Ward 6 City Councilor Brenda Noel shared this with her constituents and with Village 14.

Dear Constituents,

As you may have heard, the current City Council has been charged with the exciting and challenging task of working with the Fuller administration to update our existing zoning code.  We have a unique opportunity to make a change that will impact our city for years to come and reflect our values as a caring and thoughtful community.

To provide some context, here is a quick snapshot of Newton’s zoning history

  • Newton adopted our first zoning code in 1922, revised in 1953, and slightly tweaked it in 1987. No major reform between 1953 and 2019 (66 years)
  • Efforts to update the current zoning code began in 2007 with the comprehensive plan a fully engaged initiative began in 2015.
  • The current “built environment” in Newton is 85%-95% non-conforming. What this means is big (major development) and small (new mudroom) changes require a special permit.
  • Input from the residents has been sought throughout the zoning redesign process, in large initiatives like Hello Washington and smaller settings such as Ward specific zoning reform meetings held throughout the city.

From the City’s Zoning Redesign Webpage:

The goal {of zoning redesign} is to create an easily understood ordinance that preserves what is best about Newton and is, at the same time, forward thinking.

And herein lies the rub- what is “best about Newton” and what is “forward thinking?”

History of Zoning and Social Engineering

In the late 1800s Before zoning codes existed, people would regulate what they did or did not like in their neighborhood by filing a “nuisance law” If someone didn’t like how their neighbor was using their property, they could bring them to trial and let a judge decide what to do about it.

The introduction of zoning in the early 1900s launched a revolution in American land use regulation and planning. Beginning with height regulations in Washington, D.C., in 1899, efforts to control the type and intensity of land use spread to many cities. In 1908, Los Angeles adopted the nation’s first citywide “use” zoning ordinance to protect its expanding residential areas from industrial nuisances. (New York’s zoning ordinance happened around this time as well)

As quickly as zoning ordinances were established, they began to be used as a way to institutionalize racism and classism in the United States.  Baltimore enacted the first racial zoning ordinance in 1910; within several years the practice was widespread in the region. The racial zoning movement received a sharp reversal in 1917, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared a Louisville, Kentucky racial zoning ordinance unconstitutional.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court struck down race-based zoning in 1917, nine years later, found it constitutional for a Cleveland suburb to ban apartment buildings.  In concert with racism in real estate, police departments, and housing finance, single-family zoning proved as effective at segregating northern neighborhoods (and their schools) as Jim Crow laws had in the South.

The tendency of planning historians to focus on land use regulations principally as a way to shape the built environment and to stabilize land values can obscure equally important (and less publicized) social objectives in America’s early planning movement.

“What began as a means of improving the blighted physical environment in which people lived and worked,” writes Yale Rabin, became “a mechanism for protecting property values and excluding the undesirables.”  (http://walkingbostonian.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-subversion-of-fair-housing-law-by.html)

Recently, Minneapolis would become the first major U.S. city to end single-family only zoning, a policy that has done as much as any to entrench segregation, high housing costs, and sprawl as the American urban paradigm over the past century.  The process Minneapolis has engaged in is noteworthy, and the city’s understanding of the intersection between racism and zoning is to be commended.  Read more about it here. https://slate.com/business/2018/12/minneapolis-single-family-zoning-housing-racism.html

The Future of Newton

The current zoning redesign in Newton begins with a pattern book intended to create areas that more or less conform to the existing structures and zoning variances created over time by not having a zoning policy that contains the flexibility to adapt to the current needs of our City. On the one hand this approach makes sense: creating density in areas that are already dense and creating moderate density in areas that are currently largely single-family homes.

On the other hand, the pattern book informs the current draft zoning proposal, which gives the City’s North side neighborhoods (those which are historically lower-income, and interestingly enough, have limited public transportation options) increased density and South side neighborhoods (those historically wealthier with access to the Greenline) less density.  This calcifies into code and design what has already been established through a well-intended yet subjective special permit process, as the result of an outdated zoning code.

As mentioned, the history of racial segregation and economic stratification in this country is one that concentrates and embeds wealth and access in “neutral-on-its-face” policies like zoning preferences for detached single family houses and setback regulations. It often presents as harmless euphemisms like “character of the neighborhood” “just doesn’t feel right” and results in stifling the very tools we need as a city to truly make good on our commitment to inclusivity and diversity.

Please make no mistake about it- I have every intention of promoting and supporting a zoning policy that encourages diversity in our community.  This means opening our doors to the less wealthy, the elderly, the disabled, younger families starting out, and folks of all different cultures and ethnicities.  This is the very definition of What is Best about Newton and Forward thinking.

If we are seeking economic diversity in our city, housing needs to include smaller units that people want and can afford: rental properties because not everyone can afford to buy; multi-unit houses because not everyone wants the responsibility of a single family or they want to live in a “village” with other people close by. Our inclusionary zoning and accessory apartment ordinance address some of this- but it is not enough.  It alone cannot remedy the complexity of this challenge.  We need to embrace a zoning redesign plan that acknowledges that zoning is social engineering and plays the most significant role in the future of our city.

We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to get Zoning Redesign right, and truly exhibit what is best about Newton.

Please note I haven’t touched on the relationship between zoning and the environment.  You have indulged me long enough- but make no mistake, we are in the middle of a climate crisis that zoning redesign can play a critical role in addressing.  Look here to learn more:  https://www.citylab.com/equity/2011/12/missing-link-climate-change-single-family-suburban-homes/650/

Thank you for reading- Please join me at my office hours this Sunday February 17th from 9:30-11am at Central in Newton Centre to discuss Zoning Redesign and any and all things Newton.

Brenda Noel

Ward 6 City Councilor

For more information about the Zoning Redesign process- please see the City’s website



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