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Chapter 9

Land Use Planning and Community Development


Towns face many important decisions regarding land use, planning, conservation and development. There are many factors to consider, including the adequacy of water supply and sewage disposal systems, the transportation network, and the potential need for new facilities and changes to municipal services. Towns have the authority to control land use and subdivisions, and to ensure that sound environmental standards are applied. Considerations may include the protection of water supplies and other natural resources, the conservation of open space, traffic and noise mitigation, and working with neighboring towns to ensure the protection of shared resources.

Some towns have planning offices and a professional town planner while others rely on the efforts of the planning board to propose zoning bylaws that will best reflect the town’s preferences for growth and conservation. Other local boards and offices involved in land-use planning and decision-making include the board of health, conservation commission, industrial development commission, zoning board of appeals, water board, sewer commission, building inspector, and historical commission.

Many planning boards are elected, but the Select Board is often the appointing authority for most of the other relevant boards and commissions. Interviews should reveal the candidate’s philosophies on development, any possible conflicts of interest, and their understanding of their roles. Several strategies for achieving coordination include: appointing one member of the Select Board to serve as a liaison with the planning board and/or organizing occasional “roundtable” discussions among the relevant boards. Planning board members are encouraged to attend Citizen Planner Training Collaborative workshops, trainings, and annual conference, and review resources such as their Guide to Massachusetts Land Use.

Another good resource to aid in local planning efforts is the relevant regional planning agency. There are 13 in Massachusetts, ready to assist communities with a variety of planning needs.

Another excellent tool is the MassGIS interactive map website. This Geographical Information System can provide cities and towns with local, regional and statewide data, metrics and benchmarks depicted in a visual mapped format. GIS technology offers greater information transparency and access by citizens, more effective asset management, and the ability to visualize current metrics while planning for future projects.

Master Plans

Master plans are visionary documents that guide communities into the future and help connect local planning with larger-scale regional planning. Topics should include housing, open space, natural resources, recreation, transportation, public facilities, and commercial/industrial activity. Master plans include demographic and population projections, which help with planning for growth, resource protection, and prioritizing resource allocation. Local master planning efforts are typically driven by the planning board, as mandated by the subdivision control law, but require robust public participation from a whole host of stakeholders, including Select Board members. The master planning statute charges the planning board with drafting a master plan and subsequently adopting the plan. There is no requirement for a public hearing or ratification by the local legislative body, but both are recommended best practices and should be done voluntarily.

Towns often conduct studies of specific community growth and development issues, such as affordable housing, revitalization of a downtown district, protection of natural resources, or proposed locations for new or expanded public facilities. These may be found within the master plan or as stand-alone studies.


Nothing influences the physical development of a town like its zoning. Municipalities use their zoning bylaws and general bylaw powers to accomplish important public purposes, addressing issues such as wetlands, wells and water supplies, chemical use and storage, sand and gravel operations, storage tanks, erosion, pollution and noise. Towns should use their master plan principles as guidance when adopting zoning bylaws as a way to give clarity and direction for a community’s goals for the future.

Zoning bylaws typically divide the town into districts to guide land-use patterns that promote harmony and protect the public. Zoning bylaws will define permitted uses of land, prohibited uses of land, and uses of land that either may be allowed “by right” (with just a building permit) or by special permit and/or site plan review. Generally, a land use must be specifically allowed or it is presumed to be prohibited. The town’s zoning will also address required dimensions, such as the size of lots, frontage distances along streets, and heights and locations of buildings on lots in the various districts. A zoning variance provision is provided for in every local bylaw. Zoning bylaws generally provide for special permits, and they may also feature site plan reviews, and, in certain circumstances and for a limited duration, zoning moratoria.

The state’s Zoning Act specifies the procedures, format, rights and duties that towns must follow. The law’s requirements include the development of a zoning map; submission of any proposed zoning bylaw to the Select Board, which must transmit it to the planning board within 14 days; a public hearing on any proposed zoning amendment prior to a Town Meeting vote; and adoption or amendment of bylaws by vote of the local legislative body (Town Meeting).

