the bill are sound — it is essential that we simplify and standardize zoning procedure across communities and it is also essential that we create some power in regional or state authorities to compel by-right zoning for multi-family housing in places where it makes sense (close to jobs or transit).

Second, while the bill has strong support from the environmental community and from municipal planners, it lacks broad support from elected officials who are directly accountable to residents. Local elected officials know well how passionately people feel about any change to their neighborhood and are loathe to support possible increases in density.

Third, ultimately, it will be necessary to put Chapter 40B on the table to get this bill passed. The planning community has hoped that they could impose new zoning obligations on municipalities — to accept in-law apartments and more dense multi-family housing — without putting 40B in play at all. 40B is the law that allows developers to override local zoning and build subsidized housing anywhere in a municipality unless 10% of the housing units in the municipality are already subsidized.

40B has been effective in producing housing, but it is a creature of the 60s when the concept of smart growth was not well understood — nothing in 40B constrains developers to build near transit or to preserve valuable open space. 40B development is also terribly inefficient — the soft costs (lawyers and consultants) in the 40B process are huge.

There was strong support for an amendment mandating a study of 40B. The amendment — authored by Senator Lewis of Winchester — failed by a vote of 19-20, but it seemed clear that a number of additional votes for the amendment would have been available if it had not been strongly opposed by the bill sponsors and the leadership team.

I joined the debate in support of the amendment. If we could legislate a fair and workable set of rules that allowed the construction of more multi-family housing by right, the complex 40B permitting process might be unnecessary — subsidized housing developers could take advantage of the by-right rules. The prospect of eliminating the threat of poorly-planned 40B development might bring municipal leaders to the table and lead to a consensus bill.

I hope that we are able to continue the conversation over the months to come and develop a more robust approach for consideration in 2017.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

13 replies on “Zoning Reform — how it went in the Senate”

  1. Sounds like this bill isnt ready and inly has support from the enviromentalist but not the vast majority of people of this state.. sounds good to me

    1. There is a lot of loyalty to 40B in the housing community, but it’s really throw back to an earlier era of planning.

      We need to have a broader regional planning approach that accomplishes the fundamental goals of 40B but also accomplishes environmental and economic development goals more effectively and without as much litigation.

  2. Thank you for championing this zoning reform. Your report about in to the Belmont Town Meeting was clear and compelling too.

    I have to say that putting 40B on the table is worrisome. Not that 40B is anyone’s idea of good zoning reform, but it’s the only tool there is sometimes to prevent towns from simply legislating that essentially no new housing at all will be permitted. It’s frighteningly easy to imagine a situation where 40B is scrapped, yet the new zoning law gets so watered down that no meaningful production of housing is possible in many towns. I’m sure you’re completely aware of this, and I know you’re the one with the expertise to stay on top of the tradeoffs involved.

  3. I fully support regional zoning efforts, but am concerned about weakening or losing 40B. Although not an ideal planning tool, it is often the only way certain towns will build affordable housing. We need a strong zoning law that, under certain circumstances, enables developers to build denser housing and provide affordable housing. I know you understand this and just want to make sure we don’t lose a way to override NIMBYism.

  4. Now comes the task of funding public schools. The dirty municipal secret is the out sized trophy homes usually have few occupants and pay their property tax full freight, but smaller dense developments have more occupants and lower assessments that burden the school system. This is the next problem to be addressed is school funding which if not addressed will break the system.

  5. The biggest problem with regards to “affordable” housing availability here in eastern Massachusetts has to do with the vast influx of immigrants coming here from around the globe and thus competing for limited resources… housing, jobs, increased traffic congestion, etc. The winners are the landlords, employers and corporations of course.
    We need to start at the source of the problem. There needs to be a major slowing of immigration into this country. The U.S. immigration policy needs to change or in govt speak, be “reformed”.
    Can Massachusetts just keep absorbing more and more foreigners every year? While immigration is not the only factor, it certainly is a major reason why housing is so expensive and there is so little of it to go around.
    Instead of this massive influx of immigrants taking up space and jobs, why can’t we create ways of educating and employing the permanant underclass that exists in Massachusetts and elsewhere in this country?
    (I guess I’m a little off topic).
    Thank you.

    1. That’s not the way I hear economists talk about the issue. They are concerned that we can’t keep enough people in the state to maintain economic vitality — that housing prices are so high that young people won’t stay here.

      I’d be interested to see data you have.

  6. Hi Will,
    I oppose any new zoning changes forced upon cities and towns by the state. Each city and town should be able to decide population density for themselves. Big govt. needs to stay out of our lives unless absolutely necessary. Some towns are attractive because people aren’t crammed in like sardines and traffic isn’t a nightmare. If you change that, real estate values in many towns will suffer. Massachusetts is attractive because of the way we are now, it won’t be if we change. You were an open space candidate. Please don’t change promoting “URBAN SPRAWL” now. The Belmont Uplands Development at Acorn Park is a prime example of what negatively can happen to a town when govt. takes away town choice. Winn Brook School cannot accommodate that student increase. The result will be school boundary changes, increased classroom sizes, higher taxes, and lower real estate values. Don’t start a slippery slope that will negatively change our landscape and environment forever. Put your Selectman hat back on to make the right decision on this one.
    Sincerely,
    David Benoit

    1. We’ll see how the whole conversation evolves. In my mind, Belmont and many other communities might benefit if we got rid of 40B and replaced it with a more intentional housing development process broadly along the lines envisioned in the bill.

  7. Could you please share the studies of the impacts on transportation, utility, education, and public safety infrastructure expected from S. 2311 that led you to believe that Metropolitan Boston can actually support the prospective increase in population?

    I ask this because,
    – roadways in Boston and the inner suburbs are already under severe stress
    – the MBTA already struggles to meet the needs of existing passengers
    – Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station will be closing in 2019
    – natural gas and electricity transmission capacity is limited
    – recent drought conditions offer a reminder that water can be a scarce commodity
    – the MWRA’s water and sewer handling capabilities also have limits
    – grade school class sizes are already on the increase in many communities

    I would also like to know what state-level funding measures are being considered to pay for the prospective regional and local impacts.

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Steve,

      The kinds of studies that you are interested in get done at organizations like the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and by other members of the Smart Growth Alliance. These are all organizations that were strong supporters of the proposed legislation.

      To your implicit question, no, there was not a specific study that said all these impacts can be handled. But that’s not the kind of question that admits of a black and white answer.

      And no, there is not a major and specific package of aid to cities and towns to go with the bill. The communities most affected by the legislation would actually be the more affluent communities that tend to get less in state aid. The focus of state aid generally is to help the more stressed communities. Although all communities are stressed financially, some really are much more so than others.

      This legislation is dead for this session and has uncertain prospects in the future.

      /w.

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