Somerville zoning overhaul

Cities use their zoning code to control the physical development of land and the kinds of uses to which each property may be put. It’s a means for the government to enact and enforce land-use planning.

Zoning ordinances can also get out of whack. As Vox pointed out, only 22 residential buildings in Somerville are considered “conforming..” This, in a city of 80,000 people. I ran afoul of the zoning myself. A few years ago, I wanted to replace two windows in the back of my house with a sliding door. Because my property is non-conforming, and the windows were too close to the property line, I had to jump through extra hurdles and present to the Zoning Board of Appeals. I had to draft architectural drawings, notify abutters and present at the board’s monthly public hearing. Mind you, everyone involved was apologetic but they still made me go through the steps.

The good news is that the city is well aware of the zoning morass. Somerville has been trying to revamp its zoning for several years now. Somerville’s zoning code was first enacted in 1925, updated many times, and then re-written in 1990. Now, a brand new zoning code has been put forward for public comment. Reducing the headaches for homeowners to make home improvements, including adding a dormer, a bay or, indeed, a sliding door will be made much easier by the new zoning.

However, the zoning is also an opportunity to tweak the city’s land-use rules. Here, things become more contentious. How should the city encourage more affordable housing and commercial space, improve parking requirements and add open space through the zoning code, for example?

Today, I attended a zoning overhaul open house. I spent about 45 minutes in a one-on-one conversation with a city planning and zoning employee, talking about three principle topics: how zoning is simplified for homeowners, development planning in Davis Square – including traffic and the loading issues that commercial activity brings – and how much sustainability factors into the new zoning code. On the latter point, not much is the answer, at least not yet. But I suspect that will factor into our deliberations in our Somerville Climate Forward working group on Community and Economic Development. Our first meeting is August 31.

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