An Act Promoting the Planning and Development of Sustainable Communities (H1859)


This legislation will update our state’s outmoded zoning, subdivision, and planning laws. The goal is to encourage balanced development and land preservation that will meet the needs of the Commonwealth’s communities now and for the next generation. These changes will:

  • Grant cities and towns the tools they need to make their vision for the future a reality;
  • Provide more certainty to property owners and developers; and
  • Realize better regional land use outcomes – jobs and homes in the right places, less spending on excess infrastructure, and important natural resources protected.


Lead Sponsors

Stephen Kulik

Dan Wolf


Local zoning codes have not been updated in generations.  Old zoning codes have too often promoted sprawl, pollution, social isolation and stunted economic development.  Current development trends are not protecting the quality of life in our communities nor are they providing the foundation for healthy, long term economic development. For example, we are building fewer than half of the homes we need annually in Metropolitan Boston to meet current needs and to prevent the loss of workers to other states.

In addition:

The difficulty of finding housing that is affordable and that meets the needs of our changing demographics, including seniors and young people starting a family or beginning their careers;

Twenty-two acres a day of forests and farmland are being converted to primarily low-density, residential sprawl; and

Combined housing and transportation costs are eating up a larger share of family budgets. For a household earning the median income, these costs now account for 50% of their income

This bill provides benefits to all municipalities through statewide reforms and offers enhanced incentives and tools to communities that choose to opt in by changing select local regulations in order to meet economic development, housing, and natural resource protection goals. These reforms will equip cities and towns with the tools they need to shape their futures while providing more certainty to landowners and developers.

More information about specific provisions of the bill is available here

Current Status

Assigned to Joint Committee on  Municipalities and Regional Government.  Hearing held on Tuesday, May 14 at 2:00 PM in Room A-2.


