Senate tees up zoning bill to boost housing supply

Realtors and developers have organized to express opposition.

In this file photo, a homeowner advertises a cottage that is for rent on a daily and weekly basis. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The Massachusetts Senate plans to take up the first comprehensive overhaul of the state’s zoning laws in more than four decades this Thursday in an effort to alleviate the state’s housing crunch.

The bill (S2144), which is the latest iteration of legislation pushed by Senator Daniel Wolf and redrafted by the Municipalities and Regional Government Committee last session, attempts to rein in restrictive local zoning regulations and incentivize communities to plan for sustainable growth.

One provision, which supporters said could create thousands of new housing units without requiring state money, would allow the owner of a single-family house to build an accessory apartment on his or her property without having to obtain a special permit.

Borrowing from recommendations made by the Special Senate Committee on Housing, the legislation would require municipal zoning ordinances and bylaws to provide at least one district in which the development of multifamily housing would be allowed without special permits.

The bill also extends the duration of special permits from a maximum of two years to a minimum of three years, which would give developers more flexibility, according to a Senate official.

Even as a group of real estate industry organizations line up in opposition to the bill, Sen. Wolf said he is confident the bill has something for everyone.

“This is a really, really smart and balanced bill, and I think there is enough in here that everyone who’s been at the table liked that there will be good consensus that it is a balanced bill,” Sen. Wolf said. “It really modernizes zoning in Massachusetts to bring it up to where it is in most states around the country.”

Sen. Wolf, who is not seeking re-election this fall after three terms on Beacon Hill representing Cape Cod and the islands, said he has been working to reform state zoning laws since his time as chairman of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod.

There have been many “lessons learned” since the last rewrite of state zoning laws in the 1970s, Sen. Wolf said, and the bill seeks to use those to address housing challenges, suburban sprawl, open-space issues, and the cost of infrastructure.

Responding to an earlier version of the bill that has since been slightly modified, the commercial property development association NAIOP, the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, and the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts — together calling themselves the Real Estate Coalition — wrote that the group cannot support the bill, despite liking some of its provisions.

The coalition, in its memo, said it cannot support provisions of the bill that would create an opt-in program for municipalities to obtain “certified community” status and become entitled to certain “privileges and powers,” saying such a program is “poorly defined and ill-conceived,” and would be “unduly bureaucratic.”

The group also opposes the idea of allowing municipalities to change the voting requirements for the adoption of zoning bylaws, ordinances, or amendments, warning that it could “allow municipalities to more easily adopt antigrowth zoning amendments to the detriment of property owners.”

Sen. Wolf said the coalition’s support for some parts of the bill and its opposition to others is likely emblematic of where his colleagues stand on the bill. Some legislators would say zoning reform is needed to streamline and make more predictable the development process, and others would say it is needed to address environmental and smart-growth issues, Sen. Wolf said, but almost all would agree zoning reform is necessary.

“A bill this complicated and this balanced will never have universal approval on every aspect,” he said. “Something this complicated and this comprehensive can’t please everyone 100 percent, but there is a lot of good stuff in here for all concerns.”

Though only two months remain until the end of the legislative session, and legislative leaders are already deeply engaged in work on other major bills, Sen. Wolf said he is hopeful there is enough time left in this session for the complex bill to clear both branches.

“It’s a very technical bill, so on one hand that is a challenge, but on the other hand, the House really looked at this last session, so there’s nothing the House hasn’t seen,” he said. “I hope they’ll understand that after 40some years, there is a sense of urgency here.”