A Lesson From Somerville: Better Zoning Promotes Economic Growth

Plans (2)Paul McMorrow wrote an interesting column in yesterday’s Boston Globe that deserves reading, particularly for those interested in crafting workable zoning codes and bylaws in our cities and towns.  The current zoning process in most Massachusetts communities, even for simple projects, is complex, inefficient and time consuming.

Somerville felt the need to revamp its zoning code, which last received a significant overhaul in 1990.  In my town, Southborough, the last substantive zoning overhaul was 1954!  McMorrow notes that Somerville kept what worked in its “old” code and discarded the rest.  The new zoning code provides dimensions and measurements for the typical Somerville home, and allows by-right renovations and additions to those structures, e.g., dormers, porches, finished basements and modest rear additions.  This is welcome news for Somerville residents looking to complete these common home improvements.

There’s more at stake here than just a better bylaw.  Complexity and delays in the zoning process have a hidden cost on all of us in the form of reduced economic growth.  If you talk most any site location consultant, project engineer, or developer, “time to market” is essential to attracting good projects and the jobs that come with them.  If permitting is too cumbersome or takes too long, the project and the jobs often go elsewhere, sometimes outside of Massachusetts altogether.

Somerville’s simplified, updated zoning shows that it does not have to be that way.  Zoning bylaws can provide for by-right expansions of existing structures that are not harmful to the community and rarely generate controversy.  The time saved on local review of these projects can be better spent expediting the review of more complex projects that merit closer scrutiny and bring economic growth and jobs to our communities.

Now if those kind folks in Somerville would only take a crack at the tax code…

About David McCay

Dave is a partner in the firm’s litigation and land use groups where he assists clients in the resolution of complex real estate, environmental and business disputes. He also represents property owners and developers in local land use permitting matters. Dave is active in the Boroughs+ region serving as the Chair of the Southborough Economic Development Committee and as immediate Past Chair of the Marlborough Regional Chamber of Commerce. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the 495/MetroWest Partnership, the Advisory Board of the MetroWest Economic Research Center at Framingham State University, and the Marlborough Economic Development Corporation. Dave lives in Southborough with his wife and two sons.
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