City Council to vote on reforms to zoning laws

by Sophie Strausberg, News Contributor, Preethika Vemula, News Editor & Lily Zarr, News Contributor
graphic by Preethika Vemula

The Newton Zoning and Planning (ZAP) Committee is reforming the current zoning code to respond to housing demands, foster environmental stewardship and encourage new development within current neighborhood layouts. 

Newton City Councilor Alicia Bowman, a member of the ZAP committee, said that zoning is a set of regulations that determines a building’s location and use.

“[Zoning] lays out how big buildings can be, what they can be used for, whether it’s housing, commercial or something in between and where that can happen within the city,” she said.

The ZAP committee’s efforts are a continuation of the process started by the Zoning Reform Group in 2011 to enhance the zoning ordinance’s feasibility and align it with the Newton’s Comprehensive Plan.

The current zoning policy designates all residential lots as single-family homes and requires developers to obtain a special permit to build multi-family homes. The committee is proposing a new law, which would allow single-family homes to be converted into buildings with up to six residentials units and would permit developers to create two-family housing by right, without the need for a special permit.

Kathleen Hobson, a member of the leadership team for Engine 6, an association of Newton residents advocating for affordable housing, said that the path to constructing multi-family homes should be simplified. 

“We like the idea of making more multi-family housing by right as opposed to by special permit, which adds delay and cost and unpredictability to the process,” she said.

Bowman said that zoning has historically promoted an anti-immigrant and racist agenda and restricted homes accessible to lower-class communities.

Newton North senior Coral Lin, a youth activist involved in Engine 6, said that Newton housing options are restrictive.

“There’s only this option of a huge house, an apartment that’s more affordable or luxury apartments,” she said. “With zoning redesign, we can fill in the missing middle of housing, which would include townhouses, granny flats or splitting Victorians into multi-family homes.”

Newton City Councilor Emily Norton said that zoning is not the answer to the affordable housing crisis.

“[Zoning] is a capitalism problem. It is expensive to build in Newton,” she said. “If we want more affordable housing, the city and state are going to have to step in with incentives to make it more affordable.”

History teacher Brian Murray, however, said that zoning reforms will help create a more socioeconomically diverse student body.

History teacher Talia Gallagher said that she hopes the zoning reform will end the stereotype that all students of color are METCO students.

“I’ve heard from my students of color that often they [are] targeted as METCO kids,” she said. “It would be great if this rezoning law could be a part of the acceptance that Newton is a diverse place and bring more diversity to the city.”

Another goal of the zoning reform is to create an environmentally sustainable city.

Bowman said the City Council is striving to situate population density near village centers and public transit. These areas are known as 15-minute neighborhoods, where residents can take care of their daily needs within a 15-minute walk from their homes.

“One of the most important things … is building housing closer to where people work and where there are amenities like grocery stores that will reduce the amount of driving,” she said.

Overall, Lin said that students should care about zoning laws, as they will have a long-term impact.

“Zoning is really important to younger generations,” she said. “It affects what a city will look like in 50 years.”