EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA


June 15, 2014

Column: Smart zoning reform will lead to better development

With nearly 45 years of experience in local planning between us, we have seen firsthand how communities struggle to manage growth, promote responsible development and grow their local economies. Because of the passage of Proposition 2 1/2 in 1982, communities find the need to constantly expand their tax base to produce sufficient tax revenue to pay for the municipal services citizens expect from them.

At the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, we recognize this struggle and have worked with our 15 cities and towns to develop the “Merrimack Valley Priority Growth Strategy” that identifies where communities want to grow, where to preserve, and what infrastructure is needed. For its part, Groundwork Lawrence has played a role in helping residents in Lawrence, Methuen and Haverhill plan and implement a regional network of open spaces and community paths, especially around our waterways.

We have both seen how difficult it can be to improve local zoning and permit the kinds of development projects that will make our communities physically and economically healthier. To be successful, our cities and towns need a modern set of tools to plan ahead for growth. Too often, development proposals that can advance this strategy are subject to legal wrangling, wasting time and money for local government as well as developers and property owners.

The status quo threatens our region’s future. Our state’s outdated zoning, planning and permitting laws make it cheapest and easiest to build projects outside our priority development areas that may waste taxpayer dollars. This “sprawl” costs up to twice as much in public infrastructure, costs 10 percent more to maintain in services, and produces only 10 percent of the property taxes of a vibrant, walkable area.

It is time for sensible reform. Our state’s laws governing development have not been updated in 40 years. Fortunately, there is a bill poised for action on Beacon Hill that begins to fix this. House Bill No. 4065, “An Act Promoting the Planning and Development of Sustainable Communities,” is practical legislation that gives Massachusetts cities and towns clear authority and flexible tools to plan, develop, and protect our communities. It adds nothing to the state budget but will save cities and towns money in the long run.

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