Downtown District proposed zoning changes: Forum highlights; Hearings open Monday

by beth on February 20, 2021

Post image for Downtown District proposed zoning changes: Forum highlights; Hearings open Monday

Above: The Board of Selectmen hosted a public forum on a plan for revitalizing downtown in the middle of their meeting Tuesday night. (image cropped from video on YouTube; to watch the presentation click here.)

Monday night, the Planning Board will open public hearings on zoning related Warrant Articles slated for Annual Town Meeting. That includes the proposed zoning changes to create a “Downtown District“. Last week, the Board of Selectmen held a public forum on the Article.

Vice Chair Lisa Braccio explained that over the last 5 months, Town boards have collaborated in an effort to create a “consensus document” that addresses concerns and input. She stressed that they are looking for public feedback. The board and Economic Development Committee (which spearheaded the effort) expect to make changes based on comments and issues that will be raised in the public hearings. She encouraged residents to participate in Planning’s hearings.

Braccio introduction to the forum helped paint Town official’s vision:

A lot of work has gone on in the last 2-3 years with creating a vision of a vibrant downtown with green space, walkability, and options for mixed use. A place we can gather when Covid is over, grab a cup of coffee, have a bite, or frequent the local businesses that make our Town a success and also an attractive place to live.

She then turned it over to the EDC’s Julie Connelly. The presentation covered: a look at how downtown Main Street used to look vs now, the map identifying the district borders, past feedback supporting the need for improvements, why zoning changes were targeted, the purpose of the proposed zoning bylaw, the property uses that would be allowed “by right”, the purpose of separate Design Guidelines, what” Floor Area Ratio” referred to in the bylaw means, and what “Mixed Use” allows. (Click here for the recorded presentation. Click on thumbnails below to view the slides.)

Downtown forum slide 1 - cover Downtown forum slide 2 - then and now Downtown forum slide 3 - Then and Now Downtown forum slide 4 - map Downtown forum slide 5 - survey Downtown forum slide 6 - why zoning change Downtown forum slide 7 - purpose Downtown forum slide 8 - by right uses Downtown forum slide 9 - Design guidelines Downtown forum slide 10 Floor Area Ratio Downtown forum slide 11 - mixed use

Some of issues raised in the forum are ones that selectmen and the EDC are already seeking to hear back from their consultant on.

Since neither board is comprised of zoning experts, the Town hired consultant Judy Barrett (through a grant) to help them write up the zoning changes. They hope to have her available to assist during Planning Board hearings. (If she isn’t, you can expect some issues raised will require selectmen to promise to circle back on the issue at a future meeting.)

Based on comments, past discussions, and apparent discrepancies, below are issues I expect to be discussed/debated at the hearings.

By-Right Uses and Design Guidelines clarifications

By-Right Use issues

The zoning language allows a slew of permitted commercial and residential uses. That means that the use itself won’t trigger the need for Special Permit and a Major Site Plan Review hearings. The intent is to make it more welcoming for desirable development. 

The right removes unnecessary hurdles for the projects the Town believes residents want to see. The list of uses is a signal to business owners/developers about the kinds of projects the Town wants to see in the zone. Selectmen also indicated that if the list is doesn’t reflect their wants, residents should let officials know through the Planning Board hearings what uses they would like stricken or added. (You can find the list under part 4 of the proposed bylaw, pages 2-3.) 

One resident wondered if there should be a limitation on the number of certain businesses allowed. Connelly to acknowledged that a diversity of businesses is desired.

At least one commenter was concerned about the impact on downtown if businesses were coming in without Planning holding special permit hearings. Selectman Marty Healey told forum attendees that he wasn’t concerned about opening a “floodgate” because of Design Guidelines that the Planning Board will enforce.

But it appears to me that the some by-right use projects may not be required to adhere to the Design Guidelines.

The Draft bylaw reads:

The Planning Board may adopt design guidelines and apply them to major site plan approval applications regardless of whether a special permit is required.

