Downtown zoning: Suggestions, map issues, economic questions, transparency, and status

by beth on July 23, 2021

Post image for Downtown zoning: Suggestions, map issues, economic questions, transparency, and status

Above: Two residents asked about the possibility of adding their lots to the proposed new zoning map. Meanwhile, questions still remain about handling lots split by the map.

This week, the Planning Board reopened hearings on proposed changes to the Downtown District Bylaw. I’m recapping the main discussion points and the status.

To start the public comments, Board of Selectman Chair Lisa Braccio updated the public on the status and changes made since the spring hearings. She said officials would be taking another look at the bylaw’s definition of mixed-use developments based on criticism received. She acknowledged that the commercial use threshold might not be the right figure.

The definition would allow projects with only 10% of the ground floor used for commercial uses, and no commercial use on higher floors. Planning’s Meme Lutrell later criticized that it doesn’t make sense if the point of the zoning and mixed-use was to raise revenue by encouraging businesses. She worried that it would only encourage apartment buildings.

Concern about attracting projects that aren’t the pitched retail businesses was also raised by Main Street’s Ray Hokinson. He asked to see a worst case scenario on what the zoning could bring. He opined the changes were far more likely to attract apartments and law offices than ice cream parlors and boutiques.

Hokinson asked for a economic analysis of how the rezoning would increase revenue. Planning Member Andrew Mills followed up to say the board hadn’t been shown anything about what revenue would be left on the table by not rezoning. 

Since then, EDC’s Coordinator Marijke Munsiff reached out to ask me to share something the EDC wrote to address that question. (It focuses on the vacant lot at 2 East Main Street and what new zoning could allow.) You can read that excerpt from their November 2020 Update here.

Resident Tom Fling worried about the potential for encouraging buildings shaped like skyscrapers. (Editor’s note: The buildings could be narrow, but would be capped at 3 stories.) He asked whether FARs in the bylaw were the right metric. In the spring, FARs were scrapped, but the replacement language allowing 80% lot coverage led to criticism that it would invite high density development.

In the past, the Economic Development Committee has assured that Design Guidelines will help protect downtown from some of residents’ imagined scenarios. But proposed guidelines weren’t ready for this hearing. A Working Group is still working with the Town’s consultant on what those could be. They plan to base them off of Northborough guidelines. Hoskinson asked to see the Hopkinton guidelines that were the originally planned starting point. He emphasized a preference for Hopkinton’s Main St to Northborough’s.

Downtown Business Village mapNot changed since the spring was the zoning map. It still uses the footprint of the downtown section of the current Business Village zone. Selectmen decided to use the hearings to solicit more feedback before making any changes.  

Braccio noted that her board had voted not to expand the map to include additional properties. She reiterated that on Thursday night, but qualified that hearings are meant to give residents their chance to weigh in. Planning Chair Don Morris envisioned coming up with map options, then sitting down with BOS and EDC to hash out what makes sense to propose to voters.

Planning’s Marnie Hoolahan said she was concerned by the lack of information on what owners of multi-zone lots on the map think. (The split lots include two businesses on Park Street and Boston Road. The other properties on Latisquama Road, Foley Drive, and Park Street are currently residential.) She said owners hadn’t directly reached out to the board. If selectmen or the EDC had gotten feedback, those communications hadn’t been shared with Planning. 

Discussion revealed that the Board of Selectmen never sent a letter to the owners of the seven properties. Munsiff said she spoke with all but one. She didn’t provide details, but asked a hypothetical process question that referenced five split lot owners wanting to be left alone and one wanting to be fully incorporated into the map. 

zoning map with split lot setions highlightedLatisquama Road resident Kevin Miller again raised his concerns about the risks that split lots pose to their residential abutters. The new Downtown District is proposed to have a streamlined and less subjective approval process for commercial and mixed-use projects than current zoning.

Miller suggested an alternative map that leaves alone the property owners who don’t want to lose any of their rights. Instead of down-zoning split properties, the Town could maintain the status of those properties as currently zoned. A map would redefine those areas as remaining in the Business Village, outside of a newly created Downtown District. (My map to the right highlights the sections of split lots that are in the Business Village zone.)

If a developer sought to cobble together parcels from split lot properties to build a business, they would still have the right to pursue it through a Special Permit under the current zoning bylaw. Miller summed up:

If anything is going to go on in the property right behind me, I’d like to have the good, smart folks at the Planning Board have their traditional role in oversight.

