Zoning Overhaul Criticized As Harmful in Short Term

Despite almost unanimous disapproval of Cambridge's 20-year-old zoning ordinance, many on the City Council said at a public hearing last night that creating a new comprehensive zoning plan might make it more difficult for city residents to fight overdevelopment.

Community Development Department Director Michael Rosenberg described the existing ordinance as "impenetrable," and offered to put his agency to work on a new, long-term revamping of the city's zoning laws. Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci said Councillor William H. Walsh had suggested the overhaul.

But several liberal councillors and members of the public said that such a plan could allow the department to ignore pressing community needs.

"There are communities out there saying, 'We want zoning right now'," said Councillor Saundra Graham. "Does this impact the right of citizens to file those petitions?"

Rosenberg said his department might have to freeze certain kinds of development during the transition from old to new zoning, but he said his department could still work on such petitions.

While Councillor Alice K. Wolf said she applauded the spirit of a a policy written "in English instead of Zoningese," she asked whether the length of time required to design the new plan could jeopardize communities with immediate problems.

Another problem discussed was the degree to which the department would consult community residents and developers. Councillor David E. Sullivan said a series of smaller zoning proposals might give communities more power over the process.

Walsh suggested that a committee of citizens and developers advise the department's efforts.

Creating a new zoning plan, some councillors said, could be seen as a way of postponing debate on more pressing issues.

Citizens might view the overhaul as "just a way of fending off what needs to be done," said Councillor Francis H. Duehay '55. "We've got to react to that."

Rosenberg said the new project would have to simplify the language of the code and define city policy on commercial development as well as environmental and neighborhood issues.

To do so, he said the department would need better systems to handle large amounts of information. For example, he proposed using computers to build three-dimensional pictures of development projects' likely results.

Several members of the public said the Community Development Department might not be trustworthy enough to be given such broad control of zoning policy. Some said the department has a penchant for secrecy, noting that copies of last night's proposal were not distributed to the public.

"That is a perfect example of what this department is going to provide, and it's the basic reason we don't trust this department," said William Noble of the Cambridge Tenants' Union.

Furthermore, another speaker said, copies of the current zoning ordinance were not available for several years. When the department finally published copies for the public, they cost $35 a copy. He noted that, at $10 a pound, the ordinance was "a slightly better bargain than shrimp."