Revised Downtown District zoning draft raises concerns – BOS hearing tonight

by beth on March 30, 2021

This morning, the Town posted a revised draft of the Downtown District zoning bylaw to be discussed in tonight’s forum. If adopted as written, developers would be allowed up to 80% “lot coverage” without needing special permit.

Feb 16th Downtown forum - slide 10 - Floor Area RatioThe change replaces stripped out “Floor Area Ratios” that had been capped at 0.35 by right or 0.5 with a special permit. That would have capped a one story building at taking up 35% of the lot by right or half the lost by special permit. Two story building’s footprints would have been cut in half. (See image right for explanation of FARs from Selectmen’s February 16th forum.)

The FARs had been criticized in Selectmen’s February forum. Resident Timothe Litt opined they were twisting the metric to do something it wasn’t very good at. Economic Development Committee’s Julie Connelly seemed to agree. But past public suggestions had included replacing it with definitions that took building height into consideration.

The newly revised version would allow the maximum lot coverage even for buildings up to 3 stories. (A four story building would also be allowed by Special Permit, but includes some additional setback restrictions.)

Lot coverage doesn’t appear to equate to the building’s full footprint. The proposed bylaw does require at least 20% of the lot be landscaped green space. So, presumably, any parking areas would come out of the other 80% of the lot. Still, the revision is already facing criticism and questions from public officials.

During last night’s hearing run by the Planning Board, member Meme Lutrell criticized the change. She referred to the 80% allowance as “dense urban development”. She said it was contrary to the image EDC has been promoting:

Any thought that 80% lot coverage is small town, small scale development is ludicrous in my opinion.

Member Marnie Hoolihan said she had similar concerns. As I previously noted, Selectmen Lisa Braccio and Sam Stivers had already indicated their own concerns about removing FARs. (At that time, I didn’t have details on what FARs were replaced with.) Braccio, who has been involved in behind the scenes work on the revisions, said she would be looking for their zoning consultants to explain the change in tonight’s forum.

Based on last night’s hearing, selectmen should also expect to hear from the owner of 10 and 12 Main Street tonight. Ray Hokinson called into the Planning Board hearing last night. He said that he worried the bylaw was too one-sided and piecemeal an approach. He would like to see historic preservation language included to provide more balance.

Hokinson was also concerned about another call into last night’s hearing. A land use lawyer reached out on behalf of the owner of 15 Main Street. The home is sandwiched between a business plaza and a home purchased by St. Mark’s School abutting the old fire station. Owner Karen Connell is requesting the Town consider expanding the zone to cover her property.

Hokinson noted that years ago when Southborough Medical Group was at 11 Main Street, they tried to expand to 15 Main St. He said that residents were up in arms. There was worry about the potential for zoning creep.

The request to expand the map contrasted with the other public comment from a zone abutter last night. Kevin Miller continued to raise concerns about the area the map covers. He indicated that he would be calling into the BOS hearing as well.

While the text is redlined, the redlines don’t highlight all of the changes since the last publicly posted version. However, in my physically comparing the language, the other edits I found were mostly clean up and clarifications based on past Planning Board questions. (For instance, defining “establishment”.)

In my post last week, I noted that I wasn’t able to compare and contrast what the new zoning uses would be. Now that the revised draft is posted, I can. You can take a look at that here.

As I noted in my prior post, uses allowed by right are still subject to Site Plan Review. However, Site Plan Review oversight authority is different than Special Permit authority. That came up between the lines during last night’s Planning Board meeting.

Town Planner Karina Quinn spoke about the origins of the Business Village zoning. She told the board that her understanding was the BV zoning had been written to ensure that district was controlled in way people want it for historic downtown area. It allows the Planning Board to vet projects in the best interest for the Town and area residents. She was concerned about language that would allow a project with several businesses up to 3,000 square feet without requiring a special permit.

The BOS hearing opens at 6:30 pm tonight, Tuesday, March 30th. Click here to zoom in.

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