Letter: Perspective on 2 East Main Street Proposal

by beth on September 28, 2018

[Ed note: My Southborough accepts signed letters to the editor submitted by Southborough residents. Letters may be emailed to mysouthborough@gmail.com. Although the letter refers to 2 Main Street, the property is actually 2 East Main St.]

To the Editor:

I’m writing to share perhaps a different perspective about the proposed redevelopment of 2 Main Street in Southborough. Here’s what I’ve been able to gather so far, and then the perspective I can offer, having dealt with a similar site in the past.

  • The site is currently uninhabited, and owned by a local resident
  • The site previously contained a blacksmith, laundry facility, and service station, and is in slightly less-than-ideal environmental conditions; at some point the site will need to be addressed/remediated/cleaned up
  • The proposed development in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals is a mixed use of retail and residential
  • According to a recent Town of Southborough Economic Development Committee survey, this style/type of development is in favor with survey respondents.
  • At a recent ZBA meeting, there was opposition to the currently proposed development type. From what I’ve been able to gather, some residents are requesting that the currently proposed development plan not be permitted. Further, other commentary was to leave the site vacant.
  • Currently, the fate of the currently proposed development is in limbo, as the land use (mixed use permitted as-of-right, but the characterization of this land use) is under review.

That’s likely an oversimplification of the state of affairs, but also likely enough to provide context to the discussion.

In the end, there are four options (and really only three, since one is a very unlikely choice):

  • allow a mixed-use development on site (such as the one proposed);
  • allow a variance (via some other means) to permit this developer (or another) to do something completely different;
  • allow a different as-of right use on the site (currently zoned to permit office, residential, retail); or
  • do nothing / leave the site vacant.

Here are my perspectives on each of the options. These perspective are shaped by my career experiences as a former practicing civil engineer in the State of Massachusetts. In fact, I worked on a similar project in Wilmington, MA (the site was a former Diamond Crystal Salt light industrial facility, and a developer wished to alter the land use to residential). As a transportation engineer representing the developer at the time, I attended several hearings on the site, as the developer presented options and took in feedback from the various boards and residents.

  • The proposed land use is in line with the recent EDC survey. In fact, depending on how you look at it, overwhelmingly so. According to the response data from question 3, 90% percent said they’d like to see restaurants or coffee shops in Downtown Village Business District, and 67% of respondents stated they’d like to see retail (presumably more than one choice was permitted). In fact, only 6% of respondents would prefer to not see any additional businesses on Main Street. While there may be opposition, the data indicates that its in the – overwhelming – minority.
  • Another land use could indeed be permitted. It’s worth noting though (as the ZBA is fully aware) that Southborough land use variances are no longer executed by the ZBA (as they are in many other Massachusetts municipalities). As I recall: at the 2018 Southborough Town Meeting, that power/ability was removed from the ZBA. The method to execute such a maneuver is now to place it on the warrant list for a future town meeting. And since such an action is a land-related warrant, it would require approval by two-thirds of the turnout.
  • The likelihood of any developer seeking this route is low. Here’s why: from the developer’s perspective, they receive no clear-cut answer on whether or not they could proceed. They then need to hope that there is enough momentum to create a warrant for this item and get it placed on the docket for the next town meeting (several months away), or special town meeting (TBD, based on momentum). And then and only then would a two-thirds approval vote finally permit them to proceed – just proceed.
  • All the while, the land owner is paying taxes on a piece of land that is neither generating revenue nor improving the character of the downtown area.
  • Permitting a different as-of-right landuse on the site other than the one proposed could potentially obviate the necessity of a decision on the ZBA’s part. Since the site is currently zoned as multi-use, then other similar developments could be considered. I’m unclear on the economic climate for other such mixed uses (meaning that there may not be a ready tenant).
  • Further, a future proposed land use could very well be inconsistent with the results of the EDC survey mentioned earlier. That is to say, a/the developer could proceed with such a development with no intervention from the ZBA, presuming it met all as-of-right land uses for the site. (It should be noted that the proposed land use now indeed is consistent with the survey data.)
  • Finally, one option mentioned was to do nothing on the site, and this is the option I suggest is a very unlikely choice. I alluded to it earlier in the second perspective, and it’s worth noting again: the land owner is paying taxes on this site, whether or not there is any development on the site. If this site, from the landowner’s perspective, isn’t adding value (residences, revenue, comfort, aesthetics – however you define ‘value’), then it’s subtracting value. Put another way: owning the land is costing somebody something.

In the end, doing nothing isn’t really a viable (or rather, likely) option. Something will go onto that land. The issue the Town (both the boards and the residents) now faces is whether or not they’d like to help shape that development.

In closing: I am not “pro-development” or “pro-this-particular-developer”. Rather, I am “pro-sound-decision-making.”

Respectfully submitted,

Alan Belniak
Town of Southborough resident

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kelly Roney September 28, 2018 at 11:44 AM

As I understand it (open to correction), mixed use is not by right, which is why the ZBA would need to grant a special permit for. Mixed use was not controversial at the meeting I attended last week – I asked – but apartment use in any form in Business Village zones is controversial.

174-8.4 (see https://www.ecode360.com/9539704) is not explicit about:
– Whether apartments can actually be built at all in BV outside of a Major Residential Development (There’s a chain of reasoning that apartments are equivalent to a hotel, and I’ve made that argument, but it’s a strain to make, and I doubt the intent of the bylaw is to allow apartments.)
– If apartments can be built, whether they have to conform to setback requirements for dwellings (which most people seem to construe as primary use residences, not apartments)
– Mixed use, although there appears to be a presumption that mixed use is fine – see the Residence A bylaw, 174-8.2, in which a garage is a mixed use (In contrast, the recent Adaptive Reuse bylaw, 174-13.8, explicitly permits mixed use when that bylaw applies, though it also requires a special permit from the Planning Board, and it’s a narrower set of mixed uses.)

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2 law_of_unintended_consequences September 28, 2018 at 12:55 PM

As noted above in Mr. Belniak’s letter, the ZBA no longer has the authority to grant a special permit, courtesy of a town meeting in which that authority was stripped. Such a waiver/variance/permit would now require a warrant, which would be heard at either a special town meeting (isn’t 1 per year *more* than enough?) or the regular town meeting.

Unfortunately, at that (town meeting) time, only the input of those in attendance would be counted toward a decision for any ‘permit’.

As we are now well into the 21st century and this town has grown considerably over the last 20+ years, it seems we may already be overdue to add an online capability to our town meetings. Yes, that’s right, one would be allowed to vote on items without having to be physically present at the meeting (and listen to every/all opinions for each item under discussion).

Of course those ‘regular’ attendees, who are making all of the decisions each year, will not likely want to allow greater participation – it would be a loss of their ‘power’. Let’s open up the town meeting, allowing residents to attend via their cellphones/laptops/etc. from the comfort of their homes – you know, like the way the rest of the world works!

Reply

3 Kelly Roney October 1, 2018 at 8:47 AM

Town Meeting repealed only the ZBA’s authority to grant use variances, but the ZBA retains the authority in the normal course of its duties to grant some special permits. See 174-25 at https://www.ecode360.com/9540665. It may also grant other variances besides use variances.

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