Testified in Support
Dauphy Polenes Massachusetts Association of Consulting Planners
Many members have worked hard on this bill for many years. We want to advance Massachusetts as a place to live. Residents tell us that they would like to preserve the town and country landscape and the New England character and make towns more sustainable and support innovative economic development. The land use laws that we have to work with don't let us do much at all. They were written in the 1950's, when the world was a very different place with a different vision of what a community should be. There was lots of segregation. My daughter’s generation doesn't want cars and want to run into people that they know on the street. They want more dense communities. This bill supports public health goals. We need to make these public health goals explicit and we need to catch up to the rest of the country
Rep. Walsh, Chris (D) State Representative
MA House of Representatives
As a practicing architect, I have spent many hours in front of planning boards. This system is out of phase with the reality of our life and the environment. Early zoning was a series of silos but that is not the way we do businesses or how we live anymore. This bill will allow for flexible zoning and I strongly support it.
Ayn Yeagle Nutrition Manager
Montachusetts Opportunity Council
We can connect public health with zoning. In 2009 Fitchburg youths had the 2nd highest BMI in Massachusetts. The city used funding from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation called to help residents with active living. We are making the healthy choice the easy choice. The planning commission is critical to doing that. An assessment links health living to city ordinances. Our analysis found that this is true. We have a policy for mixed use neighborhoods. But we have bad policies as well. Because of the A and R, many plans should connect a sidewalk and it doesn’t happen. There is also a statute for a three year wait for a park or playground in a subdivision. The current statutes don’t encourage a healthy lifestyle.
Heidi Ricci Senior Policy Analyst
Mass Audobon
We have followed the issue of zoning for many years and this bill is a well-crafted compilation of the best ideas. “Losing Ground” reports show that sprawl in land use is chewing up the country side and doesn't provide the kind of housing that people need. It causes very expensive infrastructure costs for towns. We have a program called “Shaping the Future of your Community” that address the issue. Sprawl frontiers are communities that still have a lot of land that is zoneable and they don't have professional planners. Our plan identifies priorities for responsible development. Many people are looking for walkable communities and open space.
Robert Lapman Granby Fire Department
Citizen petitions are not the same as a well thought out bill. This bill circumvents the planning and consideration that is in the general laws. We need to know the size of our tax base. We receive calls from all over the district. We need to assess our fees and understand what kind of budget we are working with.
Robert Manserati City Solicitor and Town Councils Association
We support HB1859. We have a subcommittee that participated in the drafting of the bill and have reviewed it paragraph by paragraph. We look at it from a pragmatist point of view. I have seen this from both sides. One thing that both sides want is clarity, predictability and consistency. Those fundamental things that people need to do business are missing. The town boards just want to do their jobs well. There is especially no consistency on how to get a variance. There is an unrealistically high bar. Each zoning board creates its own body of precedent, so there's no consistency since the statute is almost meaningless. Site plan review is very common but it is not in the statute, so there is a patchwork of systems across the state and no consistency there either. It causes a lot of litigation. Impact fees and inclusionary zoning is also a patchwork. There is nothing to codify the process.
Jenny Rushlow Staff Attorney
Conservation Law Foundation
Our current laws encourage sprawl and reliance on cars and fossil fuels. It is bad for public health and makes walking and biking dangerous. Current laws prevent towns from planning and regulating roadside properties. This bill would minimize sprawl. There are incentives for open space and environmental protection like 40Y. This is long overdue and is necessary to encourage balanced land use.
National Association Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod
We advocate for smart growth and try to direct it away from natural resource areas and toward mixed use. This is good for economic development and saves towns money. Yet, the existing laws are the biggest obstacles to this. It is well past time. The Cape Cod Business Roundtable and Douglas Soares, a popular developer, strongly supports this as well. So many groups have come together to agree on this bill.
Lauren Rosenzsweig Morton Town of Acton
Towns need modern tools to fulfill their visions and goals and retain their distinct character and history. Master plans help to protect these features. Zoning reform protects property rights while allowing communities to grow. It respects the goals of individual towns. It also incentivizes smart growth and the preservation of open spaces. This bill will give communities more control and encourages best practices. It adds clarity to the permitting process. It sends the message that projects will receive support, which will give us all more livable community.
Angus Jennings Massachusetts Association of Planning Directors
Municipal planners are often the initial point of contact for a project. We provide fairness and predictability in the process and are bound by a code of ethics. HB1859 creates a much more rational framework and will serve the public interest. The clarity of the language will improve the odds that the planner and the board will be on the same page. There is more flexibility for variances which are nearly impossible to obtain now. There would be less litigation. This bill also facilitates the adoption of local reforms.
Rep. Kulik, Stephen (D) State Representative
MA House of Representatives
This bill is overdue and we need this to provide for more sustainable growth and plan for the future. A tremendous amount of work went into this bill by a broad coalition of interest groups. Often in the past, this bill didn't have a hearing early enough in the session to move forward appropriately. This is the most streamlined version I have seen in a decade.
Steven Sadwick Director of Community Development
Town of Tewksbury
This bill is a balanced bill that considers the needs of everyone involved. I think will help us carry out our duties in public service.
Brian Barber Massachusetts Association of Consulting Planners
There will be short term benefits to passing this bill. Three things will make a big difference. First is the reform of the approval process of subdivisions. Second, the regulation of impact fees will help towns solve financial problems. Third, the reservation of lots for recreation will make a difference for accessibility.
