Smart growth needs smart zoning laws

On July 12, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

mayor_webBy Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The  Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and  do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff  or publishers.)

It may not sound as exciting as a summer blockbuster, but the zoning reform bill on Beacon Hill offers so many potential benefits for Somerville that I encourage you to settle in for some brief summer reading about it.

Somerville has a goal of creating 6,000 new housing units by the year 2030, including 1,200 permanently affordable units, keeping up with the growing demand to live in our community and allowing residents to remain in their homes in an evolving city. At the same time, the city has a goal of creating 125 new acres of publicly accessible open space in the next 13 years. Both goals are in response to the two most frequent demands from our residents.

What stands in our way is an outdated state zoning code that ultimately ends up favoring single-family subdivisions instead of smart, transit-oriented developments, the latter of which are the very kind of projects the community has told us it wants to see in our densely populated city, especially with the Green Line Extension on its way.

Massachusetts’ 70s-era zoning creates a byzantine set of complex permitting requirements that can drown badly needed smart transit-oriented developments, and thoughtful planning risks withering in Land Court. Meanwhile, while Somerville already faces challenges in creating open space, 22-acres a day of open space in Massachusetts is turned into low-density residential sprawl.

That is why I support the zoning reform bill on Beacon Hill, which would align the state’s laws with Somerville’s values as well as best practices now universally accepted by planners.

Sponsored by Rep. Stephen Kulik and Sen. Daniel Wolf, the bill would streamline the permitting process by allowing developers of major projects – larger than 25,000 square feet or 25 units – to submit a common application to the city or town where the project is located. That application would go to all permit-granting boards, which would come together for a joint hearing at the beginning of a project review, ensuring that everyone receives the same information, including members of the public who want to weigh in. In the case of disagreements, neutral facilitators could be used at the local level to settle disputes over proposed developments, taking them out of the time-consuming courts.

Somerville and other cities and towns could choose to adopt zoning changes, such as designating “dense-growth zones” – perfect for Somerville and, in particular, land around the coming Green Line Extension stations – that would make the city eligible for state planning money and potentially unlock millions of dollars for sewer and water infrastructure aid. Also, adopting dense-growth zones would give the city the ability to assess impact fees on projects for necessities such as schools and libraries that could face increased demand as more families move to Somerville.

More and more families are choosing Somerville, and we want them to come here and our current families to stay. These zoning reforms would help us create the moderate and affordable housing stock that families need while ameliorating any concerns about additional burdens on our schools, public services and infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the bill also establishes what we already know and embrace in Somerville: that public health is a purpose of master planning. The state would provide additional incentives for creating walkable, healthy neighborhoods. We are well ahead of the curve in Somerville with regard to creating walkable, healthy neighborhoods, but getting the state to specifically delineate that goal within the zoning code would make it even easier to achieve our vision for the city.

Somerville has already taken steps to achieve the goals that the zoning reform bill strives for. We have our inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires any new development with eight or more housing units to reserve 12.5 percent of its units for permanently affordable housing, and we are considering increasing that to 15 percent based on our housing needs assessment. We have our linkage fee, which requires developers of large-scale commercial projects to pay into the Somerville Affordable Housing Trust to continue creating affordable homes, and we are considering increasing that fee.

Households earning the state median income currently spend half of their income on housing and transportation costs.  Meanwhile, Massachusetts is on pace to build fewer than half the homes needed annually in the Boston metro area to meet housing demand. Changes to state zoning law will help Somerville and surrounding towns better meet housing needs while developing into healthier, walkable, affordable communities. If that sounds familiar it’s because adoption of the state zoning reform bill would signal that Massachusetts is now embracing the fundamental values that Somerville has already set forth in our 20-year SomerVision plan, in our policies and our advocacy. This is an important statewide change, one that would grant Somerville the ability to attract and retain the city’s best asset: its people.


16 Responses to “Smart growth needs smart zoning laws”

  1. mememe says:

    “What stands in our way is…” rule of law. Check out the 4 part series on Somerville, which touches heavily on zoning, and Curtatone disregard for law.

  2. A. Moore says:

    It is hard to believe that the residents of Somerville want to add 6000 more apartments here. I may be so so on the parks but those I can understand. I like Somerville sprawled out with families. 6000 more apartments means 6000 plus more vehicles. These are the two most frequent demands from our residents. This I would like to see on a ballot and see what the answer is. And the apartments they are putting in does not mean families. What we are getting here is really too small for that. Try putting up an apartment building here, residents are usually not very thrilled about it.

