Reform zoning now

Clear ground rules need to be developed

Massachusetts has always been a source of innovative ideas that change the world, from the revolutionary principles that gave birth to democracy to the technological concepts that founded Facebook. But when it comes to our zoning, subdivision, and planning laws, our state is stuck a half century behind the curve.

Past efforts to reform zoning and development have been stymied because powerful interests see the problem differently. Cities and towns want to increase their control over projects to avoid the kinds of poor design that have burned them in the past. The real estate industry needs a more predictable set of rules that don’t depend on the arbitrary judgments of local board members or neighbors who may have a different agenda, which creates a risky climate for investment.

The result of this wrangling has been endless disputes about development projects. Legal costs are sky-high. Projects take too long to get permitted. Massachusetts is known as one of the most difficult and expensive places in the country to conduct real estate development. We’re currently building fewer than half of the homes we need to produce each year to keep housing costs in line with other parts of the country, and what we do build often fails to enhance our communities and stretches our public infrastructure dollars even thinner.

The way to balance these interests is to make it easier for communities to develop a plan for where and how they will grow and reflect that plan in local laws—by re-zoning—so that by the time projects are proposed, the ground rules are clear.

Fortunately, there is a growing movement to reform the state’s outdated and confusing laws that govern development. We need to pass legislation pending on Beacon Hill that will save time and money for municipalities, residents, and property owners throughout the Commonwealth. Our reform package, “An Act Promoting the Planning and Development of Sustainable Communities” (House Bill 1859), will give cities and towns better tools to plan ahead and re-zone areas that could welcome development. Not only will it improve the rules to help projects move through the system more efficiently, but it will also protect conservation areas and advance public health.

Our proposal makes it quicker and cheaper for communities to sensibly grow by reforming and streamlining the planning process. This is a particular problem for smaller towns and many older industrial cities, our “Gateway Cities” that don’t have the staff or financial resources to create master plans. It encourages communities to establish districts for prompt permitting of housing and commercial projects while adopting environmental protections. If a municipality successfully re-zones, it is eligible for some state reimbursement for its costs.

Another goal of our proposal is to make the permitting process more rational. Instead of navigating a gamut of local boards individually, developers of major projects (larger than 25,000 square feet or 25 units) could submit a common application to all boards simultaneously and be granted a joint public hearing within 45 days of filing. This eliminates several loopholes that make it possible for developers or municipalities to game the system. Our legislation would create reasonable and standardized zoning protections once a building permit, special permit, or subdivision plan is approved. In the event of a disagreement, there will be an opportunity for a neutral facilitator to come in and settle the dispute. The appeal process is reformed to take costly and time-consuming battles out of the courts.

Our antiquated zoning laws hurt our environment as well. Every day in Massachusetts, 22 acres of forest and farmland are converted primarily to low-density residential sprawl. This is due in part to “Approval Not Required” (ANR) development, which allows existing house lots to be divided without any approval as long as the lots front on a street. We are the only state in the nation that allows this. Our reform proposal would enable a city or town to replace that provision with a minor subdivision review. There are also provisions to encourage the sensitive placement of development to conserve natural areas as well as design projects in ways that could help reduce flooding.

The time to reform zoning is now. Our state’s demographics and real estate market are changing. Towns are desperate to create places where their children and their parents can afford to live and remain a part of the community. Private investment is flowing to places where employees can walk or bike to work, and well as socialize, shop, and play. We can’t create enough of these places with our current set of rules.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Dan Wolf

Senator, Massachusetts Senate
Meet the Author
The zoning reform bill is driven by the collective expertise of many groups that care about growth and the quality of life in our communities, such as the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, the Massachusetts Public Health Association, housing organizations, and municipal trade groups that represent town attorneys and planning directors.

We welcome a public discussion about how to improve development in Massachusetts. Cities and towns, along with the real estate industry, need to be willing to think a little differently so that we can all have a system of fair development rules that will spur our economy, increase our housing options, and improve the quality of life in our communities.

André Leroux is executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance. Dan Wolf is a state senator representing the Cape and the Islands. Stephen Kulik is a state representative for 19 towns in Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties. He has also served as a Worthington selectman and planning board member, and as president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.