Meanwhile, two Main Street residents asked Planning to consider expanding the map to include their properties. 

zoning map abutters who want to be addedKristen Connell, owner of 15 Main St renewed her request. She told Planning members that her property is already partly commercial. The backyard includes septic for 11 Main Street and the playground for a daycare that is a plaza tenant.

Tim Fling suggested expanding the zone west, possibly all the way to Route 85. His main ask was to include his property at 18 Main Street. He noted that he is across the street from 11 Main Street and would be in the midst of commercial properties. (My map right highlights the two parcels.)

Hokinson reminded Planning that back in the 80s, residents of Main Street fought vigorously to protect the character of the historic residential section of Main Street. When 11 Main St sought to buy and subsume 15 Main Street, residents brought them to court. Ultimately, a compromise with restrictive covenants was reached. He said area residents were opposed to Commercial Creep.

Later, Hokinson pointed out that when he purchased his house it was in a residentially zoned neighborhood. He urged officials not to take zoning casually:

Zoning really is for stability and protection. You know what your rights are and you know what your neighbor’s rights are. 

On Thursday, Main Street resident David Parry warned selectmen that the map issue was bubbling up and had the potential to blow up the rezoning efforts. He advised selectmen that they should head off talk about expanding the map west. He said didn’t want to see a repeat of residents pitted against residents. Parry called Braccio’s clarification about BOS’ prior vote a non-statement. He urged the Board to issue a statement to the Planning Board clearly opposing expanding the map and explaining the need to preserve Main Street’s residential historical character west of downtown.

Towards the end of the hearing, Lutrell said that she wanted to see changes to the propoed bylaw the EDC’s Julie Connelly had told her committee she planned to submit, including language on facades and setbacks. Last night, Braccio told selectmen those were being submitted to the Planning Board for inclusion in hearings. 

The next hearing on the bylaw is scheduled for August 16.

In the meantime, Town Planner Karina Quinn committed to following up on a Planning member’s transparency concern. Towards the end of the night, member Jesse Stein said the chat had included “a number of editorials”. Those aren’t captured for the minutes and or available for the public to view in the recorded videos of the meeting. He pointed out that during in-person meetings, the Chair doesn’t allow people to shout out their opinions at random. Morris wondered aloud whether it should be treated that way or as if two people quietly talking in the audience.

Quinn noted that in order to chat, people have to log in, which also allows them to raise their hands to ask questions. Miller suggested that Planning should disable the feature in the future but allow the Q&A feature which is visible only to panelists.

Quinn said she would check with the Town Clerk to see if the issue has previously been raised.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Concerned Resident July 24, 2021 at 4:19 AM

Voters, just say no. There are enough alarms and red flags to indicate that the taxpayers can be assured that this is simply another bad iteration of a wrong and misguided campaign. The continued amateurish approaches by EDC and now BOS chiming in underscores the fact that literally not one of these people have any idea what they are doing, with real economic costs and benefits not even remotely understood. This amateur hour will ruin this small business village area with way too much density and traffic clog, with no forethought to real life impacts to homeowners and their stakes and overall costs to taxpayers. This includes not discussed operating costs to taxpayers. This is a sweeping and unnecessary candy store giveaway which will enrich developers at the expense of taxpayers. Just vote no.

Does anyone remember just a few years ago the big promise that no one will change the charm of downtown? They are giving us Framingham. How about the gigantic duplicative highway signs, just in case you don’t know the way to Hopkinton? (WTH?) As an aside, is anyone bothered by the fact that the “consultant” firm involved in writing this “downtown initiative” plan is the SAME firm as the now town counsel? The new town counsel’s law partner, same firm, is involved in the writing of the plan. It may be the way it worked out, but it does not sit right. In summary, this is a painfully and overly long iterative process, with an outcome that stinks like fish, and more questions than answers. This is the wrong plan for the wrong area. It is a housing plan, a clog plan, not an economic plan. No one wants high density housing development in an area where it really doesn’t fit—this area is too small. This poorly conceived initiative is an anachronism out of the box: Today is all about reducing carbon footprints, recycling, re-using. The focus should be on blighted areas of Route 9 and other areas of town. BTW, the taxpayers elected a Planning Board. They are the proper elected entity to represent and safeguard the residents. Let them do their job and current zoning is fine. We don’t need EDC and BOS to do Planning Board’s job. This is one case where separation of powers should be firmly in place, with necessary and appropriate checks and balances.

