Legislature should protect local decision-making for zoning, land use

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From the Beacon, June 2018
 
Legislation to address zoning, land use and housing production has been circulating on Beacon Hill for over a decade. The bills have stalled because they have included provisions that are an anathema to one or more stakeholders.
 
Fortunately, there is a real chance to break this impasse and enact meaningful legislation before the Legislature adjourns on July 31 – if lawmakers support the consensus housing measure that Gov. Charlie Baker filed several months ago and reject polarizing amendments that would destabilize this sensible partnership approach.
 
Changes to our zoning and land use laws will have profound and long-lasting impacts on our communities and residents, affecting the quality of life in cities and towns for generations to come. For this reason, zoning and land use proposals require careful consideration, and we respectfully suggest that legislators consult closely with municipal officials in their districts to understand the full impact on communities and neighborhoods before casting their votes.
 
From the municipal perspective, the MMA has staunchly opposed proposals that would have state government override local authority and decision-making regarding basic neighborhood and community-wide development matters.
 
The problem-ridden bills have included provisions that would strip cities and towns of basic decisions regarding density and appropriate neighborhood build-out. In addition, some bills have attached vaguely drafted (and unnecessary) language targeted against cities and towns that purports to address discriminatory zoning, but in reality would transform our system into a zoning-by-lawsuit process, and generate wildly excessive litigation at great expense to municipal governments and local taxpayers regarding nearly any local zoning decision.
 
As an alternative, the MMA Board of Directors has strongly endorsed Gov. Baker’s “Act to Promote Housing Choices,” which is based on the concept of a strong partnership between the state and our cities and towns.
 
The governor’s bill would not require cities and towns to adopt any particular zoning scheme, but would reduce the two-thirds vote threshold for approval of changes. The change to a simple majority is a significant shift in the rules governing how citizens and municipal officials make land-use decisions. While disruptive, this change is seen as a workable and balanced proposal that would let cities and towns move forward more effectively on local housing initiatives while retaining community decision-making throughout the process.
 
The governor’s bill would establish a simple majority standard for local votes by town meeting or city or town councils to adopt zoning bylaws and ordinances that would allow “by right” multifamily or mixed uses in a Chapter 40R (“smart growth”) eligible location, and for certain limited accessory dwelling units and limited open-space residential development.
 
The bill would also reduce the vote threshold required for special permits issued for multifamily or mixed use in a 40R-eligible location, or for an increase in development density in residential or mixed-use development, including a reduction in local parking space requirements.
 
The new simple majority standard would also apply to local votes on bylaws and ordinances that would provide for transfer of development rights and natural resource protection zoning that would not result in a reduction in the number of developable housing units, to the modification of dimensional regulations to allow for additional housing, and to the adoption of 40R districts.
 
The governor’s legislation, part of his broader Housing Choice Initiative, was drafted to help cities and towns issue permits for 135,000 new housing units by 2025.
 
We believe that any reform to state zoning laws must contain strong protection of local decision-making authority. There should be no language that would override zoning bylaws. The governor’s bill rightly rejects this top-down, one-size-fits-all approach, recognizing that there is no way that Beacon Hill can impose mandates and zoning prescriptions without creating countless unintended consequences.
 
Rather than mandates, local officials and community leaders need resources, tools, incentives and flexibility. Cities and towns across Massachusetts are leaders in pioneering innovative and bold approaches to housing issues. Here the state is a vital partner, and the MMA applauds the administration and the Legislature for the good work and partnership of MassWorks, MassDevelopment, and other state agencies and programs that provide municipal governments with many tools they need to realize community-driven visions for zoning and planning.
 
The last three years have shown record growth in the number of permits issued by municipalities for new housing units, and in the percentage of those newly permitted units that are multifamily. The Housing Choice bill would continue this momentum. This is why the MMA has reached out to form an unusual coalition to ask the Legislature to pass the Housing Choices Act as is, without any amendments that would divide or break down the consensus that is in place.
 
Our coalition includes the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts, NAIOP Massachusetts (also known as the Commercial Real Estate Development Association of Massachusetts), and the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. In the past, our organizations have rarely agreed on development and zoning proposals – yet we are fully aligned on this issue. We all agree that the Housing Choices Act would create a sensible center that would foster increased housing production, while ensuring that cities and towns would still have the tools to ensure that growth would be sustainable and adaptable to community and neighborhood needs.
 
The Housing Choices Act would return to the original goal of zoning reform, which is to develop a balanced package of updates and refinements to preserve local zoning authority, integrate modern planning approaches with zoning, and ensure a sustainable approach to building out neighborhoods and communities.
 
It is vitally important for the Legislature to maintain this balance, oppose amendments, and seize this opportunity by passing the Housing Choices Act before adjourning.