Zoning Demystified - Apr 5th, 2022

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Panel discussion held via remote participation. It was organized by Envision Arlington with the goal of explaining what zoning is and how it works.

Laura Wiener formerly worked as an urban planner in Arlington's Department of Planning and Community Development; she currently works for the city of Watertown. Ms. Wiener says that zoning can be hard to visualize. It divides a community into a set of districts and specifies what kinds of uses are allowed in each district. There are three main types of uses: business, industrial, and residential. If a use isn't allowed in a district, that's a final no.

Arlington's zoning allows things by right or by special permit. Special permit means there's a public hearing for review. By right means the applicant only needs a building permit. Zoning also provides dimensional regulations for different uses and different districts. These include things like a minimum lot size, maximum height, yard size, and parking. These laws can change over time. For example, Arlington added bicycle parking requirements during the last few years.

Amy Dain is a public policy researcher. Ms. Dain says that zoning can seem impenetrable, but a lot of it is easy to understand. She gives examples of zoning maps, use tables, and dimensional regulations.

By-right uses are non-discretionary zoning. If something is allowed by right and meets all of the requirements, then it can be built. Something of economic value has to be allowed in every district, and each district must allow something by right. Rezoning an area to open space is equivalent to a taking. Most multi-family housing requires a special permit, which can be a difficult hurdle for small developers.

Over time, zoning has gotten more discretionary and less predictable. For example, Lexington removed multi-family districts from their zoning map, and left that use as a floating district. Any multi-family uses have to be approved by town meeting.

Overlay districts can be used to provide more housing in certain ways. Overlay districts relax, rather than change, the rules of the base zone.

Chapter 40B was passed in 1969, when the state legislature felt there were too many restrictions on multi-family housing. State law now requires 10% of the dwellings in multi-family housing to be affordable. 40B requires 20% to be affordable, but it provides a way to ease regulations that would make the project uneconomic.

Pre-existing non-conforming buildings are ones that were built before zoning was enacted, or before it was changed to make the buildings non-conforming. For example, there are sections of Belmont with two-family homes on lots that are smaller than zoning requirements. A change like this prevents incremental increases in the amount of housing. As a whole, greater Boston is more built out than would be allowed by right today. This lack of opportunity to built is one of the causes of our current housing shortage.

Value capture is a new, and somewhat controversial, area of zoning. In some cases, new homes sell for more than the cost of construction and municipalities try to capture part of that difference. That can go to affordable housing, art installations, a requirement for certain facade materials, bike lanes, and bush shelters. This is controversial because it drives up the cost of development, but it's also a pragmatic way for communities to get what they want.

Carlisle permitted 26 units of senior housing, and the process took eight years. Some residents referred to this as "Manhattan is coming to Carlisle". Wayland's 1962 plans called for larger lot sizes, specifically to keep new people out of the town. Ms. Dain thinks that all communities should allow some housing to be built in some places.

Planning Directory Jenny Raitt and Redevelopment Board Chair Rachel Zsembery show slides of Arlington's zoning maps to discuss where in town different uses are allowed. It's worth noting that the map dates to the 1970's, and the districts were basically drawn around the buildings and uses that existed at the time.

Envision Arlington member Alex Bagnall and Redevelopment Board member Steve Revilak. Present a "stroll down Mass Ave". They show pictures of recognizable buildings and discuss how they conform to current zoning. They note that our current zoning requires much more off-street parking than our pre-existing non-conforming properties provide. If rebuilt, our pedestrian-oriented business districts would have a lot of curb cuts, and much of the lot space would need to be devoted to parking.

A recording of the event is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psv2tqXP50I.