In many communities, the building inspector serves as the zoning enforcement officer.


Floodplain protection is a part of local zoning under the Zoning Act. In roughly 80% of municipalities, this involves a floodplain zone — a type of “overlay district” where some uses are banned (e.g., building, filling and/or excavating) and others, if they meet specified criteria, require special permits from a special-permit-granting authority. This method of land-use control to protect public health and safety became popular due to related restrictions imposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency flood insurance program.

Special Permits

Some specific uses are allowed under special permits issued by a town’s “special-permit-granting authority.” Uses subject to special permits could include multi-family developments, mixed-use developments, certain developments at higher density, and uses of concern to the community because of public safety or health considerations (e.g., parking lots, gas stations).

The special-permit-granting authority sets certain conditions, safeguards and limits on the proposed projects. The special-permit-granting authority may be the planning board, the zoning board of appeals, the Select Board or the zoning administrator. Apart from amendments to the town’s charter, towns cannot create a new board for this purpose. Zoning bylaws, however, can specify different boards to serve as the permit-granting authority for different types of permits. Depending on how a town’s zoning bylaws are drafted, the issuance of special permits may be discretionary or may be required.

The zoning bylaw relating to special permit procedures may designate that other town boards also participate in the review of the application and then make recommendations to the authority. The process for special permit issuance includes a public hearing held within 65 days after the application is filed. Under the Housing Choice Act, certain types of permits involving housing can be decided by majority vote. (See Housing Choice Legislation below for more on this law.) Select Boards are advised to work with town counsel to ensure that legal deadlines for holding hearings and making decisions are met. A special permit decision may be appealed to the zoning board of appeals or town clerk.


A subdivision is the division of a tract of land into two or more lots where the new lots do not have adequate frontage on a qualified way (a road), thereby necessitating the construction of a new way. Subdivision control regulations define the layout, specifications and construction of sewers and streets that are built by the developers but generally turned over to the town. In some cases, subdivision roads are not formally accepted and remain as private roads maintained and plowed by the homeowners.

The planning board is primarily responsible for the administration of the subdivision control law, although the board of health and conservation commission also have regulatory authority if the subdivision has an environmental impact. Planning boards have the authority to adopt regulations governing the design and construction of roads, drainage systems and utilities servicing subdivisions.

The planning board must base its decision on the regulations in place at the time that the developer submits a subdivision plan. Perceptions of the development as unpopular, too large, or incompatible with the area are not adequate justification for the denial of a plan. Only inconsistency with the board’s own regulations can serve as the basis for approval or denial.

Scenic Roads

The Scenic Roads Act permits towns to designate any road, other than a state highway, as a scenic road, which means the town must give written consent before any work can be done that involves the cutting or removal of trees or the alteration or removal of stonewalls. The designation must be requested by the planning board, conservation commission or historical commission. Some communities have adopted local zoning or general bylaws that provide more clarity on standards and procedures, mandate permits, and give a local board power to disapprove or impose conditions.

Billboards and Signs

Billboards are regulated by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Office of Outdoor Advertising, but they may also be regulated by local zoning or other bylaws. Billboard owners must be issued a state permit annually for each billboard. State regulations prohibit approval of a billboard determined to be in violation of either state or local laws.

Signs other than billboards may be regulated locally, and this area of responsibility can become controversial among residents. Some believe there should be no restrictions imposed by the town, others want complete uniformity. Some towns have a sign commission, and some have adopted sign bylaws that are enforced by the building inspector. Sign requirements of all types are typically found in a section of the local zoning bylaw. If the town is concerned about maintaining a historic character in the commercial area and has a historic district commission, the commission may include sign standards in its regulations for the district. Towns should be mindful that sign regulations can raise concerns about restricting First Amendment free speech rights, and should consult with counsel on the latest interpretations of what regulation is allowed.

