Zoning Overhaul

What is the Zoning Overhaul?

The Zoning Overhaul will generate a completely new zoning ordinance that will replace the existing Somerville Zoning Ordinance. The goal is to provide Somerville with an effective, responsive, fair, efficient, user-friendly, and predictable but flexible system to regulate development across the city.

Based on the recommendations of SomerVision, the code will conserve our traditional residential housing while steering investment to enhance our squares and corridors and transform underutilized areas into vibrant, walkable neighborhoods. This project builds off of SomerVision’s land context map and will be the first wholesale overhaul of zoning in the City’s history. The format of the code will focus on regulating the physical form of lots and structures while improving readability, organization, and graphic design.

What’s wrong with the existing code?

  1. Code structure is unworkable:
  • Language is unreadable and subject to wide interpretation
  • Attempts to describe physical form through words
  • Answers to basic questions are scattered across sections
  • Additional districts are cobbled onto code structure

2. Our Residents districts don’t provide a predictable outcome:

  • Nonconformity is used as a proxy for design review
  • Large by-right lots have no design review
  • Wide ranges of possible outcomes by special permit
  • Larger mixed-income projects require much negotiation

3. Transit station zoning is misapplied on the map:

  • Innerbelt and Brickbottom are in old industrial zones
  • Gilman, Magoun and Ball Square have limited options
  • Porter and Davis have select areas that are underzoned
  • New Union Square and Broadway zoning need clarity

Problems #2 and #3 cannot be fixed until we fix #1


Will the new code affect my property?

The new zoning code will not affect your property unless you are making changes after it is adopted by the Board of Aldermen, otherwise, everything is business as usual. Once it is adopted, the new zoning ordinance will be the first document you’ll need to review before you change how you currently use a building, make any changes to the exterior of your building, or construct a completely new structure on your property.

How is this new code different?

The new zoning ordinance is designed to enhance the quality of urban design across the city rather than simply focusing on how land or buildings are used. Each building in the city works like a puzzle piece and the new ordinance will make sure those pieces fit together to create a high-quality puzzle.

Why is the new code important?

The new ordinance will implement more than 100 of the goals, policies, and action statements in SomerVision and will ensure that new development matches the community’s shared vision. During the three-year process of developing SomerVision, hundreds of residents and business owners worked together to articulate a shared vision for the future of Somerville. Together, they developed a series of maps, goals, policies, and actions related to land use and development. By adopting a code that entitles these outcomes that were already vetted through public process and developed with stakeholder input, the new ordinance will provide regulation that better represents an agreed upon vision for the city’s future.

How is this coordinated with planning?

After many decades of growth and change happening across the city without coordinated planning for the future, Somerville is now leading the way in shaping the way development happens in the city through planning. In 2012, the City adopted SomerVision, its first Comprehensive Master Plan, and is now engaged with the community to create area plans for each neighborhood, station area, and commercial corridor across the city. The new zoning ordinance will put in place the legal tools needed to guide the future development of the city according to these plans. This strategy ensures that the future of Somerville will be something that unfolds by design.

How will the new code help reinforce Somerville as a great place to live, work, play, and raise a family?

All of SomerVision’s 586 policy and action statements were developed directly by the community. The new code will turn more than 100 of these into law. Just a small summary includes:


  • Incentivize transit-oriented development, car, and ride sharing, and bicycling to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality;
  • Require contextual infill development that respects existing forms and patterns; and
  • Increase affordable housing and require diversity in housing unit type, size, bedroom count, and cost.


  • Use zoning to attract and retain artists and companies within the creative economy to spur cultural economic development;
  • Provide easy business permitting in mixed-use squares and along main streets; and
  • Expand the commercial tax base by transforming underutilized areas of the city into new mixed- use neighborhoods.


  • Provide zoning incentives to generate spaces for creative production, performance, and exhibition;
  • Expand the network of public open spaces and paths across the city; and
  • Require buildings to engage the street and encourage interaction between community members.

Raise a Family

  • Preserve existing and develop new family sized dwelling units;
  • Promote small, corner stores within walking distance of every home;
  • Allow homes to tastefully adapt to changing household needs; and
  • Reduce impervious surfaces and promote tree cover on private lots.

Will the new code make Somerville a better place to invest?

Investors are always looking for predictability in the outcome of their investment. The most important way the new ordinance can help make Somerville attractive to both residents and newcomers is through clarity in expectation and efficiency of the process. By providing both, the new ordinance will give Somerville an advantage at attracting investment over other communities.

Unreasonable delay, vague intent, and contradictory standards cost everyone involved time, money, and unnecessary stress. The new ordinance will raise the bar by implementing stricter controls while limiting the need many discretionary special permits and variances. Other improvements will include simplifying menus of uses and the variety of districts, providing a logical organization to the document, implementing straightforward procedures, eliminating ineffective standards, and using common terminology to make the ordinance easier to read