What is Zoning?

Zoning is how the city regulates the use of private land to minimize potential negative impacts on neighbors, keep new development aligned with the existing character of each of our neighborhoods, and ensure long-term growth reflects our community’s SomerVision goals and values.

Zoning regulates uses and dimensional requirements through a zoning map. Uses include residential, commercial, retail, and industrial, but can also get very specific like a ‘general merchandise, department store, or supermarket less than 5,000 gross square feet.’ When zoning was first created in the 1920s it was intended to separate uses. The noxious uses, like meat packing, were kept from residential uses.

Zoning dimensions help determine the size of the building and where it sits on the lot. The zoning ordinance outlines minimum and maximum requirements for parameters such as lot size, building height, setbacks (how far the building is from the front, side, and rear lot lines), and more recently, pervious area (ground surface that allows water to pass through). Somerville residential neighborhoods have a very typical pattern of a narrow side yard, house, wide side yard (usually a driveway). Similarly, the business districts have continuous storefronts built to the front lot line.

The last part of a zoning ordinance is a zoning map, which divides the city into various districts. Each district features different rules controlling the size and shape of buildings and the activities that can take place within them.

In total, there are about 13,000 lots in Somerville. If development on any lot is proposed, zoning regulates alterations or new construction. For existing properties, new zoning is not retroactive, existing buildings are ‘grandfathered’ into any new rules.