I’m excited to write to you as Chair of the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee (ZAP) to inform you about the important work our committee is doing regarding zoning changes in Newton. What is zoning? Zoning is the way governments control the physical development of our city. For example, it governs areas where we can have residences of various types, as well as commercial, manufacturing and mixed-use buildings. It also governs the use of properties throughout the city as well as the size of buildings on these properties.
Why does Newton need new zoning?
The City Council’s efforts to reform zoning began with the work of a group of citizens tasked by Mayor Warren and (then) Board of Alderman to develop a plan for reforming Newton’s outdated zoning ordinance. Our ordinance has not been comprehensively reviewed since 1953. In 2011, this group produced a report reflecting citizens commonly voiced concerns such as;
- Why are there so many teardowns?
- Why should people be allowed to build “McMansions” that come so close to my home?
- What can we do to make sure my daughter can afford to live in Newton when she starts looking for a home?
- Why aren’t there any options for places to live in Newton when I can no longer take care of my big home where I raised my family?
- How can we keep our villages full of shoppers with a vibrant mix of shops?
- How can we manage parking and traffic?
- How can we channel growth that we need to thrive and advance to appropriate areas of our city?
- How can we preserve the character of our neighborhoods?
- How can Newton contribute to climate change mitigation?
Newton Zoning impacts ALL these elements. Two zoning efforts were begun this term; one dealing with the rezoning of the whole city and one focusing on Washington Street. Because of the continued interest in developing Washington St our work now is focused entirely on completing our review and approval of the Washington Street Vision Plan and Zoning Ordinance.
Some facts about Newton
For context: 1. Newton is losing its middle class. Many people currently living in Newton couldn’t afford to buy their own home as the median sale price of a single-family home is $1.2 million, 2. According to the Donahue Center for Economic and Public Policy Research, the population of Greater Boston is projected to grow by 22.5% or over 200,000 by 2035 which will put even more pressure on housing costs, 3. Newton is losing 25-45year-old residents according to the Bluestone report. In 1990 this group represented 33% of the total and is projected to shrink to 23%. The over 65 group is going in the opposite direction going from 15% in 1990 to 24% – this has an impact on our school population, 4. According to the National Climate Assessment “By 2035, the Northeast will be 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) warmer than in the pre-industrial era, hitting that mark up to two decades before the global average” 5. Newton is losing affordable housing,
It is abundantly clear that the forces of change are upon us, it is up to us to decide whether and how to respond. Zoning is an important tool in our toolbox for this purpose.
Impact of Zoning – how zoning change can help
Zoning changes are difficult and complicated. We all have hopes and dreams for our community just as we do for our individual and family lives. We are bound to have controversy as we touch the ordinance that touches our lives. As we discuss the proposed change we must keep in mind the important reasons we are undertaking this project.
- The economy of our city: – The recently passed Economic Development Plan repeatedly indicates the need for zoning change in order to make our city more business friendly
- Climate change:– A report from Pace University Law School about the relationship of zoning and climate change states “that municipal actions, and zoning particularly, rank high among the options available to decision-makers to mitigate and adapt to climate change. We can mandate energy-efficient buildings, discourage urban sprawl, encourage transit-oriented housing (housing near public transit) provide low-emission transportation alternatives, and avoid development in inappropriate areas with zoning rules.” Zoning, Transportation, and Climate Change, John Nolan, Pace University Law School. 2008
- Our Village Centers:- Our village centers are important and we want them to thrive. Competition from the Internet is intense. Strong village centers require investment to attract commerce and people to use commerce. Yet for over 70 years, there has been little investment. The biggest change in the last century was the loss of lovely 3 and 4 story historic buildings, which were torn down because of our former real estate tax code. This code, under which owners paid less real estate taxes because buildings were small, incentivized the creation of the single-story shops prevalent in all our villages today. A redesigned zoning ordinance can encourage the vibrant villages we all want.
- Preservation of our neighborhoods:-Our citizens love the neighborhood they live in. No one appreciates when a small home is torn down and the new building covers the whole lot. Our current zoning law allows this behavior and the only way to fix this is through reforming our zoning ordinance.
- The economy of our region:– We need new workers in our region. Baby- boomers are retiring – in the next years, nearly 40% of our labor force will retire. Currently, there are barely enough young people in the workforce to take these jobs. Retirees who want to downsize in Newton have limited options. Finding the right places for new housing will help Newton, our region and our economy. Retirees can stay in Newton. Small to midsize companies can move to Newton because we can make room for some young people to live in Newton.
I want to reiterate that I understand, as do my colleagues, that zoning change is difficult and often some new ideas and ways run counter to commonly held beliefs. We need to talk together as a community and work on these issues together. Each of the areas above deserves a lot of conversation and I hope we will talk about them.
Other ZAP ongoing work:
In June the Zoning and Planning Committee will be finalizing updated and new zoning on Inclusionary Zoning (the percent of units in any new development that must be reserved for affordable housing) and regulation of short-term rentals. These are other important rules I hope you will learn about.
I look forward to hearing from you. I will continue to provide more information on the Washington Street Vision and Code in the coming months.
Councilor at Large Ward 2
Zoning and Planning Committee Chair