  3. MarketMan says:

    A. Moore: 6000 more apartments doesn’t necessarily translate into 6000+ extra vehicles. Look at dense areas of Boston. Not all residents have cars.

  4. A. Moore says:

    I think it would be pretty close as some will have 2 cars. But I don’t presume to be the expert on what the exact figures would be. But definetly more vehicles. I can’t imagine trying to survive here without one.

  5. ritepride says:

    “Bacon Hill” along with Curtatone Development Corp are in bed with the developers. After their goal$ are accomplished and the cities are left in ruins both the politician$ and developer$ will be long gone and the citizens left with the problem$ created by these characters.

  6. KrisKringle says:

    SteroidzJoe at it again, moving rhetoric at a speed faster ‘n shit flyin’ off the Whirlwind sweeper. Will he be moving his family into one of those dense neighborhood developments he wants his favored future peons (YA) to populate? And how priceless to hear this pulpit-bully contemplating “neutral facilitators [that] could be used at the local level to settle disputes over proposed developments, taking them out of the time-consuming courts…”

  7. A. Moore says:

    Kris, but remember the quote from this article. “Both goals are in response to the two most frequent demands from our residents.” Persoanlly I would have guessed lowering taxes would have been number one. So the ceo of Somerville needs to move our agenda much quicker for our benefit as he sees it.

  8. Charlie says:

    Somerville currently has a very low rate of car ownership, currently 1.1 vehicles per household. Only about 50% of the population drives to work. If there is any place that is well suited to living without a car or with fewer than one car per person, Somerville is certainly one of them. And with the Green Line Extension, it will be even easier than it is today.

  9. Sue says:

    Come back to Planet Earth, Charlie, and travel through some of our neighborhoods. Many people who don’t drive to work still own a car, which can be parked in front of your house for weeks at a time. I have at least 3 neighbors who have a driveway or garage for their 2 cars, but instead of using them park on the street. Part of the reason for that is one of the unintended consquences of permit parking. People prefer to park on the street so anyone who visits them can park in the driveway without messing with a permit (or heaven forbid visiting more than twice/week!), or chancing a ticket.

  10. Spencer says:

    Car ownership in Somerville dropped 18% from 2010 – 2012 – roughly 6,000 less cars in just two years. In my opinion, it makes sense to support transit-oriented and walkable developments and less sprawl.

  11. amen says:

    I love it when people like Charlie quote statistics. must work for SCC. that’s all they got, statistics. those won’t help you when a project is built and parking in your neighborhood becomes impossible. those numbers mean nothing as far as this development is concerned. My neighborhood got these statistics during a dev. project. they meant nothing. everyone was going to walk to and from this place. Didn’t happen, the checks have all been cashed, and we’re stuck with the fallout.

  12. A.Moore says:

    I know where I live most have 2 to 3 cars per household. Also around the city are plates from out of state that live here. Some cars are also registered in other cities. Also according to the police log we seem to have quite a few illegally unregistered vehicles being driven around here. So there are more cars out there than we know of.

  13. Bob Massie says:

    I think Joe is absolutely correct about the value and direction of smart growth and its importance to Somerville. There are many great cities around the world with high density, public beauty, vibrant culture, and diminishing numbers of cars. Somerville is leading the way in both Massachusetts and the US. It’s part of a larger force that is spreading across the country under the general heading of the “New Economy Movement” – allowing people at the local level to prosper in ways that create greater wellbeing, community, and resilience. Keep it up, Joe!

  14. A. Moore says:

    With this weather and the demand for electricity way up and we are asked to cut back because of not enough to go around. Wires are heating up from the demand makes one wonder how adding 6000 more units here plus whatever else will have in store for us when we go through this again. It’s not like we can pull extra out of the air. I don’t see anything in place that shows we will have the power to run all this stuff. We are just getting by with the demand now.

  15. amen says:

    famous man once said, there are lies, damned lies, & statistics. You can gather statistics in any fashion and make them sing whatever song you want. I see no drop in car ownership in my neighborhood. those you use transit for work, still have a car for weekends, travel, etc. statistics showed that the people parking on Beacon on weekdays were unimportant, and we should build a bike thing there. Don’t believe the numbers that get thrown around when they want a project to go through.

  16. Harry says:

    A. Moore, no worries, the plan is to pay unemployed people to produce energy by biking on special dynamo-equipped bikes stationed in the basement of these developments. I heard the plan will be co-sponsored by the Fit-Somerville fund that aims at getting people to lose weight by exercise.

Leave a Reply