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.
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