Planning Board

The Planning Board and Special Permits in Cambridge

The Cambridge Residents Alliance

                                                                                                                       March 26, 2014

                  Many residents who are just becoming active in Cambridge have expressed frustration with decisions made by the Planning Board. There is a lack of clarity about the source and scope of its power and the criteria by which it makes its decisions. Some areas of concern include:

  • As a “special permit granting authority,” it can and does override zoning requirements and approve individual proposed developments, one by one, with no apparent attention to the incremental impact of these developments on neighborhoods or the city as a whole. Special permits are used to implement very consequential changes in zoning.
  • The criteria which the Planning Board uses to grant special permits are not clear, or in some cases seem to be ignored.  For example, how does the Planning Board define words like “detrimental” in evaluating the likely impact of proposed projects on neighborhoods? Another example: What are the Board’s “standards by which significant adverse traffic impacts can be measured”? Is there an underlying ordinance or other source that provides guidance on these questions?
  • Sometimes the Planning Board does not seem to require that supporters of up-zoning proposals notify abutters and conduct community outreach to all relevant people and groups.
  • The Cambridge Planning Board seems to have no role at all in overall planning in Cambridge, in contradiction to its enabling legislation in our Massachusetts General Laws.
  • There seem to be no limits on the terms of Cambridge Planning Board members or its chair, despite enabling legislation that implies the need for staggered and ongoing turnover.   In Cambridge, expired terms and lengthy vacancies are commonplace.
  • The K2C2 (Kendall Square / Central Square) process produced a series of zoning change recommendations that would be implemented through special permits granted by the Planning Board using  a "carefully crafted set of criteria," but the “carefully crafted set of criteria”  do not appear to provide “clear trade-offs.”

To help us understand the origins of these issues, here is a basic collection of the state laws that govern Planning Boards in general, and segments of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance that govern “special permits.”  Web site addresses have been added so you can access the original documents.

We need to have a citywide conversation about how a Planning Board could and should work to ensure a livable and safe community for all of its residents.

(** words and phrases  in bold and underlined are for easier reading of main points in somewhat obscure language)

Enabling Legislation – Planning Boards – Massachusetts General Laws

(note that Legislature intended a role for Planning Boards in planning; for Cambridge, substitute “city manager” for “mayor” – the manager is considered the city’s “appointing authority.”)

Chapter 41, Section 70 of the Massachusetts General Laws:

Section 70. Every city and every town having a population of more than ten thousand at the last preceding national census shall, and towns having a population of less than ten thousand may, create a planning board, which shall make careful studies of the resources, possibilities and needs of the town, particularly with respect to conditions injurious to the public health or otherwise in and about rented dwellings, and make plans for the development of the municipality, with special reference to proper housing of its inhabitants. In cities the said board shall be appointed by the mayor, subject to confirmation by the council, and in towns shall be elected at the annual town meeting or be appointed in such manner as an annual town meeting may determine.

Chapter 41, Section 81A:

Section 81A. Any city except Boston, and, except as hereinafter provided, any town may at any time establish a planning board hereunder. Every town not having any planning board shall, upon attaining a population of ten thousand, so establish a planning board under this section. A planning board established hereunder shall consist of not less than five nor more than nine members. Such members shall in cities be appointed by the mayor, subject to confirmation by the city council and in towns be elected at the annual town meeting or be appointed in such manner as an annual town meeting may determine; . . . When a planning board is first established or when the terms of members of the planning board established under section seventy serving as members of the planning board under this section expire, as the case may be, the members of the planning board under this section shall be elected or appointed for terms of such length and so arranged that the term of at least one member will expire each year, and their successors shall be elected or appointed for terms of three or five years each as determined by the city council in the case of a city and by the town meeting in the case of a town.  . . . A vacancy occurring otherwise than by expiration of term shall be filled for the unexpired term, in a city, in the same manner as an original appointment, and, in a town, if the members of the board are appointed, in the same manner as the original appointment. If the members of a planning board are elected, any unexpired term shall be filled by appointment by the board of selectmen and the remainder of the members of the planning board until the next annual election, at which time, such office shall be filled, by election, for the remainder of the unexpired term. All appointments pursuant to this section shall be in the manner provided in section eleven. Such a board shall elect annually a chairman and a clerk from among its own number, and may employ experts and clerical and other assistants. It may appoint a custodian of its plan and records, who may be the city engineer or town clerk. No member of a planning board shall represent before such board any party of interest in any matter pending before it.
Chapter 40A Section 5.

