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Reading the Map: How Developers Can Spot Opportunities in Zoning Reform

by Michael Sherry | Public Affairs , Thought Leadership
May 24, 2021

The zoning map is a crucial guide for developers, letting them know where in a given municipality they can build “by right;” that is, without most of the oversight and hurdles associated with changing the zoning of the site. While even ambitious rezonings are doable- our BG Strategies team has guided many projects successfully through the rezoning process– they are often expensive, time-consuming, and come with a risk of failure. For that reason, knowing where you can build by right is vital for developers seeking to turn proposals into profits with regularity.

But the zoning map, helpful as it is, is only a snapshot. It shows developers where they can build today, not where they may be able to build tomorrow. Savvy developers can learn to read the upcoming signs of zoning change in their target markets well before the final vote is cast and thereby be prepared to immediately take advantage of the new normal on Day 1.

In Massachusetts, Cambridge is a good example of this phenomenon. For years, housing advocates had urged the city to adopt an Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO), a citywide zoning overlay which allowed the construction of 100% affordable four-story apartment buildings, anywhere, by right. Despite the push, they could not get the necessary 6 of 9 City Councilors to sign on, and the reform failed. Activists weaponized the defeat into a political movement during the 2019 City Council elections and successfully obtained the 2/3rds majority they needed to pass the AHO into law, which they did nearly a year later. With its passage, a world of opportunities opened up for residential development in Cambridge. But the smartest developers were able to begin scouting locations, securing architects, and conducting market research on Election Night 2019, not October 5, 2020.

A similar phenomenon is playing out in Boston, where clashes between City Hall and the Zoning Board of Appeals are heating up on the subject of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). The ZBA has put on ice many of the ADU applications that Mayor Walsh- and now his successor, Acting Mayor Janey- support as a crucial part of solving the city’s housing shortage. Though the stalemate is intact for now, recent moves at City Hall suggest the impasse will end with the ZBA being cut out of the ADU approvals process entirely- opening up new possibilities for contractors, developers, and small landlords with the foresight to read the writing on the wall.

The Belfort Group can help you read that writing. Through our public affairs practice, BG Strategies, we keep our ears to the ground, listening for development opportunities before they’re official. Combined with our understanding of the political and policymaking environment in key markets throughout New England, developers trust us to assess the lay of the land in municipalities where they hope to build. In places where we don’t already know which way the wind is blowing, we conduct deep-dives into the local environment, learning the key players and policies with potential changes on the horizon. This intelligence can help you assess where your time and resources would be best spent- not only today, but tomorrow as well.

To learn more about BG Strategies, contact Director and Public Affairs Practice Area Lead Michael Sherry at mike@thebelfortgroup.com for more information.

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