As the City Council works on overhauling today’s zoning laws, its instructive to look backwards to the start of zoning in Newton.  What began as a common sense effort to keep gas stations from opening in residential streets, mutated into the social engineering of single family zoning – a decision that has had far reaching consequences for the next 100 years.
In 1918, in Newton and in many other towns, residents were alarmed that commercial interests were opening stores, gas stations, factories in the midst of residential areas.   In response a statute allowing for local zoning was proposed by a state constitutional convention and ratified through a statewide ballot vote.  Initially, the entire issue of zoning centered around commercial interests encroaching on residential properties.

This was a hot button issue in Newton and many other towns at the time,  In 1921, the Board of Alderman of the day put together a committee to come up with a proposal for zoning of private property.  Their proposal entailed five levels of zoning – 1. Single family zoning, 2. General Residence (2 families), 3. Business district (stores and offices).  4. Commercial (Industries and light manufacturing).  5. Industrial (“such buildings ordinarily [considered] obnoxious like those used in the chemical business”).  This approach to the new field of zoning was radical in that it attempted to codify single family housing as an ideal rather than as one of many forms of housing, and to enforce that single housing choice across large swaths of the city by law.

Mayor Edwin Childs was a supporter of zoning in general but an opponent of how it was unfolding in Newton.  Said Childs ” I believe in a Zoning Ordinance for the City of Newton as do practically all of our people.”.  Childs went on to say “Many, however, and some of our most thoughtful citizens have intimated to me, that in their judgment the proposed Ordinance is too drastic and that the distinction drawn between single and two‐family houses having in mind only its relation to public health, public safety, public morals and public welfare, is hard for them to see.”.

Said Mayor Child, “I vetoed the first and second zoning ordinance and I have no apologies to make for the action taken. Both were founded on selfishness.  I did what I believed was for the best interests of the city after getting all the light that I could. Residential sections are now set off from business and manufacturing and that is about what most people had in mind when the [state] Zoning Act was accepted by the voters.”

“After all, it isn’t so much the sort of house as the people in it which makes or breaks a city. All of the good people are not found in single dwellings. The important matter is the proper development of the city by the building of homes and what we need in Newton more than anything else is more homes for young married people. I believe that they ought to have the privilege of living in the same city with their parents, if they so desire.”

Mayor Childs bristled at the whole idea of single family zoning.  ” No cities, however, which have adopted Zoning have gone as far as they have attempted to go[, though] it has been intimated … “that the people of this City desire to go farther than other cities have gone, that Newton is different, that our people want an Ordinance such as has been passed” …

Mayor Child’s vetoes staved off the move to single family zoning for a while, but a few years later, in 1925 single family zoning was enacted across much of the City of Newton


I live in Upper Falls, a section of the city with (largely) two family zoning.   My house previously was owned (two owners back) by a young couple.  When they were in their 40’s the husband died.  Some number of years later his wife was worried about her mother-in-law.   She turned our house into a two family and moved her mother-in-law into her own apartment.  She lived there until she died many years later.  The next owner re-combined the two apartments back into a single family home.  This was exactly what Mayor Childs spoke about in 1921 when he vetoed single family zoning in Newton.  As people’s lives and situations change, they’re housing needs to change.  By legislating single family housing as the city’s legal ideal, we are unwittingly legislating all sorts of things about our city and how our citizens are expected to live.

Eliminating single family zoning DOES NOT MEAN eliminating single family homes.   It means allowing home owners to use their homes as they see fit and means recognizing that their is no moral superiority in a single family home over a multi-family home.  If single family zoning were eliminated tomorrow not much would change the next day.  In the middle to longer term, as people’s needs change, some housing would become multi-family because that’s the housing that the homeowner needed or wanted.
Dictating by zoning law that forever after, all single family homes must forever remain single family homes is a bad idea.  As Mayor Child said “it’s founded on selfishness”.
Thanks to Alice Ingerson for compiling the history of Newton’s zoning laws on which this column is based.  Here’s a link to Alice’s much more detailed history






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