To Preserve and Protect: Land Use Regulations in Weston, MA

November 18, 2010
Alexander von Hoffman (Senior Researcher, Joint Center for Housing Studies)

In the 1990s, Edward and Polly Dickson, life-long and prominent residents of Massachusetts’ most affluent town, decided to ensure that people of diverse incomes could live in their community. Next to their own house they proposed to build eighteen single-family houses, several of which would be affordable to low- and middle-income households. They proceeded cautiously so as not to raise opposition to their plans. They hired a nonprofit, as opposed to a private, developer; they chose an architectural firm with experience in high-end suburban communities; they chose an expensive and popular landscape designer. The plan called for placing houses around a large open green space in such a way that they would be visible only from the single road that bordered the site. The Dicksons lined up support among their many friends and persuaded the town selectmen to back the project. They chose to pursue the project through the process created by the state statute called 40B, which avoided the normally difficult and time-consuming procedures of local approval. Despite all this effort, their neighbors banded together and threatened lawsuits to stop the project while members of the town’s planning board, invited as a courtesy to consult on the project, seemed determined to delay the project to the point of collapse. What sort of community could generate objections to the construction of eighteen innocuous-looking houses for families of mixed incomes visible only and just barely from a single road? The answer lies in the particular and singular history of that community, Weston, Massachusetts. But it also explains the processes at work in other towns not nearly as wealthy as Weston.

This working paper is part of the research project, The Evolution of Residential Land Use Regulation in Greater Boston, carried out under the auspices of Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. The goals of this project are to identify and understand the reasons that towns and cities in eastern Massachusetts have made Greater Boston a highly regulated urban region and to help devise residential planning policies that advance general, rather than parochial, interests, and what some call "Smart Growth." In particular, the project aims to discover precisely why and under what circumstances particular communities adopted residential land use regulations by studying the evolution of regulations in residential real estate development in four different Boston-area communities and in the legal interpretation of the state laws of Massachusetts.