Fall Home Design 2009: Take Two

By Rachel Levitt | Boston Magazine |

Twilight Zoning

How our state’s land-use rules have faded into obsolescence—and what’s being done to fix them.

By Rachel Levitt

[sidebar]Zoning isn’t sexy. Indeed, the language of setbacks and exemptions is enough to make your eyes roll back in their sockets. Yet these laws profoundly affect how we live, influencing everything from suburban sprawl to commuting times to housing affordability. And the hard fact is, Massachusetts has some of the most outdated zoning laws in the country—written before the end of the Cold War, before the personal computer, the Internet, and the cell phone.

What Massachusetts has missed in those decades is something that two-thirds of its fellow states have seized on: a comprehensive plan to manage growth. Instead, the Bay State has on its books such anachronisms as a 1975 provision preventing towns from limiting the square footage of a house, meaning they can’t enforce maximum sizes. This, in an era when acres of forest are being cleared for 21,000-square-foot mansions.

Lacking a statewide strategy, towns have been left to fend off development themselves—hence the arsenals of exceptions, special districts, and laborious permitting processes that have been put in place. This local approach has kept Concord quaint and Wellesley swell, but it’s also created a minefield for homeowners who want to improve their property (like the Haddens) or rebuild after a fire (like the Mracheks).

This contradictory juggernaut may be about to change, however, as the legislature is now considering two land-use proposals aimed at bringing Massachusetts into the modern era. The Community Planning Act (CPA) would update and simplify zoning for all communities as well as require them to submit master plans for growth, while the Land Use Partnership Act (LUPA)—backed by Governor Patrick—would offer towns the option to "opt in" to smart-growth planning in exchange for greater access to state grants and resources.

With CPA heavily supported by municipalities and LUPA by the real estate and development industries, insiders surmise the state may end up with a hybrid of the two proposals. But few doubt that by 2010, Massachusetts will have new zoning laws in place for the first time in more than 30 years.