A View From Here Manchester: A Brief History of Zoning


IN THE US, laws regulating land use (which is what zoning essentially does) are a relatively recent innovation.  The earliest zoning laws were established in America during the mid-to-late 1800s when the development of industry and manufacturing raised fears that noise and pollution could have negative impacts on residential communities.  Separating harmful land uses such as factories and dumps from residential communities was seen as a public health measure.

In most other parts of the country as the industrial revolution progressed, the belief in regulating the use of land by local governments gained momentum, starting in New York, and spreading to other cities across the country.  Interestingly enough, one of the largest cities in the country, Houston, Texas has no zoning laws at all, even to this day, though many land parcels have deed restrictions which actually mandate how these properties can be used.  

There was a dark side as well.  Sometimes land uses were separated for social reasons.  One of the first zoning laws in the United States was adopted in San Francisco which prohibited Chinese families from living in white neighborhoods.  Even now, zoning is often cited as a way some communities exclude lower income groups through subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—regulations.  The term “NIMBY”—or “not-in-my-backyard”—often describes these exclusionary practices.

Over time residents of cities and towns have supported zoning rules as a way of protecting land values and preserving open space and natural resources.  Massachusetts adopted its own constitutional amendment 1918, which allowed municipalities the “power to limit buildings according to their use or construction to specified districts of cities or towns.”  In 1920, Massachusetts adopted Chapter 40 of its general laws which formally authorized municipalities to implement their own zoning regulations.  Chapter 40 remains the principal law which governs how cities and towns can regulate land uses.  

The introduction of zoning also paralleled the invention of the affordable automobile, which allowed workers the option of living further than within walking distance of the factory. 

Limiting multifamily buildings, requiring minimum lot sizes and establishing minimum front and side yards were seen as ways of standardizing residential neighborhoods.  Manicured front lawns and limits on height and lot coverage became expectations of all single-family homes in the 1950s.  One “rotten apple” might spoil the whole barrel, so uniform requirements were established throughout the suburbs.  

Municipal governments support zoning regulation because stable property values generate consistent tax revenue.  Uniformity became the standard practice.  The result was that alternative living arrangements and design innovation, which had resulted in diverse and even charming residential areas and village centers in previous centuries became stifled.  

Another consequence of zoning regulation was the natural tension that has grown between government rules and the rights of property owners.  This conflict between the “common good,” and the rights of private citizens has been the subject of many lawsuits and changes in regulations over time.

Manchester was no different.  The first local zoning laws were adopted by the town just after World War II when veterans started using their GI benefits to purchase homes in new subdivisions across the North Shore.  Manchester’s first zoning regulations were adopted in 1945 which separated the “General” district in the village from the “Single-family Residential” district.  Since then, the Zoning Bylaw has seen many additions and changes over the course of many town meetings.  

With the construction of Route 128, Manchester feared it might become a prime target of new housing subdivisions.  Zoning regulations were tightened and additional residential districts were established to control development.  The use of the “special permit” emerged as a way of easing some of the requirements and allowing public comment in granting conditional approval for development that would further the town’s financial and social interests.  

But at town meetings over the years, the additions and occasional deletions of rules have led to a complicated and sometimes inconsistent set of regulations.  After all, it is much easier to propose a new article for additional regulation than to delete an old one.  

So, for example, there have been up to four different sections governing large scale housing developments. Special “overlay” districts have also been added to manage properties in sensitive environmental areas and to protect the town’s water supply.  In some cases, land use regulations resulted in many existing buildings not being able to comply with the new rules.   These non-conforming properties are grandfathered, but homeowners are forced to obtain special permits for even the smallest changes to their homes.  

Being a small town with limited resources, Manchester has had to rely for the most part on volunteer citizens for the planning and management of its zoning bylaw.  It was not until 2018 that the town decided to come to terms with its dysfunctional zoning regulations and the Planning Board was authorized to bring on a legal consultant to review and offer recommendations on how to “recodify” and update the zoning bylaw.  

The first steps were taken at Town Meeting in November of 2021 where the bylaw was reorganized and a few of the more unenforceable or redundant sections were deleted.  The next step will come in June, where more important changes will be proposed and considered.  

Chris Olney is a Manchester resident and Planning Board member. This piece is not an official editorial piece from the Planning Board.

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