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Activists hope shifting preferences will nudge land use reforms

A coalition featuring smart growth, public health and municipal officials plans to press lawmakers Tuesday to pass zoning reforms that they say will modernize outmoded subdivision and planning laws in Massachusetts.

Supporters of legislation (H 1859) promoting “sustainable communities” say their proposal would extend the duration of special permits and building permits, get development fights out of the courts by defining inclusionary zoning and impact fees, and encourage alternative dispute resolution.  The bill, according to proponents, would also make it quicker and cheaper for municipalities to conduct master planning, expand the use of variances to help property owners with small-scale renovations and additions, streamline the appeals process, and create a consolidated permitting process for projects over 25,000 square feet.

Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance Executive Director Andre Leroux said the bill is not as long and as complex as previous iterations of land use reform bills.  If passed, he said, the bill would help communities address shifting demographics.  Leroux said there’s been a shift in interest among young people towards living in “exciting and vibrant” places where residents can walk to their homes, jobs and parks and restaurants and that aging Baby Boomers want to age in locations where they can walk and be close to amenities.

“Tastes have changed markedly.  That’s shifted the whole real estate market,” Leroux told the News Service.   “This bill is pretty important.  It begins to create a framework for creating those kinds of great places.”

The Massachusetts Public Health Association and the City Solicitors and Town Counsel Association are also backing the bill.  Asked about political signs that land use reform could spur legislative leaders to act, Leroux said he was encouraged about new support for reforms from public health advocates and by Senate President Therese Murray’s identification of the issue as an important one last session.   Leroux said the bill’s passage was important to fast-growing areas like southeastern Massachusetts, which includes Murray’s hometown of Plymouth.

The Municipalities Committee is scheduled to hear the bill at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Room B-2.