Zoning ordinances or by-laws may be adopted and from time to time changed by amendment, addition or repeal, but only in the manner hereinafter provided. Adoption or change of zoning ordinances or by-laws may be initiated by the submission to the city council or board of selectmen of a proposed zoning ordinance or by-law by a city council, a board of selectmen, a board of appeals, by an individual owning land to be affected by change or adoption, by request of registered voters of a town pursuant to section ten of chapter thirty-nine, by ten registered voters in a city, by a planning board, by a regional planning agency or by other methods provided by municipal charter. The board of selectmen or city council shall within fourteen days of receipt of such zoning ordinance or by-law submit it to the planning board for review.

No zoning ordinance or by-law or amendment thereto shall be adopted until after the planning board in a city or town, and the city council or a committee designated or appointed for the purpose by said council has each held a public hearing thereon, together or separately, at which interested persons shall be given an opportunity to be heard. Said public hearing shall be held within sixty-five days after the proposed zoning ordinance or by-law is submitted to the planning board by the city council or selectmen or if there is none, within sixty-five days after the proposed zoning ordinance or by-law is submitted to the city council or selectmen. . . .

No vote to adopt any such proposed ordinance or by-law or amendment thereto shall be taken until a report with recommendations by a planning board has been submitted to the town meeting or city council, or twenty-one days after said hearing has elapsed without submission of such report. After such notice, hearing and report, or after twenty-one days shall have elapsed after such hearing without submission of such report, a city council or town meeting may adopt, reject, or amend and adopt any such proposed ordinance or by-law. If a city council fails to vote to adopt any proposed ordinance within ninety days after the city council hearing or if a town meeting fails to vote to adopt any proposed by-law within six months after the planning board hearing, no action shall be taken thereon until after a subsequent public hearing is held with notice and report as provided.

No zoning ordinance or by-law or amendment thereto shall be adopted or changed except by a two-thirds vote of all the members of the town council, or of the city council where there is a commission form of government or a single branch, or of each branch where there are two branches, or by a two-thirds vote of a town meeting; provided, however, that if in a city or town with a council of fewer than twenty-five members there is filed with the clerk prior to final action by the council a written protest against such change, stating the reasons duly signed by owners of twenty per cent or more of the area of the land proposed to be included in such change or of the area of the land immediately adjacent extending three hundred feet therefrom, no such change of any such ordinance shall be adopted except by a three-fourths vote of all members.

No proposed zoning ordinance or by-law which has been unfavorably acted upon by a city council or town meeting shall be considered by the city council or town meeting within two years after the date of such unfavorable action unless the adoption of such proposed ordinance or by-law is recommended in the final report of the planning board.. . .

The effective date of the adoption or amendment of any zoning ordinance or by-law shall be the date on which such adoption or amendment was voted upon by a city council or town meeting; if in towns, publication in a town bulletin or pamphlet and posting is subsequently made or publication in a newspaper pursuant to section thirty-two of chapter forty.  . . .

From the Community Development Department Website:

About the Planning Board

The Cambridge Planning Board reviews plans and proposals under the Special Permit provisions of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance and Chapter 40A of the Massachusetts General Laws, proposes or reviews zoning amendments, makes recommendations to the City Council about proposed revisions to the Zoning Ordinance, and engages in general planning efforts to improve the physical environment of the City.

Cambridge Planning Board Members                                          Term Expires/Appointment Date

Hugh Russell, (Chair to 2015)                                                           4/30/14                 8/2/88

H Theodore Cohen (Vice Chair to 2015)                                                       3/13/14                 4/2/07

Pamela Winters                                                                                                          3/13/14                 7/9/99

Steven Winter                                                                                             3/13/14                 5/15/06

Steven Cohen                                                                                              3/13/16                 3/13/13                                  

Tom Sieniewicz                                                                                                             3/13/16                 3/13/13                                                    

vacancy                                                                                                                             4/30/14

Associate Members:

Ahmed Nur                                                                                                    3/13/14                 3/25/09

Catherine Preston Connolly                                                              3/14/16                 3/13/13

Cambridge Zoning Ordinance – Special Permits


10.41     Granting Authority. Special permits may be granted for the Board of Zoning Appeal or by the Planning Board as specified elsewhere in this Ordinance. Each of said boards shall be considered a “special permit granting authority”.

