Zoning reforms under discussion

Our state-wide zoning framework has not been overhauled since the early 1970s. For a decade now, a comprehensive zoning reform package before the state legislature has failed to move. For the first time, it appears to have traction — the Senate is likely to take it up over the next few weeks.

Communities are often deeply divided over choices about where different kinds and sizes of buildings can be built. People on all sides naturally view any changes in the rules with great suspicion. That suspicion alone is reason enough for most legislators to stay away from the issue. But, in addition, there is a huge uncertainty problem: Local zoning laws are highly complex — it is very difficult to gauge how changes in the state framework will play out locally.

Over the past decade, reform advocates have struggled to simplify their proposal to the point where legislators can at least have some sense of how the bill will operate. It will nonetheless be a controversial bill in many communities. In Boston, it will be irrelevant, because Boston has its own special zoning framework.

Speaking to the universally recognized need for less expensive housing, the bill (in the latest draft I have seen) will require communities to make it easier to build denser housing on a by-right basis. The bill attempts to define reasonable levels of residential density that communities must accommodate. The bill requires all communities to have a zoning district of reasonable size that will permit density of at least 15 units per acre (including streets and parks). That is roughly the density of typical three-family neighborhoods in Belmont, Watertown and Brighton. Additionally, the bill requires communities to permit accessory units within single family homes — in-law apartments — up to a level of at least 5% of the housing units in the community. Finally, the bill requires that communities allow cluster development (that preserves open space) by-right. The accessory unit requirement would go into effect in 2017. The requirement for higher density and cluster zoning districts would go into effect in 2019 and could be enforced in court by an aggrieved permit applicant.

The bill relies heavily on the regulatory credibility of the Department of Housing and Community Development, empowering it to define regulations detailing what communities need to do comply with the new rules. Additionally, DHCD would be empowered to certify communities as compliant. Certification of compliance would entitle communities to preferred treatment in state infrastructure spending, including road spending.

The bill also would allow communities to make zoning by-law changes, often necessary to accommodate new projects, easier to get. Currently zoning by-law changes need to be approved by a 2/3 vote. A community would be allowed, by a 2/3 vote, to generally lower the threshold to a simple majority. However, if a community is non-compliant on the housing density rules, a by-law change bringing it into compliance would only require a majority vote. Also easing development, the bill would change the prevailing legal standard to make it easier for zoning boards to grant variances.

The bill also attempts to create some uniformity in permitting procedures across the Commonwealth. Site plan review — approval of the layout of larger projects — is a process that communities define differently. The bill would standardize site plan review. It would also define parameters for inclusionary zoning by-laws (that require some level of affordable housing to get built) and development impact fees (where developers are required to compensate communities).

The major environmental and planning advocacy organizations in the state support the legislation. The real estate organizations remain opposed (perhaps largely because of rules regulating development along rural roads). I do intend to support the bill — we need more housing. But I welcome all questions and comments — the details of the bill are still in flux.


Please see continuation piece here.

I’ve closed this thread to comment, just to channel the conversation into the next thread, which responds to some of the comments here. Please do comment there.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

48 replies on “Zoning reforms under discussion”

  1. The phrase “density that communities must accommodate” evokes shades of 40B which can be a challenge in communities already heavily built; the threat that developers use to blackmail towns into acceding to larger projects than the town wants. Agree that affordable and moderate income housing is vital but some of these components seem a microcosm of the federal v. states’ rights issues. Interesting to follow…

    1. Belmont and Watertown would come pretty close to meeting the density requirements already. The rules would not require density everywhere in a community — just a district and both communities have these.

  2. A couple questions:
    In Watertown we are seeing more and more single families to large two/three ,or more units). I understand the need for more housing but would not want the nature of many neighborhood to be turned from both two and single(say for example) to all three families(or more!). From reading this, much of our local zoning would be for not,correct?
    Also: If the minimal unit/1 acre was 3 units(which our town is mostly NOT zoned for), how would that impact the amount of green space(as I would not want to see less green space per acre)?
    Do you know what the avg plot size in Watertown
    and Belmont?
    We have growing of issues in Watertown currently and this would impact all the hard work we have been doing over the past 2 years. So far not a fan. Will do some more reading of the specifics. Thanks!

  3. This legislation sounds like a desirable liberal reform to make housing more accessible. But is that what really happens? If one looks at the Boston area, housing in denser areas is not less expensive but more expensive. It is also more crowded and has fewer amenities — less outdoor space and tighter living quarters. It also urbanizes what were suburban communities, making them denser, putting pressure on town services and increasing traffic on tight roads built for a much sparser population.