At Planning’s February 11th meeting, member Meme Lutrell interpreted that the proposed bylaw only requires applying the Design Guidelines to projects that go through major site plan review. She seemed to indicate that by-right projects don’t automatically require Major Site Plan review. (Special permits and site plan review could be triggered by other non-use factors, like the scale or footprint of the project.) 

The BOS and EDC Forum presentation included:

By-right uses are allowed, without the need for a special permit or major site plan review, so long as they meet the district standards and requirements specified in the zoning ordinance.

Design Guidelines outside of the bylaw and incomplete

The Design Guidelines aren’t included in the proposed bylaws. The rationale is that zoning bylaws can become outdated due to the major effort required to pass any revisions. (It requires a 2/3 vote by Annual Town Meeting and a lot of legwork leading up to it.)

To allow the guidelines to be updated over time as needed, the Planning Board will be responsible for creating, updating, and enforcing them. Connelly stated in the presentation that the Planning Board could put into the guidelines a requirement to hold public hearings before making changes. But that requirement isn’t stated in the zoning bylaw.

In addition, while there is a draft of the guidelines, Planning members have indicated it is far from complete. The indication was that the guidelines were simply pulled from existing zoning bylaws and the board hadn’t had a chance to review and discuss them. At their meeting on the 11th, members agreed that it would be necessary to create them prior to Town Meeting so voters understand what they would be. They were targeting having that done by late April.

Floor Area Ratios

Design Guidelines aren’t the only ways the bylaw controls the look of downtown. There are limits to by-right footprints and project scale. They include requirements around green space, placement of parking, setbacks, etc. They also include “Floor Area Ratios” (FARs). The 2nd-to-last slide in the presentation gave a visual overview of how the ratios work to cap the “sprawl” by limiting the portion of the parcel a building can take up based on its floor area.

As currently proposed FARs would be 0.35 by-right or up to 0.5 by special permit. That would mean that a one story building could only take up 35% of the lot by-right, and two stories only 17.5% of the lot or 25% by special permit. Three story buildings (allowed by-right but capped at 40 feet tall without a special permit) would be capped at taking up 11.7% of the lot by-right or 16.7% by permit.

Connelly previously raised the idea to selectmen that it might make more sense to have the FAR vary by the number of floors. Resident Timothe Litt suggested that FARs might not be the appropriate metric to define the site restrictions. He opined that it seemed they were trying to twist the metric to do something it wasn’t very good at. 

Impact to abutters

One caller was “baffled” by the outlined area for the Downtown District. He referred to the map he received in the mail as different to what he’d previously seen online. (I couldn’t find any maps with a different shape. I can say that the orientation for how it has been displayed in communications – and therefore the blog – has varied)

Resident Kevin Miller questioned why the zone was drawn to encompass properties that backup to residential properties on Latisquama Road and Foley Drive.

Zoning map highlighting Business VillagesConnelly explained that the zone is based on the current zoning map. The Downtown District is the downtown section of the three areas currently under the Business Village zone. (See map right.)

Connelly acknowledged that if she was drawing the map she would have done it differently.

Resident John Walter voiced concern that officials ensure that lighting for downtown projects isn’t problematic for nearby residents. (He also raised issue of potential drainage impacts to abutters as his biggest concern. That’s covered in the next section.)

Downtown’s infrastructure issues

In the forum abutters to downtown made it clear that they were concerned about condition of the area. Part of that was the “atrocious” and “ugly” condition. But there were also concerns about the issues with stormwater drainage. And there was reference to the need for the Town to figure out the wastewater issues for the area in order to pursue new development.

Walter opined that drainage issues require a very extensive and deeper water management plan than just moving stuff around a little. Residents and officials referred to the Town’s efforts to negotiate easement rights with the railroad (CSX) in order to implement improvements. (Easement rights have been held up by a disagreement between CSX and one of the railroad’s abutters at Main Street, Mauro’s Cafe. I’ll be covering an update on that issue in a later post.)

