Zoning bill worrisome

Jul 15, 2016 by

Published in the July 15, 2016 edition.

By MARK SARDELLA

WAKEFIELD — A controversial “Zoning Reform Bill” that has been passed by the Massachusetts Senate has municipal officials across the state, including here in Wakefield, concerned that it could take away local control and burden cities and towns with onerous state requirements.

“An Act Promoting Housing and Sustainable Development,” passed the state Senate in June by a vote of 23-15. The bill’s principal sponsor is Sen. Daniel A. Wolf (D-Harwich).

The bill has the backing of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) but is opposed by The Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA).

Wakefield Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio is a member of the MMA Policy Committee, which spent months reviewing the bill and submitted detailed comments on the bill to the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Maio also served for years on the Wakefield Zoning Board of Appeals.

Maio admitted that Chapter 40A, the part of the Massachusetts General Laws (MGLA) that deals with zoning, is overdue for some attention.

“Chapter 40A does need to be looked at in a number of areas,” Maio said. “It’s not an easy task,” he added, noting that the law is deeply engrained and affects people’s daily lives whether they want to put an addition on their house or they’re concerned about a development on their street.

“This latest attempt has some good parts and some bad parts,” he said.

Maio said that he understands the goal of trying to standardize and streamline the way development is done and how housing is created. The problem, according to Maio, is that the bill would take away local control and force communities to do a lot of reporting with no support from the state.

One area of concern relates to applications for Special Permits before the local Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) or the Planning Board. Currently, a “supermajority” of voting members is required for Special Permits. The Senate bill, however, would change that to a simple majority.

In a similar fashion, a two-thirds majority at Town Meeting is required to amend the town’s Zoning Bylaw. But the senate bill would reduce that requirement to a simple majority.

Maio feels that it should be up to individual cities and towns to decide if they want to change those rules and it should not be dictated by state law.

Specifically in the case of Town Meeting votes on zoning amendments, he believes that a simple majority is too low a threshold.

“If you get two-thirds, it means the community is behind it and I think that’s a good thing,” Maio said.

Another area of concern for Maio is that the bill would allow accessory apartments “by right.” Currently, such additions, also known as “in-law apartments” are controlled locally by requiring an applicant to get a Special Permit from the ZBA.

Maio fears that allowing anyone to build such accessory apartments “by right” would potentially water down Single-Residence districts in towns like Wakefield.

“That’s probably not what the community wants,” Maio said.

The MMA has also expressed its grave concerns about another “by right” provision in the bill.

“S. 2311 would mandate every city and town to establish ‘by-right’ zoning districts for multi-family housing,” the MMA said in its comments, “removing any special permit or local approval process except normal site plan review, with NO provisions that these housing units meet the affordability needs of the community and prohibiting communities from setting density provisions less than 8 units per acre in rural communities and 15 units per acre in all other communities. The MMA is greatly concerned that this would increase the cost of housing in cities and towns and make it harder to meet affordable housing targets, because developers would almost always pursue projects for luxury and high-end developments that yield the highest profits.”

Sen. Jason Lewis, whose district includes Wakefield, voted against the Senate bill and shares Maio’s and the MMA’s concerns regarding loss of local control.

“While we all share the goals of updating our outdated state zoning laws and encouraging more affordable housing,” Lewis told the Daily Item, “I had strong concerns about this legislation as it was drafted. ‘By-right’ multi-family housing districts and accessory apartments, while well-intentioned, raise a number of significant issues regarding municipal control and oversight. I was also disappointed that this proposed legislation does not include any reforms to Chapter 40B.”

Local officials also worry about some of the language in the bill as it relates to variances. Currently an applicant seeking a variance must show that adhering to the bylaws provisions would cause “substantial hardship.” The bill would change that to “practical difficulty.” Maio believes that such language changes are ill-defined.

There are some things that Maio likes about the bill. For one, it authorizes municipalities to mandate “impact fees” from developers to mitigate effects of projects. He acknowledged that some developers do so voluntarily now but he likes that the bill would give cities and towns the statutory authority to impose such fees.

Maio believes that support of the bill by MAPC and others is well-intentioned and rooted in the desire to increase development, create more housing and streamline the whole process.

Despite his concerns over parts of the bill, Maio does not believe that its passage into law is imminent.

“I don’t think this is going to be voted on in the near future,” Maio said, noting that he doesn’t think the House of Representatives will take it up any time soon.

“I think this is going to be discussed for a while,” he said.

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