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2 Michael Weishan July 26, 2021 at 11:15 PM

Amen, amen, amen!

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3 Claire C. Reynolds July 27, 2021 at 1:18 PM

Concerned Resident,
In response to your concerns, the proposed downtown zoning bylaw has been directed by the Planning Board ever since it was initially brought to their attention. A collaborative effort has been on-going with the Board of Selectmen (BOS), the Southborough Housing Opportunity Partnership Committee (SHOPC) and the Economic Development Committee (EDC).

– At the April 29, 2019 Planning Board meeting – EDC presented the background for a proposed zoning amendment to the Business Village (BV) District. Their request was based on findings from several studies: the 2008 Master Plan, the 2015 SHOPC Housing Production Plan, the 2017 EDC survey and the 2018 ULI Study.
As stated in the meeting minutes: “He (Planning Board Chair – Don Morris) recommended that the EDC should create the first draft and then work as a team with the Planning Board.”
– May 2019 – The EDC took that recommendation and applied for a Planning Assistance Grant (Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs) – May 2019.
– September 2019, the Town was awarded a $50k grant. This is the funding that has been used to hire a professional planner and an attorney specializing in zoning as recommended.

The EDC took the initiative to produce a draft document to help achieve the recommendation of the Master Plan that was approved 12 years ago. As the article was reviewed, discussed and edited, all collaborating committees have thoroughly understood that approval from the Planning Board is necessary to pass the article at Town Meeting.

In addition to the joint meetings (all open meetings with minutes and recordings), there have been several public forums with residents, one-on-one meetings with several downtown business owners and an initial informational meeting with the Open Space Preservation Commission.

Extensive reporting can be found on the EDC website – https://www.southboroughtown.com/economic-development-committee/pages/executive-office-energy-and-environmental-affairs-grant

Summary presentations created by the EDC Coordinator are found here: https://www.southboroughtown.com/economic-development-committee/pages/downtown-initiative

It is with leadership, collaboration and guidance of the Selectmen, the Planning Board, SHOPC, Residents/Business owners that has moved the draft article through numerous review versions in order to put forward the right plan.

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4 Concerned Resident August 3, 2021 at 10:22 AM

Sorry, disagree with many points above, starting with the opening sentence about Planning Board. This zoning initiative was and remains EDC’s initiative. Contrary to the above, Planning Board did not and does not direct the EDC, to do anything and furthermore it is not within its legal authority to do so.

This is not an economic plan, it is a housing plan. It is the wrong plan for the wrong location. The location is wrong and too small. This is a candy store giveaway to developers at the expense of the taxpayers. Most importantly, this is a misguided plan with more questions than answers, no clear benefits, and too many unarticulated costs to taxpayers . This plan unnecessarily bypasses Planning Board (that’s the goal of these noisemakers) and the residents protections against far too much density, traffic clog, and negative impacts. Voters, just say no.

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5 Claire C Reynolds August 13, 2021 at 12:08 PM

Concerned Resident – I have provided the facts in response to your statements on your August 3, 2021 post.

You: Sorry, disagree with many points above, starting with the opening sentence about Planning Board. This zoning initiative was and remains EDC’s initiative.

FACT: April 29th, 2019 Planning Board agenda
DISCUSSION: EDC Proposed Zoning Amendment to BV District
Quote from Chairman Don Morris, “Let’s make it crystal clear that the Planning Board will receive a submittal from somebody for the business village district downtown and Planning Board is committed to taking that and beginning the process of working together from thereon.”
The entire discussion can be viewed on SAM –
Link: http://71.126.253.179:8087/Cablecast/Public/Show.aspx?ChannelID=3&ShowID=1330
Fast forward: 2hrs:11min for the start of the discussion. It is certainly worth watching, you will get all the background that you need.

You are correct that the Planning Board does not have the authority to order another committee to act. However, after viewing the video, you will see that the EDC had no other choice to get the process started.

I would highly recommend that you attend the Planning Board meeting on August 16th. the PUBLIC HEARING: Proposed Downtown District Bylaw, Zoning Map & Design Guidelines is scheduled.
If you feel that this is a housing plan, you should raise your issue in the public hearing meeting.

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6 Concerned Resident August 17, 2021 at 9:25 AM

Claire, sorry but completely disagree with you on the matter. This was and remains an EDC started and sponsored initiative. Now it looks like BOS has drunk the kool-aid. This is a completely unnecessary candy store giveaway to benefit and enrich developers at the taxpayers expense. It is not an economic plan, it is a housing plan. The stakeholders are all of us, the residents who will be overwhelmed with clog, standing emissions, and traffic. This is the wrong plan for the wrong location. It’s like putting a traffic clog cork in a bottleneck on this one of the few east-west roads in town.