As for the wastewater needs, the Town is in the process of contracting a feasibility study on the issue. An RFP brought in two proposals. Selectmen hope to award a contract at their next meeting. First, they are looking for the EDC, which pursued the grant for the study, to vote on the issue. They are also seeking any feedback from the head of Public Works.

Selectman Brian Shea referred to criticism/suggestions he has heard that infrastructure problems should be tackled before zoning changes are made. He asserted that it’s important to pursue them simultaneously. He opined that it is difficult to conduct an appropriate feasibility study on the wastewater needs without understanding what types of projects could be coming in. 

Language issues and streamlining recommendations

Mixed Use language snafu

One of the main motivations pitched for a special district by the EDC was to allow “Mixed Use” projects by-right that combine residential and reasonable commercial uses. (In those projects, residential units would be either upstairs or in the rear, not in front-facing street level units.) Lutrell noted that the current language in the bylaw defeats the intent to streamline the process.

In addition to individual by-right uses, the bylaw allows by-right the combination of any of those uses. But to cover permitted residential uses as the bylaw only refers to uses allowed in the residential zones. Those zoning bylaws don’t cover the kind of mixed-use units the bylaw is attempting to attract. (As members noted, you wouldn’t sit a single family house on top of a commercial building.) That means that mixed commercial and residential use projects would require going through the special permit process.

Luttrell suggested adding language under permitted uses about a certain number of residential units in a mixed use project. It’s one of several comments that the board has already passed on to the EDC out of their February 11th discussions. (Most of the comments were clerical edits and questions about cloudy language that could be problematic to interpret and enforce. Those included requests for clarifying defined terms and adding more terms to that list.)

Accessory apartments and multi-family housing

Planning’s Jesse Stein also serves on the Southborough Housing Opportunity Partnership Committee (SHOPC). Referring to that role, he pointed out that the bylaw is intended to create more diversity in housing. He noted that like other Southborough zoning bylaws it requires that homeowners seek special permits to add an accessory apartment or convert their house to a two family home. He suggested moving those to the by-right list.

Affordable Housing

As I noted in a prior post, officials don’t all appear to be on the same page about how many residential units should be allowed before a percent are required to be affordable housing. On the 11th, Stein recommended lowering the threshold from eight to four units and raising the “at least” percent of affordable units from 12.5% to 25%. Selectmen were already aware that this would be a topic for further debate in the hearings. You can read more about how the group that drafted the bylaw arrived at the proposed calculation here.

Next steps

The Planning Board hearing is scheduled to open at 7:30 pm on Monday, February 22nd. However, the hearing could be pushed later depending on the earlier agenda items. You can find the documents for the hearing, including the draft zoning language and preliminary draft of Design Guidelines here.

Although the Town Moderator intends to delay Annual Town Meeting to late spring, The Planning Board is shooting to have a final draft of the bylaw completed for the Warrant by early March.* However, the board generally keeps zoning hearings open at all/most meetings until Annual Town Meeting begins. That means that if the officials aren’t satisfied that that they have a final version by the deadline, they can continue to incorporate public feedback. A revised version could be proposed as an amendment on Town Meeting floor.

*The Town Code requirement that the Annual Town Meeting be opened by the last Saturday in March. State law requires posting the Warrant by 7 days in advance. Prior to printing the Warrant, the Town submits the Warrant to Town Counsel for review.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bass Ackwards February 20, 2021 at 10:10 PM

Just one opinion, but this is a disaster in the making by dangerous amateurs who have no prior professional experience in this kind of planning. Abutters and stakeholders should just say no. One read of the above makes it abundantly clear. This is a developer’s dream and a stakeholders nightmare.

A study of traffic generated should come first, parking, traffic flow, congestion, and infrastructure, based on full potential build out. No one seems to know what that is. Put away the pom poms and try to use common sense. This planning process, if one could call it that, is absolutely backwards in the sense that these factors don’t seem to be considered at all. They certainly are not mentioned above.

Forty foot tall buildings? By right? Has someone lost their mind? The FAR discussion above is outright frightening in the sense that it is a red flag indicator that no one here really has a grasp of what that means and what the outcome could be. The saddest part is this article stresses feedback welcome, but not really, not unless it falls in line with this backward scheme and its proponents. Residents and businesses who are primary stakeholders should just say no. Cities and towns have Planning Boards for a reason.