    Furthermore, lower cost housing is readily available a bit further out from Boston — for example one can easily buy a house in Acton for the price of a tight so called ‘affordable’ Condo in, say, Arlington.

    So in my opinion this legislation is a disaster. It is primarily of benefit to the real estate and construction industries, who are key beneficiaries of the legislation (as they were of 40B).

    So I hope you will oppose this legislation or any legislation which removes the rights of communities to set their own zoning standards.


    1. As a transportation planner, I can tell you that if our solution is telling people to move to Acton and other exurbs it’s a recipe for a traffic disaster – longer commutes, higher taxes (to maintain sprawling infrastructure), less open space, and a lower quality of life.

      1. Ah thats what people do. You live where you can afford. And there is already lower income housing in all towns. What else do you want. Oh large bloated government. Then move to denmark or germany.

    2. 2nd this. Whats next we will redevelope our towns to look like all those wonderful soviet and NKorea living areas.. a whole lot of apartment blgs that all look a like.

  4. Thank you for supporting this measure. While I wish this bill was even stronger in supporting dense development and making it easier, faster, and more affordable to construct housing in the state, I think this is a crucial first step. By making it easier to construct housing, we can provide good paying jobs, new tax revenue, and more affordable housing for those most in need of it. Hopefully this measure can pass before the Senate adjourns.

    My one concern, however, is a lack of definition of “district”. I worry that some communities may zone mulitfamily districts that are so small that they effectively prohibit denser development. I would urge Mr. Brownsberger to seek clarification of this by amending the bill to require a set amount of space in each community. For example, Chapter 40B allows builders to construct as-of right if affordable housing levels in a community are either less than 10% or 1.5% of all buildable space I believe. If this bill was amended to require that a minimum of say 5% of buildable land be zoned for at least 15 units per acre, that might close a loophole some towns might use to avoid enforcing this commendable bill.

  5. I am concerned that the bill does not include (from my cursory reading) much consideration of the costs to towns of increased infrastructure (roads, utilities, toxic run-off to water bodies, and esp. schools). I also question the wisdom of increasing density without also increasing set-asides for green space.

    It appears to me that mandating dense zoning in every town in the commonwealth is very short sighted without also mandating reasonable conservation/parkland, adequate school facilities, and public transportation . I realize that would be a monumental task, but I am uncomfortable with the focus on housing alone-

  6. It’s fantastic that you’re supporting this. Zoning is the most important long-term issue in the Commonwealth, I believe. Current zoning makes it impossible to increase the housing supply where people need to live, so prices go through the roof. The only remedy for this is building more housing, and in built-out towns (like most of eastern MA) that means increasing density and reducing bureaucratic hurdles (special permits, etc.) It sounds like the proposed changes would go a long way in the needed direction.

    I have a couple questions, if you will. First, you mentioned that real estate organizations are opposed, and that this might have to do with certain new restrictions. I don’t have any affinity with real estate organizations, but wouldn’t they be in favor of anything that made it easier to build overall? Is it possible that they oppose it because the overall effect would not actually be to make building easier? Are there hidden downsides we’re not seeing?

    My second question is whether the bill will prevent communities from tilting the tables towards small housing units. I hope it will prevent this! People seem to forget that the only way to make small housing units affordable is to increase the supply of large units. People who have greater amounts of money will pay those greater amounts for large houses if large houses are available. But if only small houses are available, people with more money will pay high prices for small units instead. This is what drives up the price of small housing units. We need to make small units more affordable by increasing the supply of large units, so that people with more money will not be competing with less affluent buyers for the supply of small houses.

    More perniciously, some communities also try to tilt the tables towards small units in order to discourage families from moving in. This doesn’t actually work–it just makes families crowd into small apartments. And even if it did work, it’s horrible social policy. Who wants a Commonwealth where every town tries to keep out families? Will the bill prevent communities from favoring small housing units?

    Will, this is the kind of long-range, complex societal issue that you excel at understanding and patiently making progress on. Thanks for this.

    1. Don’t fully understand the developer perspective, but my understanding is that elements that bother real estate groups most are the anti-sprawl measures that I did not highlight because they do not affect my communities — attempting to push cluster zoning instead of allowing approval-not-required lots along rural roads. This has been an evolving issue in the drafts.

