Who governs growth: The tension between state and local planning in Massachusetts and Connecticut
Written by Eamon McCarthy Earls, an entering law student at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, and an elected local official in Massachusetts
New England may be one of the most storied regions of the United States, known in political science circles for widespread direct democracy in the form of open-town meetings in many communities. The two largest southern New England states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, stand apart from many of the other most densely populated parts of the US with their weak county governments and lack of unincorporated land. Both states are a checkerboard of strong municipalities. Development and regional planning are never easy, but in southern New England, the exigencies of high population densities paired with powerful municipalities often lead to a tug of war between state and local interests. How have the two states managed these tensions?
Massachusetts municipalities exercise wide-ranging control over zoning and planning decisions, typically managed out of planning boards that are often elected. Courts and legislators have granted expansive powers to local governments. For instance, Bjorklund v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Norwell in 2008 held that municipalities can prevent smaller houses from being replaced with larger ones. Lincoln, Massachusetts, a wealthy suburb close to Boston with a median household income of over $120,000 is typical of strong local control, resulting in leap-frog development. Fewer than 7,000 residents are spread across the town’s 15 square mile extent, thanks in-part to a 1955 zoning vote designating 80,000 square foot single-family residential parcels.
Connecticut has many similar allowances in places for its cities and towns. Among a litany of enumerated municipal powers, state statutes indicate broad latitude to set local zoning. Chapter 98 of Connecticut’s Compendium of Planning and Zoning Statutes stipulates, “[Municipalities may] Regulate the mode of using any buildings when such regulations seem expedient for the purpose of promoting the safety, health, morals and general welfare of the inhabitants of the municipality.”
Construction of natural gas pipelines, power plants and electrical transmission lines—or state and county correctional facilities—is often locally controversial, prompting lawsuits, demonstrations and activism in opposition. In a bid to streamline the process, legislators in Boston created the Energy Facilities Siting Board. However, its foundational language defines a limited role in environmental impact assessments. “The board shall review the need for, cost of, and environmental impacts of transmission lines, natural gas pipelines, facilities for the manufacture and storage of gas, and oil facilities; provided, however, that the board shall review only the environmental impacts of generating facilities, consistent with the commonwealth’s policy of allowing market forces to determine the need for and cost of such facilities.” The Connecticut Siting Council, descended from the 1972 Power Facility Evaluation Council, has enjoyed a broad mandate since 1981 and holds original jurisdiction over hazardous waste sites, power facilities and transmission lines. More expansive than its Massachusetts counterpart, it is charged with weighing environmental versus economic factors. To avoid controversy, it has promoted sharing of telecom towers to reduce proliferation.
State oversight of siting has also cropped up for correctional facilities. Both states have large prison populations, but have largely avoided controversy by simply refurbishing existing facilities. Since 2010, Connecticut statutes have established site evaluation criteria for a facility to house sex offenders, which was ultimately constructed adjacent to an existing correctional facility in Montville.
The most far-reaching state control on development in Massachusetts is Chapter 40B, Section 20-23, enacted in 1969 and administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development. Under the terms of the law, in municipalities with less than 10% affordable housing (defined as a unit rented by a household making up to 80% of the area’s median income), developers are allowed to bypass zoning restrictions and build more densely. Some communities like Franklin, Massachusetts surpassed their 10% threshold in the 2010s, gaining expanded controls on new growth at the local level.
Connecticut has adopted very similar 10% affordability criteria and established an appeals process for developers that receive denials. The state’s law is somewhat newer, taking effect in 1990 after an affordable housing crisis during the state’s 1980s economic boom.
Are there perils to local control? Reviewing the urban and political geography of southern New England, it seems there are some risks to localism. City and town governments are often the worst culprits in limiting housing supplies. In Boston, 30 percent of families with children fall below the poverty line, struggling with soaring housing costs, as over 60 percent of jobs are filled by road- and rail-commuters coming in from outlying areas. A 2018 study by the Pioneer Institute and the Massachusetts Smart Growth Initiative found that only 37 of 100 Boston-area communities allow accessory dwelling units. But heavy restrictions across the board mean that only 5,000 new apartments would be created for the metro area every 10 years, driving rental prices sky high. Although lower in cost than other parts of the Boston metro area, the City of Revere with metro access along the Blue Line is an example of the limitations of local planning. Much of the city’s area is zoned “General Residential,” allowing only single- and two-family homes, but no apartment buildings, and with many lots too small for anything but single-family dwellings, thus limiting its ability to absorb metropolitan population growth.
Continued outreach and engagement with poorly represented communities by regional planning authorities can help, potentially in combination with existing affordable housing initiatives, state intervention to boost public transportation and further efforts to ease building restrictions.
New England’s two most populous states face unique challenges around development and large-scale planning. At times, the two states fulfill the promise of localism by putting municipal voters and local authorities in the driver’s seat. Connecticut and Massachusetts have each carved out controls to spur housing affordability, though unaffordability remains a substantial concern. With its patchwork quilt of building densities and zoning styles, southern New England may not always resemble the large scale groupings of commercial, residential and industrial property found in Sun Belt metro areas or the efforts of county planning agencies (like in Fairfax and Loudon counties in northern Virginia), but developing new power and road infrastructure may present additional hurdles due to strong local control. Moving forward, state legislators and municipal voters must continually revisit and decide on the appropriate spheres of control for planning and siting decisions.