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Threat to Mass. forests shows need to reform zoning laws

Time hasn’t stopped in Shutesbury, even if the faded white houses and crumbling stone walls in the tiny town near the Quabbin Reservoir look that way. As in many other parts of the Commonwealth, residents worry about what will happen if housing construction accelerates, and residential sprawl eats away at the farms and woods that residents have cherished for generations. But if those threats materialize, Shutesbury will be more prepared than most places: In 2008, voters adopted a farsighted zoning rule that will help protect it from sprawl, the first of its kind in the state.

It was a smart step, because pressure on woodlands in towns across the state will likely grow as demand for new housing picks up. During the 20th century, the forests of Massachusetts experienced an amazing rebirth, as the economy shifted from farming to industry. But according to a new report by the Harvard Forest and the Smithsonian Institution , Massachusetts is losing woods again. The retreat of the forests does more than threaten the state's natural beauty; forests provide habitat for wildlife, suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and create economic opportunities for forest products that would be lost if the trees vanish.


Protecting those environmental resources will require more municipalities to adapt rules like Shutesbury's. A statewide zoning reform bill currently before the Legislature would give towns a deal: In exchange for voluntarily establishing dense high-growth areas in some sections of their town, as Shutesbury has done in its town center, they would gain powers to preserve more undeveloped land from McMansion-style development.

The pairing of those two policies is key. The supply of middle-class housing is scant in Massachusetts, and new residents have to live somewhere. Right now, too much suburban growth follows the path of least resistance — toward outlying towns where new home sites can be carved out of seemingly unused forest. Fast-growing towns often try to slow development down by adopting large minimum lot sizes, but that only pushes sprawl out even farther.

The proposed zoning overhaul recognizes that new construction is crucial, but it should occur in ways that preserve the fabric of communities and support the state's overall environmental goals. Many towns that embrace the zones are expected to designate areas near train stations for denser growth; access to transit — or at least to the concentration of shops and services that greater density supports — means families can live in town centers without relying as much on their cars.


The proposed law might not be of much use to towns near Boston that are already built up, or to rural towns in the farthest parts of Massachusetts. But it offers a powerful tool for suburban towns on the sprawl frontier, where development pressure is greatest and residents are most likely to worry about unchecked growth. It's possible to balance the needs of conservation and economic growth, and smarter zoning in the 21st century will protect the environmental gains of the 20th.