Re: Zoning Experts?
From: R Philip Dowds (
Date: Thu, 1 Apr 2021 02:42:28 -0700 (PDT)
Sharon —

There are two equally important topics at play here …


In many cases, Yes.  Suburban and rural jurisdictions frequently adopt a 
residential zoning that emphasizes single family units on large lots.  This is 
not an accident or oversight.  This is implementation of an intent to 
discourage multi-family buildings (“apartments” or “condos”).  Most state 
enabling legislation leaves zoning rules up to the discretion of local 
jurisdictions.  If a jurisdiction does not want housing units available at 
relatively low cost, then it can usually find a number of “legal” ways to make 
lower-cost construction hard to accomplish.
      I must add:  The “tiny house” movement is not really a solution, but 
instead, is playing into the trap.  Tiny houses on tiny lots are even less 
“efficient” than the regular single family home.  If you want a lot of housing 
bang for your construction buck, you need to commit to mult-family buildings.  
And to the higher-density lifestyle they support.


Back in a prior century, I was a volunteer soldier in the City of Cambridge 
zoning wars.  I will spare you the gory detail, but I point out a feature that 
may be somewhat unique to Massachusetts: the citizen initiative zoning 
petition.  Massachusetts allows any 10 or more registered voters to prepare, 
and file with the authority having jurisdiction — i.e., the City Council — a 
petition to amend the local zoning ordinance.  It still takes a two-thirds 
super-majority of Council to agree to change the ordinance, and that two-thirds 
is usually very hard to get.  BUT …
      The filing of a zoning petition triggers a whole rigamarole of municipal 
process:  Council and Planning Board public hearings; a report from the 
planning department; expensive lawyers in bespoke suits showing up to argue on 
behalf of landowners; public demonstrations in favor of zoning reform, etc.  We 
found that if we filed a new petition about once a month, we could pretty much 
overtake the entire municipal docket, and create chaos for the local real 
estate industry.  It was some of the best activist fun I’ve ever had.
       Most of our petitions, after several months of process, went down in 
flames.  At the time.  But since then, several of our recommendations 
eventually migrated into our local zoning law.  So one lesson is:  Zoning 
changes very slowly (probably as it should be), but citizen initiatives can 
plant the seeds of a future harvest.

Nationally, however, I think ever state has a different way of enabling local 
zoning, and what worked in Mass is probably inapplicable elsewhere.  In the 
end, the best answer for how you change zoning will depend a lot on the 
jurisdiction you live in — and on how politically active you want to be.

Philip Dowds
Cornerstone Village Cohousing
Cambridge, MA 02140

> On Mar 30, 2021, at 1:57 PM, Sharon Villines via Cohousing-L <cohousing-l 
> [at]> wrote:
> Is there anyone out there who is up to date on efforts to change zoning laws?
> There are a million low-cost housing solutions that would enable almost 
> anyone with a steady job to own their own home. All well constructed and long 
> lasting.
> The problem is zoning restrictions. And zoning again. And more zoning. While 
> an increasing number of jurisdictions are allowing “accessory dwelling units” 
> in the backyards or basements or over the garage of single household houses, 
> this is not helpful for cohousing communities. Unless you could find in the 
> suburbs a a block of houses all with large back  yards so a tiny house 
> community could be slipped in between them.
> I’ve seen such places with backyards 30-40 ft deep. 6-8 houses facing the 
> street on each side of the block. All the backyards with identical chain link 
> fences, 4’ high. They are also not so fancy that the homeowners would be 
> unilaterally opposed to sharing land and reducing expenses. (I was in one of 
> these yards at a cook-out on a Sunday afternoon when the siren went off at 
> the volunteer fire station. People started running from one end towards the 
> fire station, leaping over the fences. A hurdles race. ) 
> I saw similar housing on the Eastern Shore in Maryland that was built behind 
> the “big houses.” The large houses faced each other across one street. The 
> small houses were behind them facing each other on a street in between. 
> Alternating streets with houses in two sizes. These were probably originally 
> stables.
> But this kind of thing has been proposed for zoning conflicts — it’s called 
> micro zoning. Instead of zoning a whole large area, allow zoning by blocks. 
> This would also allow more variation in the suburbs so more walkable 
> communities could built with corner stores.
> I could really use help with zoning discussions. How do people change zoning?
> Sharon
> ——— 
> Sharon Villines
> affordablecohousing [at]
> To subscribe:
> affordablecohousing+subscribe [at]
> _________________________________________________________________
> Cohousing-L mailing list -- Unsubscribe, archives and other info at:

Results generated by Tiger Technologies Web hosting using MHonArc.