Community Development and Affordable Housing

Community development encompasses an array of programs, plans and activities that a town undertakes to improve housing, infrastructure, commercial activity, civic engagement, environmental resources, transportation, recreation, and related issues. Any activity leading to revitalization of the town, or a specific area in town, falls within the definition of community development.

Most, if not all, community development projects will include an affordable housing component. In recent years, the creation of affordable housing has become a primary focus in municipalities of all sizes. Due to underproduction of housing of all types for decades, Massachusetts faces a lack of diverse housing options and insufficient inventory. This is especially felt by low- to moderate-income individuals and families.

In an attempt to increase affordable housing across the Commonwealth, the state in 1969 enacted the Comprehensive Permit Law (Chapter 40B), which reduces barriers to development found in local municipal approval processes and zoning bylaws. Generally speaking, Chapter 40B requires communities to have at least 10% of their year-round housing inventory designated as low- to moderate-income housing. The Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities maintains the Subsidized Housing Inventory, which is used to measure a community’s inventory of housing designated as meeting the requirements of Chapter 40B. Adding units to the inventory can include approval of comprehensive permits that are filed with the local zoning board of appeals. The Massachusetts Housing Partnership offers a Housing Toolbox for communities and technical assistance for local boards, including a Chapter 40B Handbook for Zoning Boards of Appeal, general guidance on the law, and special counsel to assist with reviewing application materials and drafting the permit.

Housing Choice Legislation

The legal thresholds for passing zoning bylaws related to increasing the production of housing were changed in 2020 by amendments made to the Zoning Act that were part of an economic development law. The Housing Choice amendments include:

  • Changes to Section 5 of the Zoning Act to reduce the number of votes required to enact certain kinds of zoning ordinances and bylaws from a two-thirds supermajority to a simple majority
  • Changes to Section 9 of the Zoning Act regarding voting thresholds for the issuance of certain kinds of special permits.

The state offers guidance on zoning bylaw voting thresholds. It is important to work with town counsel to ensure that voting parameters for adoption are clear.

MBTA Communities

The city of Newton, whose Green Line stations include Newton Centre, was one of 12 rapid transit communities that adopted zoning changes by the year-end deadline under the MBTA communities law.

The Housing Choice Act established new obligations for the 177 designated MBTA communities in Massachusetts. MBTA communities — defined by reference to sections 1 and 6 of Chapter 161A or in accordance with any special law relative to the area constituting a transit authority — must have at least one district of reasonable size in which multi-family housing is permitted as of right; provided, however, that such multi-family housing shall be without age restrictions and shall be suitable for families with children. A district of reasonable size shall: (i) have a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre, subject to any further limitations imposed by Section 40 of Chapter 131 and Title 5 of the State Environmental Code established pursuant to Section 13 of Chapter 21A; and (ii) be located not more than half a mile from a commuter rail station, subway station, ferry terminal or bus station, if applicable. Implementation of this requirement is underway and being overseen by the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, which has issued compliance guidelines. Towns are advised to consult with the EOHLC and their regional planning agency on potential technical assistance options and best practices for implementing these requirements.

Housing Authorities and Housing Trusts

State law enables any city or town to create a housing authority. A town must determine, by vote at an annual or a special Town Meeting, that a housing authority is needed “for the purpose of the clearance of substandard, decadent or blighted open areas or the provision of housing for families or elderly persons of low income or engaging in a land assembly and redevelopment project, including the preservation, restoration or relocation of historical buildings.”

The procedure for obtaining approval from the state for a housing authority is the same as for a redevelopment authority. Board members must be residents, and the authority is autonomous from the Select Board.

