Losing Ground in Massachusetts: Zoning Reform Can Help

The Boston Globe recently reported on Mass Audubon’s Losing Ground report. This study of development patterns in Massachusetts found that between 2005 and 2013, the Commonwealth lost 13 acres of open space—per day!—to development. That amounts to a loss of nearly 38,000 acres of open space in an eight-year period.

As real estate development picks up in light of our state’s recovery from the recession, it’s likely this loss of land will only increase. Why? Because our state’s current zoning laws make it easier for developers to create low-density sprawl instead of the walkable, vibrant communities with nearby amenities and public transportation in which Massachusetts residents want to live.

But development and conservation of open space don’t have to be at odds with each other. Our zoning laws need to be updated to facilitate smarter growth patterns, from Plymouth to Pittsfield. Sprawl costs our state in so many ways. Infrastructure is more costly to build and maintain in sprawling subdivisions. Public health suffers when residents get around by car instead of by foot, bike, or mass transit. And our environment pays a steep price—from loss of open space to more carbon emissions produced by a car-centric community. There’s currently a bill pending in the Legislature that would incentivize our communities to grow smart and we need your help getting it passed by the legislature this month. Learn more here and contact your legislators to let them know that smart planning is important to your community.

Thank you to Mass Audubon for supporting Zoning Reform in Massachusetts, and for highlighting the cost of sprawl in our state.

Somerville Reforms Zoning and Massachusetts Can Too

In his Boston Globe column today, Paul McMorrow praises the updated and “sane” zoning laws the city of Somerville is set to roll out. The new laws will make it easier for everyday citizens to make modest changes to the triple-decker homes that have been emblematic of Somerville for generations. Somerville Director of Planning George Proakis tells McMorrow, “In residential neighborhoods, it’s a lower threshold to build a new eight-unit building than it is to finish a basement.” Our Great Neighborhoods team has supported the efforts of community partners like Somerville Community Corporation to participate in reforming zoning in Somerville and we applaud the Boston Globe for drawing attention to this important issue.

Somerville’s zoning laws are 20 years old. But our state’s zoning laws have gone nearly twice as long without substantive changes. In most areas of the Commonwealth, it’s easier to build a sprawling subdivision than it is to build vibrant, walkable communities like the much-lauded Assembly Square that McMorrow mentions in his column. That’s why we’re advocating for Zoning Reform legislation at the state level.

An Act Promoting the Planning and Development of Sustainable Communities” (House Bill 1859) will modernize and streamline the zoning and permitting process across the Commonwealth. It also creates incentives for communities to plan ahead for growth in a way that will attract and retain the residents who will keep Massachusetts thriving for years to come. Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone has voiced his support for this bill, writing, “All of our communities could do much more with a strategic reform to our state’s development laws.”

Somerville didn’t wait for new investment, housing, and jobs to fall out of the sky. The City and its citizen activists embarked on a hard-fought course of smart planning and zoning years ago. But you can make it easier for cities and towns throughout the state to get better neighborhoods by passing House Bill 4065 right now. Learn more and email your legislators to voice your support for sensible reform.



Measuring Sprawl but Not in Massachusetts

On Wednesday, our friends at Smart Growth America released a report called Measuring Sprawl 2014 that ranks the most sprawling and most compact areas of the country. The report found that people in compact, connected areas are healthier and wealthier.

But as I mentioned yesterday, you’ll notice some strange things if you look at the data.

Why is walkable Washington, DC ranked 91st while Miami is 8th—and Detroit 12th?

The main reason is that metropolitan areas vary widely in geographic size. Washington’s Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) stretches all the way to West Virginia, while Detroit’s is much smaller in size. But the correlations between relative compactness and health and wealth still hold. That is why some of the most walkable cities are not at the top of the charts. This is also an issue for Boston because our MSA stretches all the way into New Hampshire.

But don’t go looking for Boston’s ranking, because…

Massachusetts isn’t included at all.

If you look at the charts in the Appendix, you’ll see that the Massachusetts data is curiously blank. Here’s what researcher and report author Reid Ewing has to say about it:

“Massachusetts is the only state that doesn’t participate in the LED (Local Employment Dynamics) Partnership, and hence we cannot estimate many of our sprawl variables for MA. LED is part of the Longitudinal Employment-Household Dynamics program of the U.S. Census Bureau. Employment density is part of our Density Factor, Jobs-Population balance is part of our Land Use Mix Factor. You see the problem.”

It’s hard to believe that Massachusetts is the only state that can’t produce this data. Here’s some insight from Holly St. Clair, Director of Data Services of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC):

“This is true but should be resolved shortly. Our department of Labor and Workforce Development has an antiquated database and could not until recently assemble the necessary data. MA signed the agreement in January of last year and provided the data to the Census in the fall. Before the sequester they anticipated that the data would be available in the Spring. So in light of the sequester, I would guess it would be pushed back till the fall.”

MAPC purchased establishment data from InfoUSA in 2011 as a stand-in for their own analyses and are willing to make it available to the report researchers. Will the Measuring Sprawl team be able to run our numbers later this year? That remains to be seen.

So where does Massachusetts stand?

For an initial indication of how we relate to the rest of the country, if we stack up the partial data for Massachusetts counties against the full index for other counties in the US, Suffolk County (Boston) clocks in 7th, behind four NYC counties, San Francisco County, and Hudson County in New Jersey, (which is also part of the NYC metro area); and just ahead of Philadelphia County and the District of Columbia.

Further down the list, Middlesex County, Essex County, Norfolk County and Bristol County would all rank in the top 100 counties nationwide, with the important caveat that our data reflects only housing density rather than housing and jobs together.

Andre Leroux
Executive Director, MA Smart Growth Alliance

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.