Zoning law regulates how land is used across the city and shapes buildings, homes, blocks, neighborhoods, and village centers. Zoning Redesign is the City of Newton’s multi-year effort to update, clarify and rewrite Newton’s Zoning Ordinance so that it reinforces our City’s goals. Below are common questions residents have regarding the redesign process. The questions and responses were drawn from presentations given by Newton resident and architect, Jay Walter, for Green Newton and the League of Women Voters in late 2020.
Jay Walter is a local architect with a residential practice for over 25 years in remodeling and restoring homes in Newton. He has been participating in zoning re-design planning efforts as part of a Zoning Working Group with representatives from the Newton Citizens Commission on Energy, Green Newton and 350 Mass Newton Node. The group also includes architectural and building professional groups and the Engine 6 Zoning Re-design Group.
Will the new zoning help make new housing in Newton greener?
The proposed zoning rules would reduce the size of houses that can be built ‘by right’ (without a special permit) by approximately 25% from our current housing stock. With less space to heat and cool, smaller houses are automatically more energy efficient. Reducing the allowable size of new houses would also discourage tear-downs since developers are motivated to build larger homes that are more profitable. The proposal also incentivizes retaining our current housing stock by allowing ‘additions by right’, making it easier for homeowners to add onto their homes instead of selling. There is also momentum to ease the rules around accessory apartments, and allowing more occupants per square foot would reduce energy consumption. Finally, allowing more multifamily units generally means smaller homes which again means less carbon footprint per unit.
How does the proposed zoning make Newton a more sustainable community?
The proposed zoning will direct growth around the City’s transit points which are often our village centers as well. Concentrating housing around commuter rail stations, the Green Line stations and the express bus stops will allow more people to live within walking distance to mass transit, local shopping, and restaurants, reducing car trips and emissions.
Will all this new building eliminate the trees that make Newton the Garden City?
Newton will still be the Garden City under the new zoning. The new regulations would still require a tree permit for all residential building permits. Trees removed by developers or speculative builders who don’t plan to live at home must be replaced as directed by the City Tree Warden. Larger projects requiring special permits can be required by the City Council to protect the tree scape. Street trees would not be hugely effected by the proposed ordinance. Also, the proposal includes more restrictive side and rear setbacks which will, in turn, provide more green space between houses at both side and rear yards.
Can the new zoning help make our existing housing stock more energy efficient?
The best way to make our existing houses more sustainable is by reducing the amount of energy they require to operate–air sealing and insulating the building ‘envelop’ (exterior walls, roof, basement) and replacing the heating and cooling equipment with higher efficiency units. Regulating these things is the purview of the building code and not the zoning code, which deals with land use. However, the new zoning proposal recommends that when a project requires a special permit, the permit be conditioned with a requirement to improve the building to higher energy performance standards.
Will the zoning redesign help with our electrification program to eliminate the use of fossil fuels (gas & oil) in homes?
Unfortunately the zoning ordinance is not the vehicle to expand electrification. At this point it has been determined by the Massachusetts Attorney General that zoning cannot be used to regulate utilities usage.
Does the new zoning consider embodied energy in its regulations around tear-downs?
Embodied energy is the amount of energy it takes to produce materials such as steel and concrete. Some materials require a lot of energy to produce, affecting the total energy used over the life of a building. While planners are aware that the cost of the embodied energy of a home that is torn down is high relative to the life cycle energy use, there is currently no commonly accepted matrix of how to measure that energy and therefore how to regulate it. Suffice to say the new zoning proposal recognizes tear-downs are costly environmentally and discourages tear-downs by reducing the size of new houses by right and implementing more restrictive lot setbacks.
How does the zoning redesign regulate the size of houses?
The size of new houses allowed ‘by right’ (without a special permit) would be on average 25% smaller than the size of new homes currently being built. The proposal would use a ‘form based’ zoning model that defines house ‘building types’ in a locale by taking into account the size of houses in that neighborhood. A new house in a neighborhood would then be of a similar size and scale to the existing houses around it. The other way the proposal regulates house size is by making the rules regarding setbacks and lot coverage more restrictive. This means a new building must be a greater distance from the property lines than allowed under the current zoning laws, and the allowable ‘footprint’ of the building relative to the size of the lot will be smaller. Together the house types and lot dimensional restrictions will reduce the size of new houses and eliminate the over scaled, out of place buildings cropping up in our neighborhoods.
How will the proposed changes address the issue of the declining middle class?
The zoning proposal is designed to provide a diverse range of house types and sizes. This in turn provides housing at a range of different price points which offers opportunity for households of a varying income levels to enter the housing market in Newton. The proposal also makes it easier for homeowners to create additional units on their property through multi-unit conversions, internal accessory apartments and a less-onerous permitting process for creating detached ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Unit). This easing up of the code will allow homeowners to sell or rent a newly created unit, thereby helping people afford to stay in their homes longer should they desire to do so. It also provides an avenue for homeowners be part of the missing middle housing solution we so desperately need.
When single family houses are converted to condos, the condos are not affordable to middle and lower income people. Will this change with the new zoning?
Market rate housing is always going to be expensive in Newton, but real estate prices are subject to supply and demand. If there are enough condos available in Newton the price will reflect their availability. Another path to creating more moderately priced homes is to reduce the size of the units created. Reducing the size of the units will reduce the cost, and building more units per lot will allow the land costs—the single biggest driver in housing costs in Newton—to be shared among more units. Small homes on shared lots is another strategy for moderately priced housing options.
I thought the reason for rezoning was to provide housing for lower income people and people of color. So how does the goal of social justice come in with the proposal for zoning change?