Local or regional housing authorities administer housing programs for low- and moderate-income individuals and families, the elderly and/or disabled. Housing authorities may also administer state and federal rental voucher programs, which provide a subsidy for income-qualified individuals and families to live in market-rate housing. The housing authority can offer insight into the service needs of residents of housing authority properties (e.g., public transportation, health care, adult education, library services).

In 2005, the state enacted a law that simplified the process whereby towns can establish a Municipal Affordable Housing Trust Fund to address housing needs. An Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which differs from a housing authority, allows municipalities to collect funds for affordable housing, allocate funds out of the general municipal budget into a trust fund, and use the funds to create and preserve affordable housing. Many communities that have adopted the Community Preservation Act also have established affordable housing trusts that can work with the local Community Preservation Committee to accomplish municipal housing goals, at times without the constraint of a Town Meeting vote.

Select Board’s Role in Community Development and Affordable Housing

The Select Board’s involvement in community development often focuses on working to develop local support through neighborhood groups, civic organizations, nonprofit entities and residents to design a community development strategy, which will address issues such as desired locations of development or redevelopment, priority concerns, available funding sources, timeline for meeting goals, and types of assistance needed. If the board is unable to lead such an effort, it may appoint a committee to study available options, hold public hearings, consult with the area’s regional planning agency, and possibly visit other towns that have conducted community development activities and report back to the Select Board with recommendations for a comprehensive strategy. The Select Board will serve as a primary source of information for the public about the community development strategy, so it needs to stay involved as the strategy evolves.

In most communities, community development is an ongoing process. The town also needs to consider the maintenance of facilities or infrastructure after any grant funding is used for construction, as most grant programs do not provide funds for ongoing costs. Identification of priorities, the full cost and service consequences to the town after project completion, and the town’s growth intentions all factor into the community development effort.

By working with other town boards as well as community and neighborhood groups, the local or regional chamber of commerce, and faith-based organizations, Select Board members will see several different perspectives about the community’s needs and priorities. Developing a strategy can be a good opportunity to bring these groups into an effective and productive working relationship with the town, while fostering cooperation among the groups and organizations themselves. Some communities hire consultants specializing in community development to help the town determine its immediate and long-term priorities.

Economic Development

A subcategory of community development is economic development, which may reference any activity with a focus on job creation, job retention, increased commercial activity, or efforts to attract business and industry. Communities may vote to create specific entities to oversee economic development, such as an industrial development finance authority, an economic development and industrial corporation, a redevelopment authority, or a development and industrial commission.

Successful economic development requires a plan that considers issues of employment, current and planned transportation infrastructure, industry or business mix, resource availability (e.g., water and sewer services), land-use patterns, local and regional competition, the desire for growth, and the town’s ability to respond to new growth. Growth may help the tax base, but it’s important to consider the service consequences. A large industrial employer, for example, may require increased inspection time from the fire department due to its use and storage of hazardous chemicals. A shopping mall or plaza may add to local traffic, require an increase in police patrols, and exert competitive pressure on established downtown merchants. It’s important to weigh as many of these costs and benefits as can be identified in the preparation of an economic development strategy.

Select Board members should be informed of business interests in the area, grant or loan programs for which the community may be eligible, and the pace of economic activity in the region. Downtown merchants can offer their perspective on the types of economic activity that would help the downtown thrive.

Redevelopment Authorities

State law1 enables any city or town to create a redevelopment authority. A redevelopment authority is not a town department or committee, but a quasi-municipal entity tasked with the redevelopment of a specific area with the intent to revitalize the land use and encourage growth. It is autonomous and may not be controlled by the Select Board or Town Meeting. The redevelopment authority has eminent domain powers and may exercise them without the approval of the Select Board or Town Meeting. This model is typically employed for large-scale, complex land use projects that often include more than one municipality.

Historic Sites and Structures

Municipalities can create historic districts for managing sites and structures therein. They may do so by special act or, more commonly, by an enabling act under the Historic District Act. The resulting historic district commissions, of which there are more than 200 in Massachusetts, are city or town boards with the power to regulate and restrict various changes within the district.

