By: State Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives – Feb. 2017
Last session, as co-chair of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses, I was tasked with reviewing proposals for a major overhaul of the state’s zoning laws which have become strained under modern housing pressures. The goal of the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate last session was to change local and state zoning laws in order to increase housing stock, reduce suburban sprawl and streamline the process.
Massachusetts currently has some of the highest costs for housing in the country, making it harder for families to purchase homes and for businesses to create jobs in a region that is affordable for their workers.
Although comprehensive legislation was ultimately not successful, there were important provisions contained in the bill which deserve additional attention. This session, I filed several pieces of legislation to update certain zoning laws so that communities can better plan and preserve the quality of life for their residents. Zoning directly affects every property owner in a city or town.
Through local zoning ordinances and bylaws, a municipality restricts how land can be used. Through community planning and development, zoning laws help local government preserve property values and ensure that neighborhoods are functional and safe places. Without zoning, a liquor store could open up next to a school or an industrial plant could openly operate in a residential neighborhood.
As a home rule state, most land use decisions are made at the local level and are largely made by the volunteer members of the zoning board, planning board, board of health and conservation commission. These civic-minded citizens give many hours a month to their community, sitting through lengthy hearings and rendering impactful decisions. And, they most often accept and administer this responsibility with little to no training. That’s why I sponsored S.1746, An Act Providing Training for Boards and Commissions this year to require the Commonwealth to provide such training to those volunteers at no cost to them or their community. Better understanding of zoning and subdivision law, as well as the state wetlands and septic regulations, will improve local decision-making to the benefit of everyone.
The fact that the Commonwealth has a housing crisis due to the lack of adequate production of new homes is widely acknowledged. We have not had the same level of housing production as other parts of the country, contributing to Massachusetts remaining one of the most unaffordable places to purchase a home. I have sponsored S.1148 An Act Promoting Open Space Residential Development to produce more housing and preserve open space. My legislation would foster greater use of “open space residential development” whereby new homes would be built closer together than would otherwise be allowed, but a substantial portion of the site would be set aside as permanent open space.
Cities and towns need more tools to help ensure that the development that does occur–whether residential, commercial or industrial is done with sound site utilization principles relative to traffic circulation and safety, pedestrian safety and access, off-street parking and loading, emergency vehicle access, storm water drainage, screening, signage and exterior lighting, consistency with character and scale of surrounding buildings and other factors. Accordingly, I have sponsored S. 734 An Act Facilitating Site Plan Review, that explicitly grants communities the ability to require site plan review of even by-right uses. Site plan review promotes responsible development by protecting the public from harmful impacts and gives communities control to determine the most appropriate use of land.
Finally, a bill I filed to extend the useful term of a zoning variance from two years to three years will give property owners more time to finance and build their projects, and will lessen the workload of local zoning boards which hear requests for extensions of time.
These bills are measured steps we can take in Massachusetts to update our antiquated state zoning laws. With these few changes, we could more easily preserve open space and create more compact housing developments through cluster development, create more predictability, expand local input via site plan review for better project outcomes, and most importantly, improve training for volunteer board members who are charged with making community-changing development decisions on a monthly basis. .
Senator O’Connor Ives can be reached at KATHLEEN.OCONNORIVES@MASENATE.GOV