Last month, Governor Charlie Baker signed a hotly-debated Economic Development Bill aimed at injecting more than $600 million into the Massachusetts economy in the coming years. But while the dollar figures made the most headlines, one provision in particular is important to developers: a change to the thresholds required for rezoning residential parcels statewide. This new law is the most significant improvement to the Commonwealth’s zoning regulations in many years, and one that should have both developers and housing advocates cheering.
Under the old system, attempts to loosen zoning rules to make way for denser housing often faced the high hurdle of a two-thirds vote by the local approving body – in some cases a Town Meeting vote, in others a City Council decision. At a time when NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) sentiment is easy to inflame, this was often an effective veto on some very worthy projects that could add to communities’ housing stock, inflate local budgets, and provide homes to thousands of new residents. Getting two-thirds of voters or elected officials to agree on anything can be difficult, especially in the realm of development.
The new system signed into law has lowered the threshold for approval to a simple majority – still requiring a solid project and good-faith efforts to work with communities, but not nearly as daunting a barrier to success. It’s a positive change that will help many worthy proposals get the zoning they need to break ground; and in the long run, it will hopefully lead to a move away from a system that caters to the narrowest, most change-resistant minority in local politics. At the Belfort Group, we have helped hundreds of developers grapple with the two-thirds rule and have seen many of them succeed. But many other projects have never even been proposed due to anticipated rejection at the zoning level. We hope this new change will encourage developers to be ambitious and creative in the ideas they feel they can put forward.
When they do, we’ll be here to help. Our Public Affairs practice, through the prism of BG Strategies, specializes in helping developers build the community and political support they need for all aspects of the permitting process, including rezoning. A 50% +1 requirement is still substantial, and project advocates should think seriously about who the key stakeholders are in their targeted communities, what issues motivate them, and how best to reach them. Our team has experience doing this sort of on-the-ground research and engagement (which has adapted in some respects to the ongoing pandemic) and we’re always glad to consult with developers seeking to explore their options.
There’s a lot more for developers to explore in this story – nonresidential re–zonings aren’t impacted; for example, and the law also has a variety of incentives and requirements to encourage denser housing development along transit hubs and in MBTA communities. But the main takeaway – that the legal landscape for development in Massachusetts just got a lot friendlier – is key. Now more than ever is the time for builders to think big and go bold. When that happens, we can help make those plans a reality.