MPHA in the News: Column: Smart zoning reform will lead to better development (The Eagle-Tribune)

The Eagle-Tribune

Sunday, June, 15, 2014

By Dennis DiZoglio and Heather McMann

Column: Smart zoning reform will lead to better development

With nearly 45 years of experience in local planning between us, we have seen firsthand how communities struggle to manage growth, promote responsible development and grow their local economies. Because of the passage of Proposition 2 1/2 in 1982, communities find the need to constantly expand their tax base to produce sufficient tax revenue to pay for the municipal services citizens expect from them.

At the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, we recognize this struggle and have worked with our 15 cities and towns to develop the “Merrimack Valley Priority Growth Strategy” that identifies where communities want to grow, where to preserve, and what infrastructure is needed. For its part, Groundwork Lawrence has played a role in helping residents in Lawrence, Methuen and Haverhill plan and implement a regional network of open spaces and community paths, especially around our waterways.

We have both seen how difficult it can be to improve local zoning and permit the kinds of development projects that will make our communities physically and economically healthier. To be successful, our cities and towns need a modern set of tools to plan ahead for growth. Too often, development proposals that can advance this strategy are subject to legal wrangling, wasting time and money for local government as well as developers and property owners.

The status quo threatens our region’s future. Our state’s outdated zoning, planning and permitting laws make it cheapest and easiest to build projects outside our priority development areas that may waste taxpayer dollars. 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 poised for action on Beacon Hill that begins to fix this. House Bill No. 4065, “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, develop, and protect our communities. It adds nothing to the state budget but will save cities and towns money in the long run.

The proposal will make it quicker and cheaper for communities to promote sensible growth and preserve natural resources 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. The law will also determine development impact fees by a formula, curbing contentious negotiations with developers over the cost of additional infrastructure.

Our antiquated zoning laws hurt our communities’ ability to protect the character of our region. Much of the region’s farmlands have been 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.

Let’s take development fights out of the courts. This bill brings our zoning law into the 21st century 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 would set reasonable procedures for issuing zoning variances that will benefit homeowners and municipalities. 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 quality of life in our communities, such as the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, the Massachusetts Public Health Association, the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, 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 our communities to plan ahead for the growth we need, instead of just reacting to unanticipated development proposals.

Dennis DiZoglio is executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission. Heather McMann is the executive director of Groundwork Lawrence.

Read the original article here.

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