MPHA in the News: Guest Opinion: Zoning Reform Needed for Healthier Communities (Taunton Gazette)

Taunton Gazette

Monday, May 19, 2014

By André Leroux and Dr. David Weed

Guest Opinion: Zoning Reform Needed for Healthier Communities

Our cities and towns deserve a modern set of tools to plan ahead for growth that encourages and promotes healthy living. Currently, more than half of Massachusetts adults are either overweight or obese, and obesity-related medical costs are estimated at $1.8 billion annually. Not to mention, productivity losses related to obesity are estimated at $17 billion annually, placing a significant strain on our economy.

The status quo threatens Massachusetts’ future. Yet, our state’s outdated zoning, planning and permitting laws continue to facilitate development in places that are not conducive to healthy lifestyles. Research has found that people in walkable neighborhoods participated in 35-45 more minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week and were substantially less likely to be overweight or obese than similar people living in less walkable neighborhoods. Additionally, this “sprawl” costs up to twice as much in public infrastructure, costs 10 percent more to maintain in services, and produces only 10 percent of the property taxes of a vibrant, walkable area.

It is time for sensible reform. Our state’s 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 1859, “An Act Promoting the Planning and Development of Sustainable Communities,” is practical legislation that gives Massachusetts cities and towns clear authority and flexible tools to plan and develop our communities in a way the encourages healthy living.

The proposal will make it quicker and cheaper for communities to decide where to sensibly grow and where to preserve by making master planning more flexible and less costly. It encourages communities to establish districts for prompt permitting of housing and commercial growth while adopting environmental protections. It also requires communities to incorporate a public health section into the land-use plans and allows communities to set aside up to 5 percent of land in subdivisions for parks and playgrounds, helping to keep communities active. According to the American Journal of Public Health, 43 percent of people with safe places to walk within 10 minutes of home met recommended activity levels compared to 27 percent of individuals without safe places to walk.

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 only exist 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. There are also provisions that would improve the siting of development to protect our landscapes, reduce flooding, and recharge our local water tables and streams, ultimately improving water quality.

This bill brings our zoning law into the 21st century and will help communities save money on health costs. It ensures that the Conservation Commission and Boards of Health participate in development decisions in a productive and timely fashion through the new consolidated permitting process 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 encourages development disputes to be resolved by mediation rather than 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 health of our communities, such as the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, the Massachusetts Public Health Association, Voices for a Healthy South Coast, and the 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. The bill costs the state nothing and should save cities and towns money. Its passage will be an important step toward a fair system of development rules that will encourage healthy communities that can plan ahead for the growth we need, instead of just reacting to unanticipated development proposals.

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