There never were any zoning laws in Massachusetts. Not until 1920 did our State adopt statewide zoning (MGL c. 40, sections 25-30), and not until 1954 did Massachusetts enact a zoning enabling law (MGL c. 40A). Before 1954 you could build pretty much anything anywhere — which is why in our oldest towns and cities one finds houses built in back of other houses, or built on tiny lots. After 1954 all that changed. Zoning today has become a bottleneck for builders — yet one to which, in ever more numerous cases, boards of zoning appeal are granting exceptions — “variances” is the administrative term. These exceptions pretty much amount to semi-repeal of c. 40A, except that winning exceptions costs the variance seeker tons of time and expensive legal fees. For those, however,who don’t have the time, or who don’t want to hire expensive zoning lawyers, and risk community hearings and a denial by the Board of Appeal, c. 40A defends itself with a bristling wall of weapons, chiefest of which is a requirement that two-thirds of a municipal council, or town meeting, must vote for a zoning override. Few such municipal legislatures get to two-thirds.
Into this mix of expensive lawyering, boards of appeal, and local zoning overrides, comes legislation filed last month by Governor Baker. Its mostly the same bill that he filed last year and which did not make it through to enac , newly tweaked but with the same basic reforms outlined in the administration’s announcement :
Baker’s bill would allow a city council or town meeting to adopt, by simple majority, rather than a two-thirds, zoning changes such as these examples set forth in the baker announcement :
- Building mixed-use, multi-family, and starter homes, and adopting 40R “Smart Growth” zoning in town centers and near transit.
- Allowing the development of accessory dwelling units, or “in-law” apartments.
- Approving Smart Growth or Starter Homes districts that put housing near existing activity centers.
- Granting increased density through a special permit process.
- Allowing for the transfer of development rights and enacting natural resource protection zoning.
- Reducing parking requirements and dimensional requirements, such as minimum lot sizes.
Reading these, one envisions a situation not all that different from how houses were built during our state’s first building booms, 1700-1770 and 1800 to about 1830. Then, houses of all sorts of sizes, from large to less to small to tiny, were built wherever land was available. Go to any of our old cities — Newburyport, Marblehead, Salem, Gloucester — and you see it : density not much less than that in old European cities. People today clamor to buy homes in these old cities, the density and clutter no problem. So why is it a problem at all ? that’s a very good question, one that touches on some of the darker sides of our national thinking. It’s these ghosts that Baker’s bill is up against : fears in many communities — particularly from the NIMBY thinkers who often win town meeting member elections and also some city councils — that “they” will move into town in large numbers, altering the twon or city’s customs not for the better.
These ghosts are hard to battle, because the proposed zoning reforms will indeed change the look and shape of many towns and cities. The picket fence and front lawn ideal sought by generations of suburbanites, atop original settlers of our towns, commands our dreams and brightens our imagined good life. We want to live close to nature, to the pastoral image in which vistas and fields look peaceful and smell fresh. There’s nothing bad about this ideal, this dream, nor is there anything wrong with conserving open fields, woods, lakes and wild life habitats. Still, their dominance over community zoning has to change, because people work here and should be able to afford to live here — indeed, MUST be able to afford it, because if we cannot accommodate those whose work drives our general prosperity, that prosperity will suffer, to no one’s advantage. My wife and I love Sunday drives up-Country, to the open spaces and the mountains, the apple orchards and the town commons lined by picket-fence houses. We sometimes envy the lucky who live up there — until we remember that our own livelihoods are earned in the City, with its noise, density, clutter, and diversity of choices on ow to live. In Boston the zoning future is already here even without Baker’s zoning bill, because the City administration knows it has no choice but to vary c. 40A all the way to the sidelines as a practical matter.
Baker hopes that his zoning bill will spur the creation of 135,000 units of housing, statewide, by 2025. He insists that that’s whats needed, and I agree. It would not surprise me if the needed number turns out much larger than 135,000. To get there, his bill is almost certainly the path. It may also be only the beginning. Zoning is important, yet the needs of people are more important. Baker will be touring the state, holding town halls on the subject, starting now in Easthampton and coming east from place to place and finally to Salem, where a proposed zoning change failed in council by one vote.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere