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Zoning Primer

What is zoning?
Zoning is local law about land use. Zoning is how cities and towns help to define the growth and development they want, and eliminate or minimize problems of crowding and land use conflicts. It tells property owners what they can, and cannot, build on their land. Decades of court cases have shown, again and again, that cities and towns have both a responsibility and a constitutional right to protect the public welfare by placing limits on the uses of private property.

Where does it come from?
Anyone -- a property owner, a group of residents, a City Department -- can write up and propose a zoning law. To become law, proposals to change zoning laws must be reviewed and adopted by a 6- or 7-vote "super-majority" vote of the Cambridge City Council. Zoning law on the books is what a majority of our Councilors thinks the City wants and needs.

How is zoning law enforced?
Zoning is administered and enforced in two significant steps:

  1. To erect a building, one must apply for and obtain a Building Permit. The Cambridge Department of Inspectional Services (it used to be the Building Department) reviews construction drawings for all proposed construction projects. If the project meets all zoning and code requirements, then the project can be built "as of right", and Inspectional Services issues a Building Permit. But if the project violates one or more zoning rules, the Permit is refused.
  2. If denied a building permit by Inspectional Services, the applicant may then try to get an exemption from the rules by seeking a Variance from the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). In other cases, the applicant may go to the Planning Board or BZA for a Special Permit, which, under certain circumstances, provides relief from the limitations of the rules.

The Inspector, Planning Board, and Board of Zoning Appeals interpret the zoning text. How carefully they review plans, and how often they decide to grant Variances or Special Permits, are very important to the implementation of zoning. Bad interpretations, and too many exemptions, can defeat good zoning rules.

Why is zoning so complicated?
In Cambridge, the Zoning Ordinance (law) exists as a fat ring binder of many pages of rules. The Ordinance is long and complicated because it divides the City into more than 30 different Districts -- and each District has slightly different rules. But there aren't that many different kinds of rules -- and if one understands a few key rules, then one understands most of zoning.

What are the important rules?
Zoning rules tend to fall into several broad groups:

Rules About Use and Activity:
Districts are classified as Residential, Business, Office and so on, and specify kinds of uses and activities that are desired or prohibited in the District. Residential districts exclude most commercial uses, but allow schools and churches; office districts tend to preclude retail stores; and so on. Limiting the conflict between residential and commercial activity is one of zoning's most important functions.

Rules About Density:
Bulk and density rules place limits on how much of a use/activity (and how much construction) can be put on the land. The two most important density rules are:

Rules About Shape and Design:
These rules place limits on how the building is shaped and laid out on the lot. Important rules in this category include:

Shape and design rules are very significant when lots and parcels are small and oddly-shaped, as they are in Cambridge.

Rules About Vehicles:
These are chiefly parking and loading requirements -- the number of off-street car and truck spaces which must be provided according to the size of each use or activity.

Yes, there are many other rules in the Ordinance, but the ones described above are usually the most important ones.

Why is zoning so important to our neighborhoods?
At least two reasons:

  1. The development proposals and new construction you see conform to existing zoning or to exemptions granted by City Boards. If you don't like what you see, it's not the developer's fault. He's building what the City said is OK. The problem lies with the zoning and City Council, the Planning Board and the Board of Zoning Appeals -- not with the developer.
  2. Zoning may be lengthy and technical, but you need not be an expert to decipher how zoning affects you. But those who ignore zoning, and leave it to the pressures of development, are very likely to become the victims of zoning. By becoming involved in your neighborhood’s zoning, you can protect it from inappropriate development, out-of-scale construction, and unplanned, unmanaged growth.

What we can do about zoning?
The Cambridge Residents for Growth Management has proposed a comprehensive citywide zoning petition that addresses many of the problems with Cambridge's current zoning. We urge you to support us. Help make our petition part of Cambridge's zoning laws.