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Officials say the city of Somerville’s recent overhaul of its zoning ordinance will allow the city to thrive amid the economic, housing and climate pressures it faces.
After more than seven years of research, public hearings and community meetings, the Somerville City Council adopted a new zoning ordinance on Dec. 12. Last updated in 1990, the previous ordinance had been struggling against modern development demands, said Senior Planner Daniel Bartman.
“This was like installing an entirely new operating system on a computer,” Bartman said of the zoning update. “Imagine still using a computer from 1990.”
According to the city, Somerville is the first and largest Boston-area community to adopt a citywide, form-based code, although Newton is also working a large-scale zoning redesign.
Somerville’s new 552-page ordinance represents a hybrid of form-based zoning and other zoning approaches. Form-based zoning prioritizes the size and shape of buildings, in terms of how they relate to each other and to the “public realm,” or streetscape, Bartman said.
Bartman tracks zoning updates around the country, and he said Miami, Denver, Hartford and Buffalo have all incorporated elements of form-based zoning. But while Somerville drew inspiration from best practices nationwide, he said, it tailored its update to local needs.
The updated zoning requirements support the goals of SomerVision2040, the city’s comprehensive master plan adopted in 2012. In particular, officials said they wanted zoning that enabled more affordable housing, jobs and economic development, and environmental sustainability.
The zoning update can be found at www.somervillezoning.com.
Among other features, the updated ordinance:
• Relies on photos and illustrations, and clearer language, to make zoning rules more user-friendly
• Makes many home improvements, such as window upgrades and porches, allowed “by right”
• Reduces the number of land-use categories from 250-plus to 62
• Requires most new development to include 20% affordable housing, and provides bonuses for 100% affordable projects
• Establishes building sustainability standards toward Somerville’s goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050
• Sets standards encouraging walking and bicycling and discouraging parking in some instances to reduce automobile use and increase reliance on mass transit
• Establishes the Somerville Green Score to evaluate the landscaping contribution of projects
• Creates an Urban Design Commission to review how proposed new development would affect public spaces
Most projects must undergo a development review, during which the inspectional services and planning and zoning departments determine if the project complies with the city’s zoning. If it does, a certificate of zoning compliance gets posted next to the building permit, Bartman said.
The effort to produce cleaner, simpler rules should allow property owners to understand how city zoning applies to their properties and result in fewer misunderstandings and surprises during the process, said Ward 6 Councillor Lance Davis, chair of the council’s Land Use Committee.
“It creates certainty in the community, to understand what is allowed and what is not allowed,” Davis said.
In particular, Davis said, his committee and the city have been working to address the lack of affordable housing, an issue he calls “the biggest crisis in the city.” He hopes the zoning update will also bolster the city’s tax base.
The city will continue to tweak its zoning, Davis said, but the work done by his committee and the council, by Bartman and his department, and by residents who offered their input have brought Somerville closer to its vision for the future.
“This is a better zoning document, a much better ordinance, and a much better reflection of the community’s values and goals,” Davis said.