Michelle Cicollo Community Development Director
Town of Hudson
I have seen the best and worst of zoning in Massachusetts. The time has come for change and this iteration is one of the best that I have seen. In Hudson, we have some very dense areas and some very rural areas. One provision in the bill allows Hudson to decide on projects. This is key because towns have to make smart decisions about water use. It also streamlines the process so developers and neighbors are not shunted around from committee to committee. I also support moving away from supermajority.
Keith Mahoney Director of Public Affairs
The Boston Foundation
The Greater Boston Housing report card by Prof. Bluestone says that Boston needs to increase housing development by 2x or 3x to meet demand by 2020. New housing starts have been inadequate since the 1980's. The high cost of housing has been a brake on the economy for decades. We need to reform the local zoning laws to encourage production.
Nancy Goodman Vice President of Policy
Environmental League of Massachusetts
Our current system isn’t working. This bill gives developers more certainty. This legislation would help new development while minimizing the environment impacts. It facilitates healthy choices that are good for the environment and public health. We need more dense and more walkable communities. These changes will also protect groundwater. The state’s climate change plan included zoning reform as key to achieving our greenhouse gas goals. We must balance the needs of towns and encourage development. This bill is fair and thoughtful. We support the opt-in section as well.
Sue Levin Town Planner
Town of Brewster
New York City has been able to have an idea and make it happen. It doesn’t take four years and an intensive review process. How does this kind of bill get passed? Peake: Magic. Force of Will. Just kidding. We will discuss it and possibly amend it and then a decision will be made at an executive session by a simple majority. Levin: This is a huge undertaking that affects every town and it will pass by a simple majority. I think towns should have that same ability to get things done. I also agree with the previous panels ideas on variances. In all my years, I have only seen one variance actually meet all the criteria.
Andre Leroux Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance
The real estate market is changing. There are aging baby boomers and the millennial generation who are looking to start households. These groups have shifts in their preferences. They want vibrant, walkable places with parks. We don’t have many of these places anymore. We don't have the different kinds of housing that people want. This bill will grease the wheels for this kind of development. We can get development fights out of the court system. These changes will offer more flexibility.
Toby Fisher Executive Director
Massachusetts Public Health Association
We fully support this bill and the SB71. The older zoning regulations have allowed sprawl and social isolation. Walkability, bike paths and parks build healthy communities. There is a direct link between zoning and public health outcomes. Please streamline the process and encourage dialog between local public health departments. We could encourage affordable housing more, but from a public health perspective we are very enthusiastic of this bill.
Rep. Provost, Denise (D) State Representative
MA House of Representatives
In 1982, I worked for Newton and learned about zoning laws. Our zoning laws are ambiguous and they are not very modern. HB1859 will fix a lot of the confusion that has caused litigation. It will bring more clarity to the zoning laws. We have waited so long to do zoning reform, but at least we know more now about smart growth and development. Please report this bill favorably and get us into the modern world.
Jeff Lacy Planning Board
Town of Shutesbury
Most of this bill is not cutting edge. It's normal stuff. Most is taken from other states. Everything in here you can find in use and working in other states. Massachusetts is the only state that has A and R. Nationally, a simple majority is all that is needed. We are the only state that requires the super majority, which is still the default in the bill. Anytime you vote to change the majority, you can't use the new majority level for six months to decouple it from any one item.
David Keefe South Hadley Fire District #2
This is a public safety issue. A fire doubles in size every minute and if someone is not breathing, in 3 to five minutes they are dead. We are okay with an abatement option for citizens with a double tax. That's fine. But Granby doesn't seem interested in doing that. The Granby residents petitioned us to come to the district. Granby also gets the benefit of the millions of dollars of infrastructure that we put into that neighborhood. Madden: Who takes the phone call and who responds? Keefe: Phone calls go to Fire District #2 and we respond. Madden: How many towns do you cover? Keefe: We cover east South Hadley and 140 properties in Granby and Mount Holyoke College. You may save them a few hundred dollars in taxes, but what if their house burns down? It's shortsighted. The legislation requires us to keep all the water and the fire infrastructure and we would also be liable for its maintenance in the future. The neighborhood petitioned to become part of the district because otherwise they wouldn't have been able to build there. Peake: Could Granby purchase the hydrants and water systems? Keefe: There's been no serious discussion with Granby on the issue. Granby doesn’t have a water department anyway. I was at a fire where seven people were killed. This is not something to mess around with.
Clark Ziegler Massachusetts Housing Partnership
I would like to add an amendment to the bill. I see this bill as a down payment. I hope to see much more growth and development legislation in the future. I have seen a change in attitudes over the past feed decades toward multi-family homes and it is not positive. The average lot size is very high and many towns make it very difficult to build multi-family housing. Those sorts of policies do not create a sustainable economy for the state in the long term. This bill still allows for local flexibility or does not prevent communities from insisting on large lots. Our amendment would require that every community make some provision for multi-family homes and a low density zoning area to protect the environment.
Phil Hurt concerned citizen
I have worked on at least one project in the municipalities of each legislator I see here right now. There is also a great deal of good planning done here in Massachusetts. This bill will ensure that good things get done in more places. The bill reflects the experience of the municipalities. I do have some concern with some pieces but I am confident that those pieces will get the attention that they deserve.
Rodger Brown Managing Director
Preservation of Affordable Housing
