A View From Here: What’s the Deal with Zoning?


This is the second article about zoning in Manchester. 

The Town of Manchester-by-the-Sea is governed by two sets of local laws.  The General Bylaws describe how the town is to be operated on a day-to-day basis.  The Zoning Bylaw describes how the land within the Town is to be used and managed.  Think of it as a game of Monopoly.  The general laws describe how to play the game.  The zoning bylaw describes the game board.

The Town is authorized to create its zoning bylaws by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under Chapter 40 of its statutes.  This State Law tells us how to organize and implement our zoning, but every city and town is given a broad range of choices in establishing the details.  The Zoning Bylaw and any amendments can only be approved by a vote of the Town Meeting, and usually requires a 2/3 vote for adoption.

Zoning Bylaws have three primary components:

  1.  The establishment of distinct districts with different rules for each
  2. A statement of allowed uses of land within each district such as residential, commercial, industrial, etc.
  3. Particular regulations on how land can be used and how the bylaw is to be implemented.

There are three entities that have roles to play in this exercise and these roles are described in the zoning bylaws.

The Building Inspector, who reviews plans and issues building permits for construction projects that comply with the zoning bylaw or have been granted variances or special permits.

The Planning Board, which oversees the division of land into different configurations of lots suitable for construction and issues special permits for projects that require public scrutiny to insure they serve the public interest.

The Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) which grants variances for projects that do not comply with the zoning regulations because of hardships created by landforms or property boundaries.  The ZBA can also issue special permits.

Manchester has created a total of five different residential districts plus the “general” district for the downtown village area and the “limited commercial” district on the far side of 128.  The residential districts for the most part limit uses to single-family homes, with only one residence allowed on each lot (some districts allow 2 or 3-family houses.)  The general district covering the downtown allows a mix of residential and commercial uses including stores and offices.  The Limited Commercial District allows offices, recreation facilities, light manufacturing and laboratories, but only with a special permit. 

In addition to specifying allowed uses, the zoning regulations include rules for the minimum size of lots, how far buildings have to be from property lines, how much of a lot can be covered by a building and pavement, and how high a building can be.  Each district has different rules, and as the zoning regulations have been modified over the years, more and more of the older buildings in town can no longer comply with the new rules and fall into the category of “non-conforming”.  Currently any even modest exterior change to a non-conforming building requires a special permit from the ZBA.

There are many other regulations about parking, signage, accessory or secondary uses allowed in each district, and special “overlay” districts with rules to protect the town’s watershed and floodplain areas.  There are rules for siting wind turbines and solar panel installations and even helicopter landing pads.  And there are procedures for how applications for special permits are to be reviewed and what standards should be applied in the review process.

It is not light reading.  But here’s the thing: as the Zoning Bylaw has been modified over time, it has become more complicated and less organized.  That is why the Planning Board has been working with a prominent legal consultant to make the bylaw easier to read and understand, to bring it into compliance with new laws, and to bring it up to date with the Town’s changing needs. 

To see what the current regulations look like, the proposed new regulations, and the reasons for the changes, please check out the website  https://bit.ly/mbtszoning.  Then please attend the town meeting on Saturday, June 11 at 1 p.m. at Memorial School, where these modifications will be considered and adopted.

This is the second in a series of articles by Chris Olney on  zoning in general, and how it has evolved in Manchester While Olney is a member of the Manchester Planning Board, these articles are his personal submissions and not an article by the Planning Board.

zoning, urban planning, building inspector, planning board, appeals