Another approach is a local historical commission, which provides leadership and education to preserve sites and buildings. These commissions are distinct from a local historical society, which is a private, non-governmental entity.

Some municipalities have enacted zoning or general “demolition delay” bylaws, requiring permits and imposing delays in the destruction of historical buildings and homes during which time efforts can be undertaken to avoid losses of particular buildings and/or historical features of the buildings.


A marsh in Hawley.

Wetlands Protection

In Massachusetts, wetlands are broadly defined to include riverfronts, banks, beaches, dunes, flats, wet meadows, and flood-prone areas, in addition to vegetated wetlands, such as swamps, bogs and marshes. The Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act and Department of Environmental Protection regulations cover basic procedures for permits needed for most work in and near wetlands, water bodies and flood-prone areas. Nearly 200 communities have enacted their own wetlands bylaws or ordinances. The conservation commission is responsible for wetlands protection and enforcing a permit system for work that affects wetland areas.

The conservation commission — or the Select Board in towns without one — holds a public hearing, considers the application (known as a Notice of Intent with plans) and issues an approval (known as an Order of Conditions) or disapproval. These permits may restrict activities in order to protect groundwater, drinking water and flood storage capacity, prevent storm damage, or protect shellfish, fisheries or wildlife habitat. Decisions of the local conservation commission may be appealed to the Department of Environmental Protection or the courts.

Conservation Restrictions and Open Space

The Conservation Restriction Act governs conservation restrictions, agricultural preservation restrictions, and historic preservation restrictions. These restrictions can be bought and sold, donated or bequeathed. Cities and towns can be party to conservation restrictions, which are voluntary agreements with a government body or qualified charitable organization by which the owner covenants to keep land primarily in its natural condition. The restriction may run in perpetuity or for a period of years. A conservation restriction given to a town, or to a charity within the town, must be approved by the Select Board, and then, on application, by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Municipalities, as well as many federal and state agencies and regional authorities, may take open space by eminent domain, purchase it, or receive it as a gift. They also may acquire interests such as easements, covenants and other restrictions. The Division of Conservation Services offers grant programs for the acquisition of conservation and recreation land, and the development and renovation of parks, but municipalities that have adopted the Community Preservation Act may have difficulty obtaining these grants since they have their own source of funding for these purposes.

Public Lands and Article 97

Article 97 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution establishes a right to a clean environment, including its natural, scenic, historical and aesthetic qualities, for the citizens of the Commonwealth. Article 97 also declares the conservation of natural resources as a “public purpose” and provides that land or easements subject to Article 97 shall not be used for other purposes or disposed of without a two-thirds roll call vote of each branch of the Legislature.

In November of 2022, the Legislature enacted a new section in state law2 that established in statute the requirements and process that a municipality must follow when it proposes to dispose of or change the use of property subject to Article 97. The law, known as the Public Lands Preservation Act, codifies the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs’ long-standing “no net loss” policy, which requires a municipality or other public entity to offset a change of use of protected open space by providing comparable replacement land.

When a municipality seeks to dispose of or change the use of Article 97 land, the law requires the municipality to:

  1. Notify the public and the secretary of EOEEA of the planned disposition and conduct an alternatives analysis for the secretary to show that there is no feasible alternative to disposition or change in use.
  2. Identify replacement property that is not already subject to Article 97 that has equal or greater natural resource value, acreage, and monetary value.
  3. Take, acquire or dedicate the replacement land or interest identified in perpetuity for Article 97 purposes.

The secretary of EOEEA may waive or modify the second and third requirements under limited circumstances. The law also allows funding, or a combination of funding and replacement land, to be provided instead of replacement land in certain limited circumstances.

