SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

June 9, 2014

Column: A plea for smart zoning

Kim Driscoll and Andre Leroux
The Salem News

---- — Our cities and towns deserve a modern set of tools to plan ahead for growth.

The status quo threatens both Massachusetts’ and Salem’s future. Our commonwealth’s outdated zoning, planning and permitting laws can make it difficult to take advantage of smart-growth tools.

It is time for sensible reform. Massachusetts laws governing development have not been updated in 40 years. Fortunately, there is a bill pending on Beacon Hill that begins to fix this. House Bill No. 1859, “An Act Promoting the Planning and Development of Sustainable Communities,” is practical legislation that gives Salem and other Massachusetts cities and towns clear authority and flexible tools to plan, develop, protect and enhance our communities.

By making master planning more flexible and less costly, the proposal will make it quicker and less expensive for communities to decide where to grow sensibly and where to preserve. It encourages communities to establish districts for prompt permitting of housing and commercial growth, while adopting environmental protections. The law will also determine development impact fees by a formula, curbing contentious and often expensive negotiations with developers over the cost of additional infrastructure.

Our antiquated zoning laws hurt our environment, as well. Every day in Massachusetts, 22 acres of forest and farmland are converted primarily to low-density residential sprawl. One contributor is an obsolete process called “Approval Not Required” (ANR) roadside development, which is almost unregulated, even on dirt roads or roads that might exist only on paper. We are the only state in the nation that allows this. Our reform proposal would enable a city or town to replace ANR with an expedited review process with some teeth in it. Other provisions would improve the siting of developments to protect our landscapes, reduce flooding, and recharge our local water tables and streams.

This bill brings our zoning law into the 21st century and clarifies many gray areas of the law so that everyone understands what they mean. The legislation would create standardized zoning protections once an application for a building permit, special permit or subdivision plan is filed. It would set reasonable procedures for issuing zoning variances that will benefit homeowners and municipalities. It encourages development disputes to be resolved by mediation rather than lengthy and expensive court battles. It provides clear local authority for modern-day practices such as inclusionary zoning, form-based codes, natural resource protection zoning and site plan review.

The zoning reform bill is driven by the expertise of many groups that care about sensible growth and the quality of life in our communities, such as the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, the Massachusetts Public Health Association, and organizations that represent municipal attorneys and planners.

We can’t squander this historic opportunity to pass zoning reform before the legislative session ends July 31.

This bill costs the state nothing and would save cities and towns money. Its passage will be an important step forward toward a fair system of development rules that will encourage our communities to plan ahead for the growth we need, instead of just reacting to unanticipated development proposals.

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Kim Driscoll is the mayor of Salem. André Leroux is executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.