10.42     Procedure. A special permit shall only be issued following a public hearing held within sixty-five (65) days after filing of an application with the special permit granting authority, a copy of which shall be given to the City Clerk by the applicant. Notice of each application to the Board of Zoning Appeal for a special permit shall be transmitted forthwith to the Planning Board which shall, within thirty-five (35) days of the receipt of such notice transmit to the Board of Zoning Appeal a report accompanied by any material, maps, or plans that will aid the latter Board in judging the application and in determining special conditions and safeguards. The Board of Zoning Appeal shall not render any decision on an application for a special permit until said report has been received and considered or until the thirty-five (35) day period has expired without receipt of the report, whichever is earlier. Failure by a special permit granting authority to take final action upon an application for a special permit within ninety (90) days following the date of public hearing on said application shall be deemed to be a grant of the permit applied for.

10.43 Criteria. Special permits will normally be granted where specific provisions of this Ordinance are met, except when particulars of the location or use, not generally true of the district or of the uses permitted in it, would cause granting of such permit to be to the detriment of the public interest because:

  1. (a)  It appears that requirements of this Ordinance cannot or will not be met, or
  2. (b)  traffic generated or patterns of access or egress would cause congestion, hazard, or substantial change in established neighborhood character, or
  3. (c)  the continued operation of or the development of adjacent uses as permitted in the Zoning Ordinance would be adversely affected by the nature of the proposed use, or
  4. (d)  nuisance or hazard would be created to the detriment of the health, safety and/or welfare of the occupant of the proposed use or the citizens of the City, or
  5. (e)  for other reasons, the proposed use would impair the integrity of the district or adjoining district, or otherwise derogate from the intent and purpose of this Ordinance, and
  6. (f)  the new use or building construction is inconsistent with the Urban Design Objectives set forth in Section 19.30. Criteria Applicable to All Projects (other criteria include parking, privacy and reduction of open space)

 (d) Community Outreach. The Planning Board shall consider what reasonable efforts have been made to address concerns raised by abutters and neighbors to the project site. An applicant seeking a special permit under this Section 5.28.2 shall solicit input from affected neighbors before submitting a special permit application. The application shall include a report on all outreach conducted and meetings held, shall describe the issues raised by community members, and shall describe how the proposal responds to those issues. Additional Criteria Applicable to Larger Projects (details worth reading)


(This important (and 20-year-old) article defines how large projects are evaluated – below are the introductory paragraphs and a link to the Zoning Ordinance so you can review relevant sections)

19.10 Intent and Purpose

19.20 Project Review Special Permit

19.30 Urban Design Objectives

19.40 Advisory Development Consultation Procedures

19.50 Building and Site Plan Requirements

19.10 Intent and Purpose of Article 19.000

The intent of this Article 19.000 is to establish traffic and urban design standards for development projects likely to have significant impact on abutting properties and the surrounding urban environment. To realize this intent, Article 19.000 (1) codifies the city’s urban design objectives and establishes detailed building and site development standards to regulate new building construction in the city’s commercial and high density residential areas, (2) establishes standards by which significant adverse traffic impacts can be measured, and (3) establishes procedures by which individual proposals can be reviewed by the Planning Board, city staff and the general public before a building permit is issued.

The Building and Site Plan Requirements describe the minimally acceptable arrangement of buildings on a lot and as they face the public environment. The Urban Design Objectives establish more general guidelines which, along with the Traffic Impact Indicators, can assist property owners as they consider alternate uses for their property. Where a special permit is required from the Planning Board, the Urban Design Objectives and Traffic Impact Indicators serve as considerations through which the merits of a

proposal are judged.

The Planning Board and Special Permits in Central Square Re-development:

(The K2C2 process produced a series of zoning change recommendations; highlighted below is a key statement about how the Planning Board would be involved. The “carefully crafted set of criteria ”are listed below – they do not appear to provide “clear trade-offs.” More study needed.)

p.48  The platform for decision-making would be through the special permit process. Hearings would be required at the Planning Board so that the full range of community opinions could be heard and incorporated into the Board’s deliberations. It will be essential that a carefully crafted set of criteria accompany the zoning, so that the trade-offs are very clear, and the Board has a framework for making an approval that is consistent with the many goals expressed in the C2 process.


Expanded Special Permit Criteria:

Plazas; Streetscape Enhancement; Dedicated affordable space; fit-out reduced rents; small retail spaces; space convertible to retail; expand to middle income family housing (limited funding potential); active uses along side streets.



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Cambridge Residents Alliance