      Great question about family vs. smaller units — the bill does require that the higher density district include family housing.

  7. Will:

    State takeover of local zoning is an ABSOLUTE DISASTER. I’m surprised that you, a former Belmont Selectman, would support anything like this. I am a former Town Manager and I would oppose ANY type of top down zoning that violates the principles of any community. The entire state is not like Belmont, Watertown and Brighton – not every town wants to look like these towns either. Having the state come down hard on local neighborhoods and FORCING them to abide by ridiculous state standards is impossible. You will get serious blowback on this, let me tell you. I would advise you to tell your colleagues that there is a reason zoning regulations are customized for each community – because each community is different and unique. Having some sort of overlay zoning takes away local control. I do not like this proposal AT ALL. I wish that you would change you mind about this – expect huge blowback.

  8. I am also curious where there are difficulties. I see apartments going up everywhere…

  9. I strongly support this effort. We need more affordable housing in our cities and inner suburbs. The best way to create more affordable housing is to streamline regulations that have unduly limited supply and led to sprawl.

  10. I believe zoning changes should remain with local communities and that the state should stay out of creating laws that are a blanket over very different and unique communities each with their own ability to choose what their community atmosphere and environment should be like in the future. To pass this zoning change bill would be a major mistake for our future generations with each community having no uniqueness or individuality. America is not Russia. I hope you will not vote for Zoning changes by the State. Keep it Local. Please vote NO.

  11. Thanks Will. I am pleased that the bill provides for higher density to better respond to the need for more affordable housing and more housing in general. The key of course will be the regulations and enforcement established by DHCD. Some type of oversight that involves housing advocates should be a pat of this structure in my view.

  12. Go for it, Will. Too many seniors are getting priced out of their own town. In addition, I meet so many who give up their homes and leave Belmont so their grandchildren can afford to live and go to school here.

  13. Well Roxbury residents are prepared to gunfight the Walsh administration if he don’t cut this sht we all know that Walsh extended linkage money to Bra,the money that suppose to go into the city’s grid account and be divided into the community’s we also know that he asked for favors I made sure I sent emails to all stake holders to Roxbury residents letting them know of his practice,he have people on his board and office making decision that would effect our neighborhood that don’t personally know the history of us or our neighborhood we have spotters who watch them move others into our neighborhood so when a job comes available they say we have residents of the neighborhood work,No where not talking about the one you just moved into our community where talking about the ones that just got here into the Us the MOU and agreement says anything being build in southboston the resident of southboston will get the benefits of job’s in their neighborhood,therefore stop moving others into our neighborhoods and bypassing the resident to bring in low wage workers under the table work is harboring and embedding,therefore if the linkage money is not giving back to the community’s like their suppose to be federal charges against the city will be filed against the city like their already filed against the Walsh administration,I also see tutors all the time at copley library when theirs not providing the same for the kids of Roxbury Dorchester or marzipan which an amended charge will be filed for racial bias the construction sites the M z bY A tutors to bring others grade levels up when we have people that can already do the job but want the same pay 15@ to some one that making 35@ an hour is an insult

  14. We definitely need the benefits which this bill would provide. Thank you for supporting it.

  15. Furthermore zone should go to people that was born raised and life long residents of said neighborhoods not someone that can’t equally and fairly represent we want people that grew up in our neighborhood not others if elected officials want this people here the should move them into Theravada like the did with people in China town we all know that the BRA is not a real estate agency and if the city of boston linkage money is not giving back to the community people are ready to file chagrs

  16. Zoning is only fair if every neighborhood is having the same community meetings that everyone is have somewhere close to where people live so those of us don’t have a car can attend and voice their opinion,that don’t seem to be happening also paying close attention when most of the residents from Southington moved out lynch redistributed that’s being oddly watched

  17. It’s about time the state acted to force communities to drop their outdated pro-suburban style development guidelines. Hopefully this will promote more smart growth around town centers and transit hubs.

  18. Will

    One thing that the state should put into any zoning reform is preparation for sea level rise. I believe that any development within 1/2 a mile of the ocean should be required to raise the grade of the ground level of the development and the public infrastructure to a height above sea level rise.

    If the state raises the grade, and requires all new developments and roads and bridges to be higher over 20-30 years, the commonwealth will be in a much better position to deal with this issue when it actually happens.

    The idea behind this rule is that if we build up the ground level we will create a barrier that will help protect the land further inland. It will also help prevent the ocean from ruining our public and private investments in the land and the economy.