The taxpayers need to see the Sewage Treatment Plan Report discussed at last night’s planning board meeting. That is a public document (who cares if it’s draft, it’s public and a public matter) that needs to be posted immediately! How about the millions in taxpayer funded costs for the sewage treatment plant? Who is paying the forever operating costs on that? For a housing plan. Not an economic plan. Taxpayers should fund someone else’s sewage? What kind of bullshit is that? What about the storm water? That area floods as it is. The geology doesn’t support this density. There is a 2010 article and comments on this very blog that points out that the corner lot at 2 Main Street did not perk! How did it get permits if it is true that it didn’t perk? Why should taxpayers pay for or subsidize in any way any of this ill planned mess?

The separation of powers and independence of BOS and others is necessary and should be paramount. We don’t need EDC or BOS doing Planning Board’s job. This entire initiative is misguided and smacks of poor amateurish planning. The noisy noisemakers want the candy store open and the free pass by elected officials on Planning Board. Voters just say no.

7 Density is good! August 14, 2021 at 11:06 PM

Imagine thinking Southborough’s downtown has any charm whatsoever. Lmao.

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8 Don’t be fooled July 25, 2021 at 7:33 AM

This is a housing plan. Sorry to be the one to state this but “downtown” Southboro is not attractive to the businesses you think you are going to get. We don’t even get them on Rt. 9 and amidst a pandemic restaurant’s, coffee shops etc… aren’t popping up they are closing. This is a bait and switch, don’t do it!

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9 Be Forewarned July 27, 2021 at 3:12 PM

Don’t Be Fooled is correct. The Economic Development Committee’s proposed rezoning, pitched as bringing new activities and services into our tiny Downtown, is in reality a housing plan, with little chance of any new activities. Let us examine this matter in more depth.

The first issue is a new use category, called Mixed Use. which is defined as follows: “Mixed Use Development: A development that includes both residential and nonresidential uses within a single structure. The ground floor facing the street shall be used for permitted nonresidential uses, and the total gross floor area occupied by nonresidential uses shall be at least 10 percent of the gross floor area of the structure.”

Reviewers at the Planning Board are commenting that 10% business use is far too low, and that a higher % is needed, to generate both desirable activities and higher tax revenue. If the minimum 10% is raised to 50%, this would result in a building with ground floor business, and upper floor apartments – which is what residents were suggesting. But while important, this revision of mixed use % will not be sufficient, on its own, to bring more business into downtown.

This is because of the second issue — there is a separate clause in the EDC zoning which nobody seems to have noticed. Clause C (6) allows “Multifamily housing, up to twelve units” — as the sole use on any lot, with no business at all (100% apartments). This is not permitted in the existing zoning, for good reason.

There is a serious problem with allowing multifamily housing to be the sole use on a lot, because our downtown is so tiny with so few available lots. Housing will crowd out other uses, particularly small businesses. It seriously decreases the chances of new businesses, because once multifamily housing is built on a vacant lot, that lot is no longer available for new business. This is critical in our tiny downtown, which has very few buildable, vacant lots. I count just two. Yes, that is right — two.

The key vacant lot lies at the corner of East Main and Newton St. We need to guarantee that whatever happens on that lot, new businesses will be included. It is not beneficial to downtown if that lot is allowed be be used exclusively for housing. Just imagine having a 3 storey apartment building on that corner — which will be allowed under the EDC zoning. This would not provide the activities that residents have said they want in downtown.

As it stands, the EDC rezoning should be rejected. Could it be modified to guarantee new businesses will result? Possibly — by first changing the 10% to 50% business in mixed use buildings, and second, by changing clause C (6) so that all multifamily housing has to be within mixed use buildings. For example ,thus: “C (6). Multifamily housing, up to twelve units, PROVIDED it is located within a mixed use development.”

Under no circumstances should we allow multifamily housing to be a sole use in the Downtown District. That is nothing but a housing plan, and will result in little to no new businesses.

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10 Tim Martel July 28, 2021 at 12:32 PM

This is an interesting one. Your are both right and wrong. But mostly right, I think.

The current Business Village zoning does allow for multi-family housing upon permit from the Planning Board, as such “Multifamily dwellings if within a major residential development”.

