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Disco-era zoning rules need a fix, and state Senate has a solution

The Massachusetts State House.Shutterstock/f11photo

The real estate lobby and the protectors of local government prerogatives will probably never agree on the right way to regulate future land development in Massachusetts. Homebuilders want to minimize the friction from cities and towns as much as possible. Many municipal officials dislike any limits on their enormous power to block construction projects. Yet the fundamental incompatibility of these two powerful interest groups’ demands shouldn’t hold up far-reaching zoning-reform legislation that the state sorely needs.

Last week, the state Senate passed a bill that would tune up the Massachusetts zoning code. However eye-glazing the subject might seem, the existing code — which hasn’t been substantially updated since the disco era — shapes how every municipality other than Boston decides what gets built within its borders. It therefore affects every resident who’s priced out of the current housing market and every company that’s trying to decide whether to expand here or in cheaper parts of the country.

The Senate bill, whose chances in the House look quite precarious, pushes towns to allow at least some multifamily housing. It eases the construction of accessory dwelling units — the so-called “granny flats” or “in-law apartments” that give senior citizens and recent graduates the benefits of living with extended families but with an added element of privacy. The bill would also allow towns to impose impact fees for the cost of connecting new development to public infrastructure, and to pass so-called inclusionary zoning rules, which require developers of large projects to set aside some units to be sold or rented below market rates.

But this is where the conflict comes in. Real estate interests are wary of impact fees and inclusionary zoning, both of which impose added costs on builders. Yet they favor the provisions in the Senate bill that cut red tape and allow developers to construct certain types of housing in certain areas by right — that is, without obtaining special permission from finicky local zoning boards.


Meanwhile, as the Senate vote loomed, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents city and town officials, issued a statement calling on senators “to oppose any ‘as-of-right’ or ‘by-right’ provisions.” In a state where the suspicion of developers and trust in local government runs high, it’s easy to argue against going easy on homebuilders. Yet letting local governments micromanage or thwart new construction is precisely what got Massachusetts into its current predicament.


This is a state with tremendous economic potential. According to recent projections by the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia, Massachusetts is the only New England state that’s expected to expand its population and its workforce through 2040. But the failure of housing construction to keep up with demand could prove crippling to the state’s economy. The municipal association’s statement casts aspersions on for-profit developers and calls for more below-market rate housing. Then again, most of the state’s housing stock was built by people who expected to make money from their efforts.

The 23-15 vote in the Senate reflected the push and pull between two important interests — and an evident division in a Legislature that likes to do as much business as possible by consensus. Yet the need for reform is urgent. The Senate bill attempts a fair compromise among all the parties involved, and the House should embrace it.