  19. This is an example of good intentions and social engineering run amuck. People who like urban living will gravitate to the urban areas. People who like rural living will gravitate to rural areas. We choose communities that suit us and each community should be free to develop their Individual style.
    My experience indicates that housing advocates fail to consider the economic impacts of their proposals. Greater housing density drives up the tax rate higher than their share, meaning that the general housing stock subsidizes the denser housing. Further, some communities have offset this with commercial real estate, but many have not or cannot. This is but one consideration in a truly complex issue that is best left to each community.
    In fact, one community has a subsidized housing program far superior to the state 403B or federal program, still honoring the present target of ten percent (which is more than adequate).
    Market rate affordable housing will adjust itself to conditions as they unfold in accordance with demand and economics. Only a few years ago rents were dropping in suburban Boston. What works in Somerville does not play in Sturbridge or Williamsburg.
    The bottom line is that communities have a unique personality. They are what they are because it suits them. You don’t need to re-engineer it for them. They can figure it out for themselves.

  20. All good, and when transit has more capacity, and bus service more predictable and faster, the future of neighborhoods and jobs is promising.

  21. Dear Senator Brownsberger,
    SPOA supports this bill in concept at least, and in many ways it does not go far enough. But thanks for your support and help in getting the discussion going. The density and accessory apartment parts of the bill are very helpful.
    Skip Schloming, executive director, SPOA

  22. I’m concerned that all around our house, small attractive dwellings are being altered into large towering tasteless monstrosities (too big for the lots on which they sit)
    and covered with cheap ugly plastic
    vinyl siding.
    The result is to make the neighborhood more grim-looking—much less attractive,and to devalue the nearby houses.

  23. What happened to Home Rule?
    How can the State force communities to densify regardless of their current density or their desire to do so?

    The need ( or not ) for more housing is driven by demand in specific areas – not simply by the density of any given community.

    It’s hard to support either draconian legislation like this or those legislators that support such measures.

  24. I don’t think it is a good idea for the state to legislate something that will effect individual communities so much.

  25. If allowing more density creates more affordable housing for the poor and near-poor, as well as promoting more racial diversity in our towns, I’m all for it.

  26. If increasing density of existing housing will help preserve green space, I’m for that.

  27. Those of us who have followed housing issues in the League of Women Voters and through our town committee, the Housing Trust, are heartened by this attempt to move forward toward getting more affordable housing. At the Belmont meeting on June 14th (7:30 pm at the Beech Street Center), “Help Plan Belmont’s Housing Future” there is an opportunity for people to be heard on the issue in Belmont and suggest plans for the future.

  28. Will, I am supportive of the notion that we need more affordable and mid-priced housing in the suburbs around Boston; and of accomplishing this while keeping our open space, conservation parcels; and (very importantly) maintaining our height, number of floors and setback rules.

    The big problem with zoning at this point, at least in my town, is school overcrowding and capital building construction costs. As you well know, schools are locally financed. State aid equalization is insufficient, and tge process for assigning it to communities is too political and too unpredictabke. SPED costs are unpredictable.

    As a matter of practicality, zoning reform cannot be put in place without school funding reform; else in a couple of years schools will need to increase class sizes and lay off personnel.

    For these reasons, my inclination would be to support a policy of small steps in zoning reform, with the intent to address affordability – coupled with reform in sschool budget financing, where the state covers the increase in costs, so as to not turn this into a school overcrowding crisis worse than it already is.

  29. I hope that there has been significant input from representatives of all the municipalities of the Commonwealth as this bill has been developed and shaped. Without serious and reasonable input, there will be pushback; local problems generally can be better solved locally. I am concerned about the imposition of top down ‘guidelines’ to municipalities. As others have stated, a cookie cutter approach into which every community must fit the revised zoning ‘guidelines,’ may not be appropriate nor reasonable or possible, and may lead to unintended consequences (a la 40B).

    For example, the debacle in Belmont, the outcome of a short-sighted fiscal decision made by prior Selectmen, and the imposition of 40B by the devleoper has resulted in: the destruction of a valuable urban forest, loss of habitat for plants and animals, a loss of an educational greenspace for children and adults, and a probable water overflow problem that will only exacerbate flooding in both Arlington and the Belmont lowlands in the future. This is but one example from one community. I suspect other communities may have experienced their own ‘unintended consequences’ because of a political decision to make communities more inclusive. The primary problem with this particular housing project is the site. Perhaps more flexible zoning regulations in my community may have enabled the construction of residential units favorable to more affordable price-points. This is a complicated issue.
    Lastly, to the person who railed against a previous commenter who suggested a person might consider moving outside of Route 128 (to Acton), not everyone seeks to work in downtown Boston! There is wonderful LIFE, fabulous schools, great communities, greenspace, great employment opportunities between Routes 128 and 495!! Just another person’s two-cents thrown into this mix of comments.

