Planners Secure Zoning Reform Win in Massachusetts

A new economic development bill includes provisions that will make it easier for towns and cities across Massachusetts to produce more housing by greenlighting certain local zoning changes with a simple majority vote.

The law — which was enacted by Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this month — is the outcome of years of advocacy.

State Zoning Law Modernized for Housing

An Act Enabling Partnerships for Growth (H. 5250) gives Bay State communities a new tool for addressing increasingly dire local and regional housing gaps while making it simpler for communities to plan for smart growth. Importantly, this marks the first substantive change to its existing state zoning act since 1975.

Other states in recent years have also moved to modernize state planning laws to promote local planning efforts and provide housing resources to solve our most pressing affordability challenges.

Planners and housing and community development advocates played an important role in building political support for key housing choice provisions included in the law.

A broad coalition of organizations — including APA's Massachusetts Chapter and the Massachusetts Association of Planning Directors — worked together for years to revise the outdated code to eliminate barriers to boost housing supply. To make sure good planning was included in the bill, the chapter sent letters of support, testified, and called on planners across the state to engage their elected officials to pass the bill.

H.5250: Zoning Changes to Boost Housing

H.5250 eliminates barriers by lowering the voting threshold required for a municipality to adopt a zoning ordinance or amendments from two-thirds to a simple majority. It increases multi-dwelling units by creating a special permit for authorizing multi-family housing, accessory dwelling units, or mixed-use development by increasing the allowed density and decreasing the required amount of parking.

The law also includes a smart growth zoning incentive known as Chapter 40R, which will reward towns for allowing mixed-use and multifamily zoning. Notably, it gives towns the choice of how and where to do so.

The new law will also boost housing opportunities by requiring multifamily zoning permitted without age restrictions and suitable for families with children to be within half a mile of a commuter rail station, subway, ferry terminal, or bus station.

Finally, it will help to eliminate frivolous appeals and move projects forward by requiring the plaintiff who is appealing a special permit approval to post a cash bond of $50,000 if delays are caused by the appeal.

Top image: Massachusetts State House dome. Wikimedia photo (CC BY-SA 3.0).

About the Author
Isabela Dorneles is APA's state government affairs consultant.

January 27, 2021

By Isabela Dorneles