Zoning laws are very strict and very hard to change. Arlington, for example, is a dense community, with small lot sizes, and not a lot of unused land. I agree that zoning laws are important in order to protect and control the water usage, the wetlands, the architectural integrity, and the mixed-use laws for promoting businesses. However, we have a housing shortage with a very high demand, and I think we can do something to help the situation.
I work with a lot of new construction homes in Arlington, so I am very familiar with the zoning laws. Currently if you were to build a new home you would need a minimum lot size of 6,000 square feet and 60 feet of frontage, with a height restriction of 2 ½ stories. If you have a lot that has an existing home on it, and you wish to raise it and build new then the requirements drop to a minimum lost size of 5,000 square feet and 50 feet of frontage.
I propose that Arlington be more lenient on some existing zoning laws that would help create new housing. How?
Here’s my idea: Arlington has many non-conforming lots. For example, non-conforming could mean that the lot size isn’t large enough to build on, perhaps it falls shy of the 5,000 sf needed, or, the set back requirements don’t meet the current ones to allow you to raise the structure and build new. Non-conforming lots can also prohibit a home owner from expanding by adding an addition. My proposal is to let people who have these non-conforming lots use the same ratios as conforming lots – 10 feet on either side of the building and 60 feet of frontage - basically 2/3 of the frontage is build-able and the other third makes up the side set backs.
Using the same ratios with non-conforming lots would allow us to be creative in what kinds of new housing we could offer and it would also allow people to build new or add value to their current homes. This proposal is small in scale. It wouldn't add an enormous amount of housing that would have a negative effect on the community in regards to transportation, and public resources. However, it could potentially let us increase the amount of new construction that would help us with the housing shortage.
I think it’s something to think about and I would love to hear your feedback on what I have proposed. Do you think it’s a good idea? Do you think Arlington would change any current zoning laws? What would you propose?
If you are interested in learning about Arlington’s zoning history, in 2006 Alexander von Hoffman, a senior research fellow at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, wrote a case study on Arlington’s zoning history. You can read an article about the study here that was posted in the CommonWealthMagazine in which he provides detailed history and criticism of how zoning evolved in Arlington especially after WWII.