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New zoning law will help ease Massachusetts’ housing woes

TEN MILES north of Boston, the parking lots scattered around Winchester’s train station might not look like they can help solve the region’s housing crunch. But if the Legislature passes a long-needed overhaul of the state’s zoning laws, it could help turn those parcels — and many others like them across the Commonwealth — into the new housing that Greater Boston desperately needs.

Tidy downtown Winchester, just 20 minutes by train from North Station, should be a prime target for new development. According to one recent study, Greater Boston may need 19,000 new housing units every year just to keep pace with demand. And Winchester would welcome new residents: Town Manager Richard Howard says downtown restaurants and stores are eager to see new residential development on the city-owned lots, and that a planned upgrade to the commuter rail station next year could bring new vitality to downtown. The style of transit-oriented housing would also fall in line with the state’s environmental goals, which call for concentrating residential and commercial development near rail stations.

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The obstacle, though, is the state’s dysfunctional ’70s-era zoning code, which sets the parameters for how individual cities and towns plan for development — and, in practice, sets up complex permitting rules and creates numerous opportunities for litigation. The process of securing approval to build new housing in downtown Winchester is so onerous, Howard says, that developers simply won’t bother. And in suburban towns where anti-development sentiment is stronger, the path is even steeper. Meanwhile, the state law that allows developers to override community opposition under certain circumstances, the controversial Chapter 40B, has sparked bitter opposition while yielding relatively modest amounts of new housing.

What it amounts to is the worst of all worlds. Sensible, smart-growth housing plans often languish, while single-family homes proliferate on large lots in sprawling suburban subdivisions — one of the few types of housing that can be easily built in Massachusetts under current law. State officials rightly fear that the housing market dynamics squeeze middle-class families so much that they’re endangering the state’s economic health. It also ensures that much of the growth that does occur is unplanned, expensive, and environmentally harmful.

The new zoning proposal, backed by state Representative Stephen Kulik and state Senator Daniel A. Wolf, would finally stop stacking the deck against well-planned development. Their proposal, supported by a coalition of smart-growth advocates, mayors, and planners, would make sprawl development harder and transit-oriented development easier everywhere except Boston. (The city has separate zoning codes.) The proposal gives towns new authority to limit subdivisions. It encourages municipalities to simplify their permitting processes, which should make approval more predictable. And the legislation would also clear up several ambiguities in state law, explicitly allowing towns to charge impact fees to recover the costs that new development adds to infrastructure.

The plan would also create a powerful new incentive for communities to accept high-density housing, expanding on a state program that’s been in place since 2004. Under that program, the state has awarded cash to towns and cities that designate neighborhoods for dense, mixed-income housing. The program has helped developers build new housing near MBTA commuter rail stations in Brockton, Haverhill, and other municipalities.

The new legislation goes much further, offering municipalities a raft of enticements to align their zoning policies with the state’s housing needs. Communities that opt to designate a dense-growth zone would get access to state planning money and a leg up in competition for billions of dollars in state sewer and water aid. Crucially, the bill would also allow towns with dense-growth zones to assess extra impact fees on developers to account for the burden new residents create for schools and libraries; easing the common worry that new residents will burden public services should make towns more receptive to new housing. The bill also gives towns that accept dense development zones more authority to prevent construction in other areas. That will deter sprawl-style development, and locals who fear the impact of new construction on open space will have an incentive to support dense-growth zones in their towns.

Smart-growth plans often languish, while single-family homes proliferate in sprawling subdivisions.

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In Winchester, Howard says, the town will seek ways to promote development downtown, no matter what the state does. But making the opt-in development zones available could open up many underused areas near train stations, while allowing towns to add new protections against overdevelopment in other parts of town. It’s a first step at unclogging the construction pipeline in Massachusetts. Lawmakers should get behind the bill.

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