We support this bill because it will address the critical need for affordable housing. Homelessness and low quality of life for seniors are serious problems. These multifamily properties are an asset for residents and communities. Most of them were built in the seventies and yet none of these properties can be built today under the current zoning laws. We need multifamily housing units. Tools like cluster development and impact fees and incentives will empower local jurisdictions and protect against local development. Today there is too much uncertainty and risk when building new multi-family housing in Massachusetts. The process can take years and developers don't want the risk.
Russell Andersen Chief
Granby Fire Department
Due to a series of petitions over time, we find ourselves in this situation. The response time to the furthest point is under four minutes. From the Granby station, it is 8 minutes. Secondly the water supply comes from the district. There is no water supply in Granby. Under the general laws, you cannot remove yourself from a district unless you are going to receive equal or better services for fire or water. If you remove yourself from a district, you leave all the services, not just fire. This bill has a problem with both issues. Fire response will be slower and they will still need water from South Hadley. This is a safety issue. This is a separate body politic, and that body should be involved in the process. We should not allow an unrelated third party like the legislature to deal with it. The general laws have stipulations for how to leave a district and this legislation is a tax saving aspect that is not taking public safety into account.
Rachel Heller Director of Policy
Massachusetts doesn’t have the housing supply that we need. New housing construction is inadequately low. It's driving up housing costs which affects everyone. We have a homelessness crisis. The high price of housing affects young people and employers see it as a barrier. We support inclusionary zoning and the opt-in section and making planning more predictable for developers.
Peter Lowitt Director
American Planning Association
The American Planning Association ranks Massachusetts among the worst planning statutes in the country. I wrote my thesis on development impact and had to go to New Hampshire to implement it.
Ron Maori concerned citizen
I was in a legal dispute and won, but then the insiders decided to change the ordinance. I see an insider’s games and the supermajority protects people like me and my neighbors. I have also dealt with the variance issue and I don't think the language in this bill will really help because it isn’t strong enough.
Marc Draisen Executive Director
We have been working on this for 20 years. The last comprehensive change to the zoning law was in the 1960's. The result is that there are whole concepts that govern land use in other parts of the country that are not even defined in the Massachusetts laws. At a practical level, many developers or towns want to do something in a new way and just don't bother to try because the laws are so difficult. We must change if we want to compete in the future. This bill provides critical elements of zoning reform for all communities and incentives for additional elements for those communities that opt in for ideas on smart growth and sustainable development. In Massachusetts, we have local planning boards, but in many cases they are just reacting. We don't offer the tools for them to make future oriented goals. We would love for this to be the year that we get this finished.
Mary Burgess Town Planner
Town of Attleborough
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I have seen huge projects move forward without infrastructure updates or impact fees. The planning boards can’t really say no. That's the problem with an A and R. We as a town have to provide the improved roads and services that are needed after the development goes through. This is not an anti-development A and R statute. We want development, but there has to be proper infrastructure and water services. If you have 35 A and Rs that are on main roads, how do you protect that land? We need to assess impact fees and mitigation. Taking the A and Rs out of the zoning act will help developers and planners.
Gregor McGregor Attorney
McGregor and Associates
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The laws are stretched to their breaking point because people look to the environmental laws to control growth and planning. There are byzantine procedures, missing definitions and expensive court appeals with no predictable results. Developers view Massachusetts as a bad joke. Cities and towns lack an ability to plan. All cities and towns have to send their bylaws to the Attorney General or else they don't take effect. I had to assess consistency of all the bylaws once, and that was extremely difficult. The local ordinances faced modern problems because the law is over thirty years old. The rules would be approved but with a strong caution that there they may not hold up in court at all.
Jay Wickersham Boston Society of Architects
Zoning reform has been a policy goal for many years. This is our best chance in a generation. These reforms make it easy for owners of existing buildings to invest and redevelop and it offers incentive for large scale development and gives tools to protect open space. We should modernize Massachusetts’ zoning laws like almost every other state has done. This is a road map to opt in for the new model of walkable, sustainable development. We have communities that other states only dream of. 40Y will allow us to create more these special neighborhoods.
Sen. Wolf, Daniel (D) State Senator
MA Senate
We have worked with countless experts and have studied land use. Land use and the environment on the Cape in particular is a tricky issue. I like the streamlined version of this bill. It is easier to understand than most zoning laws. I also think businesses, municipalities and environmental groups have worked together to craft legislation that is passable. Our current laws are creating sprawl and impacting traffic, waste water and are unfavorable toward affordable housing. This bill will help provide healthy communities for generations to come. There are some snags to work through, but I think we can resolve this this session. Kuros: In several spots, hearings are optional and the threshold for votes is down to a simple majority. It's very easy to stack a town meeting. Why are you lowering the threshold? Wolf: A supermajority can be overly cumbersome. There are two towns on the Cape that couldn't get a supermajority for important issues. So I am much more skeptical. This just gives the municipalities the option to switch to a simple majority. They must vote with a supermajority to adopt this system. It's not a mandate. Having consolidated hearings can streamline development. It's also optional.
Sen. Eldridge, James (D) State Senator
MA Senate
Zoning reform is the rules of the roads for the things we care about so much in our community; transit, affordable housing, the environment, public health and more. The 2013 Mass Trails Conference advocates for trails across Massachusetts. They are fighting hard and this will help other organizations that are hoping to improve their communities. People are very passionate about it. Many people have been working on this for decades.
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