  30. There is an article just out in The Atlantic discussing how the US economy is stalling because of high housing costs. People cannot afford to move to the best areas for them to find jobs and start businesses.

    It quotes two economists from Harvard saying that we now have “segregation along economic dimensions, with limited access for most workers to America’s most productive cities.”

    We will have a lot harder time supporting all the other things that people want like good schools, open space, clean air, pretty architecture, etc. if our economy is not productive.

    How America Lost Its Mojo

  31. I’m posting from Central Mass and there is a huge increase in traffic and development out here due to limited housing stock closer to Boston. I recently drove through Bolton and Berlin and there are acres of old-growth forests being destroyed for high-end houses. Shrewsbury is now a bedroom community for Boston and Rt. 9 is jammed with thousands of cars every day. It is hard for me to believe that all of these people want a more “rural” lifestyle if they are going to spend 3 hours per day inside their cars to obtain it. If we are going to truly be “green” we can’t just control zoning at the level of individual towns, as many people here are recommending. We need to look at a system-wide solution.

  32. I hope you will not support this. I was hoping that maybe the opposite was involved, namely defanging 40B.

  33. I favor this, but (1) I read somewhere else that this includes some support for additional education costs, and I hope this is still the case and (2) this makes much less sense for communities far enough from job centers (urban or otherwise) that most people must drive to work anyway.

    The main two advantages I see to this are (1) to blunt the spike in housing prices like the one that we’re seeing now and (2) to cut down on traffic, either by providing housing close enough to jobs that people don’t feel a need to drive, or by placing that housing close enough to transit (e.g., commuter rail) that they might not drive to work.

    Contra “local control”, without statewide or regional mandates, each town will pretend that neighboring towns will provide new housing for customers and employees of their own new commercial development. Something like this occurred in Silicon Valley, where 25 years ago each town made plans for much more commercial/industrial development than new housing (the municipal tax advantages of doing this are obvious) resulting in an overall plan for over a million new commuters into Silicon Valley every day.

  34. Thank you for supporting this bill. It is an essential piece of legislation that will hopefully increase prospects for affordable housing in communities like Belmont that have a well- deserved reputation for being anti-development.

  35. I read some of the responses you have received before writing this one. A wide range of opinions for sure. Here’s mine.

    I can support the bill as described. What I ask you to apply to the bill are 3 principles. First is simplicity. From my experience with zoning, living in Back Bsy, few owners understand the zoning in place and therefore get surprised when new buildings show up. By making the bill or the new zoning simple you increase the likelihood owners will understand what zoning applies to the property they are about to buy or currently own.

    Second principle is clarity. The wording that makes up these zoning laws or ordinances is quite vague. That vagueness results in abuse and and backroom finagling that hurts everyone except the city and the developer.

    Final principle is enforcement. Sure we can get clear and simple zoning in place but then developers go to the Zoning Board of Appeals and apply for variances. Without strict adherence to the code the very goal of having zoning in the first place is defeated through exceptions. The only remedy for theses approved variances is the courts which no one wants to pursue due to cost and time.


  36. Thanks for this summary. Recognizing the dire need for affordable housing, particularly in metropolitan Boston, I am opposed to what amounts to a requirement or mandate obliging cities and towns to accept high density residential development that may fundamentally alter their particular nature and character that renders them attractive places in which to live and work. This goes well beyond G.L. c. 40B, which was designed to override overly restrictive dimensional requirements of local zoning in order to create affordable housing. This bill will impose hardships on municipalities already financially stretched by over three decades of Proposition 2.5, and decreasing state revenue sharing, because the plain fact is that in communities without a significant commercial tax base, property taxes do not cover the cost of schools, police, fire protection, DPW, and the host of municipal services. Moreover, given that our roads and public transportation infrastructure are already overwhelmed, further increasing residential density in the absence of substantial state investment in public transportation will render metropolitan Boston a less attractive place to reside.

  37. Please don’t go forward with this. Leave local govts. alone. This is micro managing and will have numerrous unintended consequences.

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