What is Zoning?
Zoning is a set of rules that control what may be built in each part of a community. Zoning divides land into different districts and regulates allowable building area and volume on a lot, determines which uses are allowed or prohibited in each district, and establishes additional guidelines for growth and development.
The City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee (ZAP) is working on proposals to rezone the entire city. One idea that appears to have strong support in the committee is to increase housing density in Newton by eliminating single-family zones. Another idea is to allow by-right conversion of single and two-family houses to multi-family houses (3 or more units).
These ideas have proven so controversial that City Council President Susan Albright has “taken them off the table” for this year. Whether the Council takes them up again after the municipal election this November will depend on the future makeup of the City Council.
Despite the potentially huge impact of these changes, there has been no public consensus that radical zoning change is necessary. The Council itself has never had an explicit vote requiring councilors to go on record as being either for or against such change, nor has it offered a list of deficiencies that can only be solved with a complete replacement of the current code.
There has been only limited outreach to the residents of Newton. However, the Planning Department has begun a community engagement process regarding Village Center rezoning.
So far, no scientific survey has been done by the City to make its planning more responsive to the public. The City Council has the authority to write a new zoning code on its own without the public’s approval. A referendum could be held to overturn most measures passed by the City Council, including zoning changes, although there is no mechanism to hold a referendum stopping a measure from being passed.
Summary of Concerns about Zoning Redesign
1. Higher population density transforming large parts of Newton from suburban to effectively urban, and increasing traffic congestion.
2. Continued pressure on City tax revenue to serve an increasing population, with older residents on fixed incomes being pushed out if they can’t afford the increases.
3. Loss of middle-income housing due to a combination of luxury development and subsidized “affordable” units, with even those affordable units renting for hundreds of dollars more per month than our naturally affordable rentals. Consequently, Newton becomes more expensive and less diverse.
4. Discouraging motor-vehicle use by limiting available parking. This strategy is likely to lead to more ride-share traffic, more on-line shopping deliveries, and a secondary market for private parking. The result would be an increase in traffic congestion..
5. Loss of green space as smaller, modestly-priced single-family houses are torn down and homes with a larger footprint take their place.
Proximity to public transportation has been used to justify bringing additional density to Newton’s neighborhoods that are near Green Line and commuter rail stations. This “transit-oriented development” thinking ignores recent MBTA service cuts and the fact that use of public transportation by workers commuting from Newton has historically been around 13%, Uber and Lyft were pulling large numbers of people away from public transit even before the pandemic. Furthermore, the pandemic is revolutionizing corporate and individual attitudes toward commuting and may diminish the effectiveness of TOD strategies.
- NewtonRezoning.org presents detailed information about the Planning Department’s rezoning proposals, including reference links, data analysis, and fact-checking.
- The Zoning and Planning (ZAP) Committee is developing a proposal to redesign Newton’s city-wide zoning ordinance. All public documents can be found at a website painstakingly created by Richard Rasala at https://web.northeastern.edu/rasala/newton_zoning_docs/.
City Councilor Pam Wright's Presentation, "Newton's New Zoning Ordinance" - 8/6/2020
Content on this page is sourced from:
Newton Coalition’s “A One-Page Summary of Zoning Redesign” – March 3rd, 2021
City Councilor Pam Wright’s Presentation, “Newton’s New Zoning Ordinance” – 8/6/20