Legislature begins hearings on zoning and land use bills

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Legislative committees began hearings last month on a number of zoning, housing, and land use bills before the Legislature this session.
The bills have been split up among three joint committees: Housing, Community Development, and Municipalities and Regional Government.
The Municipalities and Regional Government Committee discussed nearly 20 bills, many of which were individual components of the two larger omnibus zoning and land-use reform bills in the House and Senate (H. 2420 and S. 81). The omnibus bills are very similar to legislation that narrowly passed the Senate during the last months of the 2015-2016 legislative session but did not pass the House due to opposition from a number of groups, including the MMA.
Testifying at the May hearing was an MMA panel consisting of Newton Councillor Lisle Baker, a Suffolk University law professor and zoning expert; Bob Dean, regional services director for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments; and Kevin Batt, representing the Massachusetts Municipal Lawyers Association.
The two larger bills contain “by-right” provisions regarding multi-family housing, accessory apartments and cluster development. Provisions in those sections explicitly authorize legal action if a citizen feels that the city or town has not met the by-right obligations.
Of particular concern to the MMA is the section in both bills on discriminatory land use practice, which raises the prospect of excessive litigation, at great expense to municipal governments, regarding nearly any local zoning decision.
At the MMA Annual Meeting in January, MMA members endorsed a resolution that urges the Legislature to focus on giving cities and towns greater flexibility and more tools for zoning, rather than by-right mandates. The resolution noted that cities and towns across the Commonwealth issued a record-high number of permits for housing units in 2015 (more than 17,000 new units), with more than half of the issued permits (10,000-plus) going toward multi-family units.
It appears likely that the other two committees will have hearings on the zoning and land use bills before them before the end of the summer.