Green Zoning in Massachusetts - 11/11/2020

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This presentation was sponsored by the Massachusetts Climate Action Network.

The first presenter is Dan Bartman, who's a planner with the City of Somerville.

Somerville recently overhauled it's zoning code. The process took approximately 7 years, and was the city's first major zoning rewrite in 30 years.

Zoning divides a municipality into districts, and regulates real property within those districts. Zoning is a police power of the state.

Under Herbert Hoover, the US Department of Commerce published the standard zoning enabling act in 1922. This was model legislation intended to be adapted and passed by state legislatures. The enabling legislation delegates police powers needed for zoning to municipalities. Chapter 40A is Massachusetts Zoning Enabling Act. It contains some restrictions on what cities and towns can do with their zoning. For example, cities and towns can't pass zoning laws that conflict the state building code. This is one of the reasons why Brookline's town meeting was unable to pass a local ban on fossil fuel infrastructure in new buildings and significant renovations.

Several planning efforts preceded Somerville's zoning rewrite. They performed a greenhouse gas inventory (buildings and automobiles are Somerville's biggest carbon emitters). They also performed a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment (rain flooding, heat islands, and sea level rise/storm surge are the main vulnerabilities). Somerville Climate Forward was a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change vulnerabilities.

Parking is the first thing you have to talk about when using zoning to address climate change. The biggest determinant of the number of cars on the road is the number of free spaces available to park them. Each parking space required under zoning will result in 4.6 tons of CO2e/year. Abolish parking minimums and charge market rate for off-street parking. Somerville repealed its parking minimums and turned them into parking maximums. Donald Shoupe has written two books about parking (as it relates to urban planning). They're worth reading.

Somerville added landscaping standards to their zoning bylaws. All exposed earth must be landscaped and 50\% of it must be planted. The zoning laws give quality standards for trees and other forms of plantings. There are standards for street trees: the species must be capable of growing 30' tall and there must be 1000 cubic feet/tree available to the root system.

Somerville adopted bonuses in exchange for environmental performance standards. Different GFA thresholds trigger LEED rating requirements. There's a density bonus available for residential buildings that are net zero ready (meaning there's no on-site combustion for heating or cooking equipment).

Somerville incorporated a sustainability and resilience questionnaire into site plan review and approval. The goal was to get builders thinking about how to minimize the environmental impact of their buildings. They also require LEED checklists and narratives.

Builders must submit LEED certifications in order to get a certificate of occupancy.

Somerville considered a set of requirements for EV charging stations. They ended up omitting these requirements, due to concerns about conflicting with the state building code.

The next speaker is Renée from Green and Open Somerville.

Green and Open Somerville tries to improve green and open spaces in the city. They advocate for ecological restoration and use of native plants. They discourage the use of artificial turf and promote native plants as a food source for birds and pollinators.

During the zoning overhaul, Green and Open Somerville worked with the planning department to create the "Somerville Green Standard". They discovered that several of their goals couldn't be address through zoning, so they worked on a "green score" instead. The standard incentivizes things like solar panels and green roofs.

Renée suggests that people organize, get to know their elected officials, attend public meetings, and apply to serve on committees and commissions. Get to know developers that work in the city; identify progressive developers and try getting them to lead by example. It's important to have allies.

Green and Open Somerville occasionally does projects like planting pollinator gardens and clearing invasive plants.

The third speaker is Katherine, from the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, USDN has a group of member communities that are trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Zoning is a tool in this effort. It can be used to push for more compact sustainable development.

Many communities are realizing that they're not on track to meet GHG reduction goals. Some cities are imposing performance standards on new development (e.g., NYC, DC). Others are requiring retrofits to existing buildings (e.g., Philadelphia).

In general, newly-constructed buildings will have less GHG emissions, but it's important to lock in standards.

Municipalities are becoming interested in influencing the building code. Push for the adoption of stretch codes where possible.

New buildings should be ready to accommodate improvements in clean energy technology. You can incentivize things like EV charging stations, energy storage ready, solar readiness, and all-electric buildings.

Watertown requires solar in new commercial buildings. Vancouver requires specific energy efficiency targets during major rehabilitations or use changes.

Time for Q&A with the speakers.

Question: has Somerville done any studies on landscaping as a way to reduce urban heat islands?

Dan Bartman says they did some work when developing the green score, but not any formal studies.

Question: How do you decide what tree species to recommend?

Dan says Somerville developed a scoring index. They made a list of tree species and a list of categories, then scored each tree species. The 30 species with the highest scores are the ones they recommend.

Question: did you consider incorporating white roofs in your performance standards?

Dan says they require high albedo roofs. They precise color isn't as important as whether the roof reflects or absorbs heat. Dan says performance standards are a way to achieve sustainability goals.

Question: Why is the stretch code called the stretch code?

Katherine says that stretch codes go beyond what's required in the national building code. In Massachusetts, communities can opt in to requiring the stretch code. Katherine says it's important to work from the strongest base code possible.

Question: What does "storage ready" mean?

Storage Ready means that a building has facilities to accommodate batteries, or some other device to store power.

Question: how do you get people excited about zoning?

Dan says that Somerville used to provide pizza at their public events. Conversations about zoning can be heated and complex, but we've only found success after engaging with the public.

Renée says that zoning is hard to grasp, and not all that exciting. Zoning can be a vehicle for getting what you want; it's exciting when you can tie them together.

Tori (also from Green and Open Somerville) says that zoning becomes interesting once you realize it's a way to achieve progressive goals.