The law also lays out the procedure for petitioning the Legislature to authorize the disposition or use for another purpose of Article 97 property. All petitions must include the alternatives analysis; a description of the replacement land or interest, if applicable; a copy of the appraisal; a copy of any waiver or modification granted, if applicable; and a copy of the report of the findings of the secretary that would allow for funding to be provided instead of a replacement property, if applicable.

For more information, visit the EOEEA’s Article 97 and the Public Lands Preservation Act web page.

Forests and Trees

The state Forest Cutting Practices Act is intended to promote the responsible harvesting of trees. Limited exemptions apply for public utility and highway maintenance as well as some other projects requiring city or town permits.

The Public Shade Tree Act protects publicly owned trees along city, town and county ways. No such tree may be cut, trimmed or removed, even by the owner, without the written permission of the municipal tree warden or his or her deputy after posting and a public hearing. If there is written objection, the work needs approval of the Select Board or mayor.

The Shade Tree Act has an important exemption for the Select Board, mayor, road commissioners, or a highway surveyor to order trees to be trimmed or removed if they are deemed to “obstruct, endanger, hinder or incommode” persons traveling on a way. State law requires every town to have a tree warden, unless the duties of the warden have been delegated by the town to a board of public works or to a municipal office of lands and natural resources. The tree warden, or designated agency, has broad authority to plant, trim and remove public shade trees and shrubs on town streets.

Farmland and Agriculture

Often subject to local zoning, agriculture is encouraged by a state law that authorizes municipalities to establish incentive areas and relax nuisance laws for farming. The zoning act exempts agricultural activities on lots of a certain size and exempts farm stands if they meet certain requisites.

State law allows for the reduction of real estate taxes on properties used for agricultural and/or horticultural purposes that meet certain minimums for size and gross receipts. State law gives municipalities a right of first refusal, which they can assign to others, to purchase farmland that otherwise would be sold or converted to a non-agricultural use.


Coastal towns are likely aware of federal and state regulatory, planning, environmental review and funding programs. Many municipal activities and projects need certain permissions. One proviso is the obligation to secure a consistency determination from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs’ Office of Coastal Zone Management program for projects and activities seeking federal approvals or financial assistance.

The CZM works with coastal communities to develop municipal harbor plans, which can free the community from some state constraints. Marine industrial uses are encouraged in state-designated port areas. Municipalities get preferential treatment in connection with ocean wind facilities under the Ocean Management Plan, which more broadly deals with state oversight, coordination, planning and policy for the state’s ocean resources.

Community Preservation Act

The Community Preservation Act enables communities to establish a special fund that may be spent for certain open space, historic preservation, affordable housing, and outdoor recreation purposes. This has proven to be an excellent tool in helping cities and towns achieve their goals in these areas. For towns, adoption of the local-option statute involves a majority vote of Town Meeting as well as approval by a majority of voters at the next regular municipal or state election.

The primary source of revenue is a property tax surcharge of up to 3% assessed on each parcel of taxable real estate within the community, amounts that are not subject to the levy limitations of Propositions 2½. The second source of revenue is matching distributions from the state’s Community Preservation Trust Fund. For each fiscal year, the city or town must spend or reserve at least 10% of the annual revenue in the local fund for each of the statute’s primary purposes: open space, historic preservation and affordable housing. More than half of Massachusetts cities and towns have adopted the CPA.

The Division of Local Services offers CPA guidance and information, and the nonprofit Community Preservation Coalition offers information and support for communities that have passed the CPA.



Master Plans


Scenic Roads

Billboards and Signs

Community Development and Affordable Housing

Housing Choice

MBTA Communities

Housing Authorities and Housing Trusts

Historic Sites and Structures

Wetlands Protection

Conservation Restrictions and Open Space

Public Lands and Article 97

Forests and Trees


Community Preservation Act

MMA's Handbook for Massachusetts Select Boards: Chapter 9: Last Updated: January 19, 2024
MMA's Handbook for Massachusetts Select Boards: Last Updated: March 25, 2024