, Salem, MA

June 20, 2014

Letter: Zoning bill is less than it seems

The Salem News

---- — To the editor:

There are always two sides to every story, particularly when the “story” comes from the Statehouse. House Bill 4065, which has superseded House Bill 1859 lauded by Mayor Kimberley Driscoll in a recent opinion (“A plea for smart zoning,” June 9), isn’t quite as wonderful as she and Mr. Leroux presented it. This proposed legislation began about 10 years ago as an admirable effort to reform the current zoning laws (Ch. 40A). But somewhere along the way, it was hijacked by special interests and morphed into a fast-track development scheme. Yes, there are some smart-growth initiatives thrown in that attracted broad-based support from the good-guy land preservationists. But the bill compromises oversight and abandons too many protections for us citizens.

So, here comes the bad news about “An Act Promoting the Planning and Development of Sustainable Communities.” Most egregiously, the bill would allow zoning changes and special permits to be granted by a simple majority vote, rather than two-thirds currently required. Not good. Would you rather the vote to rezone the land next to your house for a five-story warehouse be decided by one swing vote or by a strong, two-thirds vote? Zoning is too impactful and important to be made fast and easy.

Building permits would be extended to two years and special permits to three years. That’s a really long time to grandfather a permit, as conditions can change. In Salem terms, this is long enough for a power plant to be torn down, then rebuilt.

There would be a consolidated hearing process among all boards and committees for larger projects, with requirements that boards share draft decisions. Kind of like independent board reviews consolidating into one jolly handshake. Standards for site plan reviews and zoning variances would be reduced. There would also be shorter review periods and no required public hearings for certain developments. Is this really “smart” growth or just “fast” growth?” There’s one juicy bone thrown in to elicit citizen support. Municipalities would be able to charge developers impact fees for certain projects. Although this sounds good, it’s actually disingenuous, because impact fees have been historically undefendable in MA courts of law.

Although the bill promotes some “smart growth,” it also significantly streamlines oversight, which is pretty much what brought down our financial services industry — and nearly our country — a few short years ago. And from Salem’s point of view, we have so many beautiful historic buildings, neighborhoods and vistas to protect that our development processes should be as watertight as possible. Development shouldn’t be rushed through the process and misused as a cash register. The real strength of Salem’s local economy is our historic tradition, which will not benefit from “streamlined” development.

It’s a shame that special interests overtook a piece of well-meaning legislation. This bill should be rejected and a more responsible one written.

Jennifer Firth