Zoning FAQ

How does the Zoning Ordinance get amended?

The framework for enacting an amendment to the Zoning Ordinance is set forth in Chapter 40A of the Massachusetts General Laws. The Zoning Ordinance may only be amended by a vote of the City Council.

Types of Zoning Amendments

  • Map Change:  An alteration to the boundaries of a zoning district, or a change in the zoning designation of a particular district (for instance, from a Business district to a Residence district), resulting in a change to the Zoning Map
  • Text Change:  An alteration to the language within one or more Articles of the Zoning Ordinance, modifying the regulations that apply within one or more zoning districts

Zoning Amendment Process

Petitioning the City Council:  The process officially begins when a zoning petition is filed with the Office of the City Clerk. There are five ways that a petition can be brought before the Council:

  • Land Owner Petition:  One or more property owners petition for a zoning change affecting their property.
  • Citizen Petition:  A group of at least ten registered Cambridge voters petition for a zoning change.
  • Planning Board Petition:  The Cambridge Planning Board proposes a zoning change.
  • BZA Petition:  The Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal proposes a zoning change.
  • City Council Petition:  The City Council itself proposes a zoning change.

After a petition has been filed with the City Clerk, it is placed on the agenda of an upcoming City Council meeting. At that meeting, the Council may refer the matter for consideration by the Planning Board and the Ordinance Committee, which is a subcommittee of the City Council.

Public Hearings:  The Planning Board and Ordinance Committee each schedule and advertise public hearings to take place within 65 days of the date on which it is referred by the City Council.

  • Planning Board Hearing:  After hearing testimony from the Petitioner and the public, the Planning Board discusses the proposed zoning change. The Planning Board may then decide to submit a recommendation to the City Council. The recommendation may support adoption or rejection of the proposed zoning change, and may include suggestions for changes or further study.
  • Ordinance Committee Hearing:  The Ordinance Committee also hears testimony from the Petitioner and the public. The Ordinance Committee may then decide to refer the petition back to the full City Council for action, with or without a recommendation on whether the proposal should be adopted.

City Council Action:  The City Council may take action on the proposed zoning amendment after the following have occurred:

  • The Ordinance Committee has referred the petition to the full City Council.
  • The City Council has received a recommendation from the Planning Board, or if no recommendation has been received, 21 days have elapsed since the Planning Board held its public hearing.

The first action that the City Council may take is to vote to pass the petition to a second reading. This may pass by a majority vote (i.e. five “yea” votes on a nine-member Council). The petition must then be advertised for at least 10 days before a vote may be taken on final Ordination.

Final Action:  The final outcome of a zoning petition may include one of the following:

  • Adoption/Ordination:  The City Council votes to adopt the zoning petition, possibly with amendments, and the proposed zoning change is incorporated into the Zoning Ordinance. Adoption of a change to the Zoning Ordinance requires a two-thirds vote of the City Council (i.e., six “yea” votes on a nine-member Council). If an owner of property affected by the petition files a formal objection, then a super-majority is required (i.e., seven “yea” votes on a nine-member Council).
  • Failure:  On a vote of the City Council, the petition fails to receive the necessary votes to adopt the petition. In this case, the same petition may not be re-filed until two years after the vote.
  • Expiration/Placed on File:  The 90-day period elapses before the City Council has taken a final vote. In this case, the petition is not adopted but is placed on file. It may then be refiled as a new petition, in which case the process would begin again with referral to the Planning Board and Ordinance Committee for new public hearings.