The adoption of the City’s Comprehensive Master Plan, SomerVision, has strengthened ongoing efforts to constantly improve our local government and public policy. During the three-year process of developing SomerVision, hundreds of residents and business owners worked together to articulate a shared vision for our future and helped to develop a series of maps,goals, policies, and actions related to land use and development. A recurring theme throughout that process has been the need to modernize the Somerville Zoning Ordinance (SZO) to ensure transparency, predictability, and high-quality customer service.

Past updates to the SZO have always focused on protecting the iconic character of Somerville’s neighborhoods, fostering the City’s vibrant town squares, and balancing the powerful market pressures for infill development with the concerns of existing residents. Each amendment was made to address the concerns of the time using the best regulatory tools that were available to planners and administrators. But, the trade-off with this approach was that the regulatory toolkit became increasingly complex for local property owners, architects, lawyers, and administrators to understand.

The current ordinance presents us with four challenges:

  1. The language and structure of the zoning ordinance has become too hard to navigate, vague in meaning, and contradictory in intended outcome.
  2. District regulations do not provide a predictable outcome and are, in many instances, failing to preserve the unique character of Somerville’s residential neighborhoods.
  3. Zoning controls for land areas near existing and future transit stations are generally ill-equipped to promote smart-growth or maximize the economic development opportunity provided by public transit.
  4. These issues are inter-dependent; the second and third challenges cannot be addressed until the first is resolved.

To rectify these conditions; build upon the intent of previous efforts; implement the goals, policies, and actions of SomerVision and protect our neighborhoods, OSPCD is developing a reformatted and updated version of the SZO that focuses on regulating the physical form of lots and structures while also improving readability, organization, and graphic design for the reader.

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