Zoning, is it time for a change?

The recorded history of civilized society extends back over five thousand years.  The history of zoning in Massachusetts extends back to November 5, 1918 when Article XL of the Amendments to the Constitution was adopted by the voters.  One could say that the utilization of zoning laws to control the use of land is in its infancy.

Article XL of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution – The general court shall have power to limit buildings according to their use or construction to specified districts of cities and towns.

From that simple sentence our City Council has developed an 8 section, 176 page ordinance regulating uses of land in Newton dividing the city into 24 different types of zoning districts.  Newton has 3 single family and 4 multifamily zoning districts; 9 mixed use business and residential districts; 2 manufacturing districts; an open space district, a public use/recreation district and 4 overlay districts.

What is the purpose of zoning?

  1. Is it to protect the land, such as when we create Agricultural or Conservation Districts?
  2. Is it to protect the land owners, such as when we create large lot density regulations for single family residential zones?
  • Is it to protect the abutters and neighbors such as was done in the 1920’s through the 1950’s by regulations prohibiting objectionable uses in zoning districts?

Perhaps the purpose of zoning is flexible and changes with the times.  It adjusts to meet the new problems of the day.  Perhaps it is now in the process of change to meet the new problems of our day.

I have heard that one of the new problems we face is the growing population of the Boston Metropolitan Area and it is argued that we have a moral obligation to provide housing for this gathering tide.

Some are exploring remedies to meet the needs of this new increase of home buyers and apartment renters.  One plan is to increase the supply of urban type apartments in our village commercial areas.

Density control helps determine how many people can live on the same lot of land at the same time.  The difference is that in a Single Residence 1 zone, only one residential unit would be allowed on a lot containing 25, 000 square feet of land.  But, if that same lot was in a Business Use zone, residential units above the first floor could be constructed based upon the formula of one unit for each 1,200 square feet of land allowing 21 families to live on the same size lot.

Mr. Korff is proposing a density of one family for each 715 square feet of land on the project site in Newtonville.  If we used Mr. Korff’s density formula in our Single Residence 1 zone, that would allow 35 families in a 25,000 square foot lot.

Should we also be exploring pathways to expanding our single family housing stock?  Should we consider creating one residential use housing zone for the entire City?  We need to examine the question as to whether or not our large lot residential zoning districts are discriminatory or exclusionary.

Should we abandon our multiple Residential Use zoning districts based upon lot size and create one Residential Use zone that allows one single family detached home for each 7,500 square feet of land and/or one two family attached dwelling for each 10,000 square feet of land?

If we did so we could open up thousands of opportunities to welcome new residents.

If we further limited the size of the home or the number of bedrooms we could impact the price to make these new homes available to moderate income families.

As a municipality we will respond to the need for housing in Metropolitan Boston.  We will answer our moral obligation to share our land with our progeny.  We will reply to those that say that large lot residential zoning districts are discriminatory and intended to segregate families based upon income.

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