Governor Baker is backing a bill to reform zoning in Massachusetts, which will give local municipalities more flexibility in making zoning changes. This bill is a good example of some important lessons for understanding Massachusetts’s land use laws.
Zoning in Massachusetts is generally done at the local level, through town and city ordinances. Zoning regulates how an owner may use their property, through usage and dimensional controls.
The proposed bill will allow towns and cities to switch to a majority vote to change local zoning ordinances. Presently, most zoning changes need to be done by a two-thirds vote, which makes enacting such changes a high hurdle to clear. Supporters of the bill argue that it will help create additional housing and make Massachusetts more affordable place to live.
Understanding Zoning in Massachusetts
This proposed bill is a good example of an important lesson regarding Massachusetts zoning: these land use regulations are often not very flexible. Many property owners find that their local zoning regulations can completely prohibit how one wishes to use their property. Sometimes, a seemingly minor regulation can put the brakes on a proposed development.
Zoning in Massachusetts provides exceptions to these regulations, known as variances. It is a common misconception, however, that one merely needs to show hardship to qualify for a variance. Rather, the variance criteria is extensive and requires a high burden to meet, including a showing that the subject property is unique.
This, in my opinion, is one of the driving forces behind this proposed legislation. Since many zoning laws have a “take it or leave it” approach for regulating property, fixing the law itself is really the only way to change the zoning process.
If you need assistance with zoning in Massachusetts, contact me for a consultation.