Zoning Reform Passed by Senate

The Massachusetts State Senate today voted 23-15 to pass the zoning reform bill, S.2311, after approximately three hours or so of debate and ammendments. Twenty of 63 ammendments were adopted, with the rest either defeated or withdrawn.

According to the Massachusetts Smart Growth Coalition, the bill directs municipalities to allow accessory dwelling units as of right in single family residential districts; permit more as of right multifamily housing; reduces the number of votes needed to change zoning from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority; allows development impact fees; eliminates the need for special permits for some types of zoning; provides standards for granting zoning variances; establishes a training program for zoning board members; lastly, the bill modifies the process of creating a subdivision.

One ammendment, proposed by Sen. William Brownsberger, removed a position requiring that cities with an inclusionary zoning policy offer concessions such as density bonuses, was defeated. A provision from the first Senate version of the bill, S. 122, that would have allowed for consolidated permitting, was not enacted.

Most pleasingly, this bill actually has teeth: the as-of-right multifamily provision establishes a minimum density of eight units per acre for rural communitiers and 15 for others and if municipalities don’t comply, courts can provide relief.

The bill was passed despite last-minute attempts to derail it by Sen. Bruce Tarr (R-Essex and Middlesex), who attempted to have it sent back to the Ways and Means Committee on the grounds that it had no public hearings since September of last year. This was rejected by the other senators, with Sen. Dan Wolf (D-Barnstable) saying he wished every bill was as fully vetted as S.2311.

“We have fully vetted this, we are ready to move,” he said.

“We need to update outdated zoning laws,” said Sen. Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester). “To recommitt will serve nothing but delay.”

Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Middlesex and Norfolk) said that the bill would limit frivolous lawsuits against approved developments and spur housing production.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Middlesx and Worcester) pointed out that allowing more density would help preserve open space, and praised apartments as adding vitality and affordable housing to his hometown of Acton.

“We know that restrictive zoning is crippling our economy, our health and our environment,” Wolf said. “I understand the chilling impact zoning has on our business community.”

The Massachusetts House of Representatives still needs to pass it and Gov Charles Baker will need to sign it, but passage by the Senate is an important step forward.