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2 beth February 21, 2021 at 10:09 AM

Your comment makes it sound like the Planning Board isn’t a real part of the process.

The Planning Board had representatives in the group discussions to come up with the draft bylaw. The board is now running the public hearings and as part of that they will be expected to ask questions and weigh in on the language and details. Ultimately, voters will expect them to take an official position in favor or against. (It’s also possible to end up with a split vote and differing opinions out of the board.)

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3 Jack February 21, 2021 at 12:22 PM

With any development of this nature we need to make sure the local government (in this case the town of Southboro) are prevented from using the power of eminent domain from making takings of private property to benefit the development project. We should also put restrictions on what public properties may be used to aid in this kind of development proposal,

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4 Bass Ackwards February 21, 2021 at 8:35 PM

Planning Board alone writes zoning bylaw. No one else. No other entity has the legal authority to write zoning bylaws. Period. Just because some other entity decides to take it upon themselves to do something they have no legal authority to do, and pushes a Planning Board to get in on it, that is bass ackwards and good luck with that.

Planning Board is not an editor.

Like the real stakeholders, the residents and businesses who live there, Planning Board can and should reject this misplaced, misguided effort. If this change is embraced, Planning Board has reduced its own role unnecessarily. The resulting zoning bypasses Planning Board by granting “by right” allowances to the very proponents who are licking their chops to push this through. Cities and towns have Planning Boards for a reason.

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5 eastside February 22, 2021 at 8:11 PM

You may be right, and you certainly feel you are 100% right when you may only be 60% right, but your tone is offensive even if you’re 99% right (nobody’s 100% right – ever). You should work on that.

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6 Bass Ackwards February 23, 2021 at 9:17 AM

As stated earlier, just one opinion. You are certainly entitled to yours in a free speech based democracy. Feel free to offer up any new information and sequential logic related to the substance of the zoning change because it is notably absent. The real stakeholders, the businesses and residents who live and work there, would benefit from hearing on the substance versus messages vacant of zoning information but only snarky remarks.

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7 concerned citizen February 23, 2021 at 1:33 PM

Bass Ackwards is 100% right and the Planning Board meeting last night is proof positive. Every resident in Southborough should listen to that meeting. Why discuss the definition of a micro-brewery if little to nothing is known about the impact of the EDC Downtown Initiative on traffic, water, sewer, lighting, etc. Listen to one of the meetings and it seems infrastructure impacts fall into the category of “let’s figure that out later”? The EDC proposal does not include hard data nor preliminary studies relating to key issues. The proposal document instead provides glossy images and reads like a trip down memory lane to Ye Olde Blacksmith Shop. But wait! One of the EDC consultants on standby are prepared to launch you straight into the poorly planned future of sunny bike paths ending with a double scoop of ice cream or a double IPA. Everyone loves ice cream and beer, right? Some of the same planners pitching nostalgia presumably gave the green light to convert the town center flag pole into a cell phone tower this past summer. And somehow, a couple months ago, a developer was permitted to tear down a beautiful historic barn on Middle Road. History tossed straight into the dumpster. So, please, let’s skip the when-it’s-convenient sentimentality. The elected board members and officials in this town need to address the real issues in the proposal.

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8 beth February 23, 2021 at 1:52 PM

I don’t know why you have the impression that “planners” or anyone else gave the green light on changes to the flagpole.

The only overlap between the flagpole and the bylaw is the Board of Selectmen. The board made clear that they were angered by the work done to change the pole and that it violated their agreement. When the company asked the board for permission to make changes – both before and after the incident – the board denied the requests.

The work that was begun last summer was under a building permit approved by the Building Commissioner because drawings purportedly didn’t indicate there would be any visual changes to the pole. When that wasn’t the case, Town officials stopped the work. The vendor company that did the work never implied that somehow they were misled into thinking it would be allowed.

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