Social Justice is one of many reasons for zoning reform. Fortunately, the goal of social justice aligns quite well with the other goals of increasing and diversifying our housing stock, reducing the City’s carbon footprint, and focusing growth around our villages and mass transit. Attaining any of these goals in turn will help provide a more equitable housing market in Newton.
Parking & Transportation
How do the expected cut backs in MBTA service impact the proposed density focused redesign?
Nobody knows how COVID will effect mass transit over the long run, but the plan for more density around the commuter rail or Green line stops should not be impacted very much. These transit stops also coincide with our village centers, and we want to encourage growth in these areas. The zoning redesign planning process is looking carefully to support our local commercial base and reduce car dependance, particularly around these vital areas.
Does the new zoning eliminate on-site parking requirements?
The current proposal eliminates the on-site parking requirements for single-family and two-family homes. (Multi-family buildings larger than 2 units will continue to require on-site parking.) Even without specific requirements, those builders and homeowners who want on-site parking will build in on-site parking. However, eliminating parking requirements will reduce the cost of building units and allow smaller lots to be developed—reducing the cost of housing generally. Eliminating unnecessary parking requirements is also consistent with the environmental goals of freeing our land use from its dependance on cars. The City will have to address the issues around on-street parking and the winter parking ban.
How will zoning redesign affect traffic?
Traffic has been a problem since the automobile was first introduced in Newton. The zoning redesign proposal would direct our growth closer to village centers with their shops and public transportation hubs. Being able to walk or bike to village centers would minimize dependence on car trips, and hence decrease car traffic.
Where has this type of form based zoning methodology been employed successfully?
Information is available on the FBZI (Form Based Zoning Institute ) website. However, it is difficult to compare other communities to Newton. We are unique in size, housing stock, multiple village centers, etc. This is why the Planning Department, City Council, and the community interest groups are developing a hybrid form based code for Newton. Cities and towns of all sizes, all over the country are grappling with the very same issues we are dealing with here in Newton and are undertaking zoning redesign studies. The need for access to moderately priced housing, climate change, and outdated codes are driving this movement.
Rear lot developments add enormous mass to neighborhoods—how would new zoning treat them?
I am not sure what you mean by ‘enormous mass’ . Although the current redesign doesn’t address it we hope to revise the existing rear lot development standards to encourage it near villages and transit. It provide a good opportunity to add density while maintaining the existing housing stock and streetscape. I am fairly confidant that if the Planning Department proposes easing the restrictions around rear lot development the Council will require a Special Permit.
How will new set-back regulations be applied to single- and multi-family construction?
Under the zoning redesign, side and rear setback minimums will generally be more restrictive (and hence larger) in residential zones for both single family and multi-family buildings. This is in response to the public input about houses being too close together. Of course in the zones allowing smaller lots, the setbacks would be correspondingly reduced.
Including paved surfaces in the calculation of building footprint would be a good idea. However, that pushes garages to the street. That’s not conducive to walking and interaction with neighbors. It creates a barrier from pedestrians. There should be some way to encourage that pattern to continue while expanding the existing homes.
There is a dilemma within the zoning around lot coverage definition and discouraging front yard parking. It has yet to be resolved however I think it will be controlled in the garage ordinance section. Unfortunately, people don’t want their garages tucked into the back corner of their lots. They want them attached to the house.
Limiting the size of housing–what will be the limit in square feet?
It depends on the ‘house type’ but generally the new regulations will allow houses to be built ‘by-right’ (without special permit) that are 20-30% smaller than our current housing stock. Go to the Planning Department website for the most current size charts for house types.
How could Newton encourage the building of smaller and more modest multi-family dwellings over outsized and expensive townhouses that fill up a lot?
The proposed zoning limits the size of two & three family buildings to about 2,000sf/unit. This is a based on the size of the two & three family buildings existing currently in Newton. I agree that the townhouses being currently built are too big and more urban in style. In the current proposal they would only be allowed in the ’N’ district, the area immediately around the village centers.
What’s the vision for single family homes in the city? What steps are being taken to curb the growth of oversized new homes in the city?
Newton is perceived as a single family home community and that is not going to change. The proposed zoning only allows building in residential neighborhoods that are of a similar scale to what is there now. The proposed zoning limits the size of houses to approximately 75-80% of the size of comparable house types that current exist in Newton. Furthermore the new, more restrictive setbacks and lot coverage requirements will further constrain the size of new houses. The proposal incentivizes preserving our current housing stock in a number of ways.
Why is the voting on this issue limited to the city council members and not to all the residents?
Rules around changes to zoning regulations are made by the state. Those rules require that the city council votes on the proposal following public hearings and opportunity for public review and input.
Will there be a way to change or update zoning on a regular basis?
The results of the zoning redesign effort will have to be evaluated in the future to see if it is working as intended or there are unintended consequences. There will likely be an ongoing review process so that we can update the code as needed on a regular basis. One of the reasons that this process is so cumbersome right now is that is has not been updated for 70 years. More municipalities are changing their schedules of reviewing zoning documents to a rolling 5-year cycle so that they are never so far out of date and the update process is not so disruptive.
What makes you believe that a builder can buy a small house for the land (800 thousand to one million) and then build another smallish house and make a profit?
They probably can’t do that, but that is not bad because it will help preserve the existing housing stock. In the case of a small home, it is likely more cost effective to keep the house and upgrade it, or add on to it. The proposed zoning seeks to reduce the opportunity for developers to raze smaller homes to build much larger ones. The proposed code, a ‘form based’ code, is guided by the existing housing stock and attempts to keep new construction in scale with what we have and like.