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Sprawl takes a fall?

State legislators may have a lot on their plates this summer, but they must not let a crucial opportunity to shape Massachusetts’ future slip by. Before the end of the session, the Legislature should make sure to approve a pending bill that would overhaul the state’s antiquated zoning laws. The measure would provide a boost to the economy by encouraging more housing construction near town centers, while also aiding local efforts to preserve open space.

Zoning rules govern how municipalities can regulate land use, and a quick look at the real estate listings — and the sprawling landscape — shows they aren’t working. Massachusetts has too little reasonably priced housing, an economic albatross around the state’s neck. Instead, builders focus on suburban-sprawl style development, which yields expensive homes that also damage the environment. By inadvertently encouraging such outcomes, the existing zoning rules undermine the state’s housing and environmental goals.

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Despite widespread dissatisfaction, though, zoning reform has proven an agonizing ordeal, eluding past efforts to move to a more rational system. The rules are complicated, and even cities and homebuilders who don’t like them often prefer the devil they know.

But more than their interests are at stake, and by passing the bill the Legislature would be supporting the broader public interest. Massachusetts needs more reasonably priced housing, and it needs more environmentally sensible development. The Legislature has a chance to help fix one of the state’s most nagging problems, and should rise to the occasion.

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