See the bylaw here – https://ecode360.com/9539547

The proposed Downtown District use around multi-family housing, while still requiring a permit from the Planning Board, seems to bypass the major residential development requirement. That should be cleared up. It also allows up to 12 housing units, which is rather severe in this area of town and particularly without a commercial use to justify the density.

I would suggest tightening up the language so that we have consistency between similar permitted uses, especially when zones overlap. The change to the multi-family use as currently written for the DD zone is going to sink this warrant article at Town Meeting.

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11 Be Forewarned August 6, 2021 at 2:57 PM

Tim Martel (above) is technically correct – Multi-Family (MF) housing is already permitted, by existing zoning, within the Village Business Zone (to be called Downtown) — but only if the MF housing is part of a “Major Residential Development” (MRD). In reality, however, developing a MRD within downtown is not physically possible, because there is not enough land area. That is why MF housing has never been built downtown.

This will change under proposed zoning. In future, MF housing will become possible, and very likely. This is counter to the objective of enticing new small businesses, because small businesses will probably be displaced from the few available lots by new MF housing. The downtown area is simply too small to accommodate both. Let us examine this in more detail.

For a LINK to Major Residential Development (MRD), zoning 174-13.2, see the link in Tim Martel’s letter (above).

To explain why it has never been possible to build MF units as part of a MRD, within downtown, it is necessary to follow two rules in the existing zoning. First, MRD is defined as the creation of 8 or more lots or units. Second, no more than 2/3rds of the units can be MF housing (Para D (5) (b). Thus, for instance, up to 5 of 8 units can be MF, while the remaining 3 of 8 must be single family houses. Anyone familiar with the tiny scale of our downtown can immediately see that a MRD, which must follow these two rules, would be far too large to fit into downtown. It is not physically possible. There are no parcels large enough.

You might well ask, if MRD is not physically possible within the Village Business zone, why was it allowed there in the first place? MRD was initially intended for the much larger, vacant land areas of Residential A (1 acre lots) and Res B (1/2 acre) , where it was intended to encourage flexible road layouts and save open space. So why was it allowed downtown? Possibly because zoning language often follows a common convention, allowing a hierarchy of uses. For instance, ALL uses allowed within RA and RB are also allowed within the Village Business zone, as in this sentence: “Permitted uses are as follows. (1) All uses permitted in the residential districts (RA and RB)”. Thus, for example, a single-family house is technically allowed in the Village Business zone, even though it is very unlikely to be built there. Likewise, MRD is also technically allowed, even though it is practically infeasible.

This brings us to the main question — What is the difference between existing and proposed zoning for downtown, with respect to housing? Existing zoning allows MF housing if within a MRD, but because a MRD is physically impossible, so also MF housing cannot be built under existing rules. In contrast, proposed zoning allows MF housing as a sole use (it does not have to be part of a MRD). Therefore, in future, MF housing will not only be permitted, but it will also become practically feasible for the first time, and it will instantly become the most economically profitable use for developers.

In conclusion, under the proposed rules, MF housing will become viable for the first time. So much so, that it is likely to displace small businesses which would otherwise occupy the very few vacant lots available in our tiny downtown. Just two buildable lots remain vacant. What do you want to happen to our tiny downtown? For instance, do you want the key lot at the corner of Main and Newton to be developed as a 3 storey multifamily apartment building — instead of new businesses?

I may be mistaken, but I thought residents wanted to give top priority to encouraging a variety of new business activities, not housing. So I stick with my earlier recommendation (first letter above) – to either delete MF housing as an allowed use, or to limit it to the upper floors of Mixed Use buildings, with new businesses below. This will allow both uses, and minimize competition for limited space.

I hope our Planning Board will consider this matter, of giving higher priority to new business activities. Hopefully they will make their own specific recommendations to Town Meeting

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12 R Jackson August 9, 2021 at 3:00 PM

Thank you, Be Forewarned! This information is extremely informative. You’ve done more to explain the risks in one blog post than EDC and their consultants have done in 3 years. We should be paying you some of the grant funds.
Absolutely not the plan we need. VOTE NO!

13 Jack Barron August 5, 2021 at 8:00 AM

Where is the language preventing any future land takings by eminent domain to grow this bad development idea. Neighbors be prepared the Selectmen at some time will cave to developer pressure and take your homes to build large condos and apartments. Laugh all you will, but that is your future.

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14 beth August 5, 2021 at 9:03 AM

Eminent domain would require 2/3 vote of Town Meeting. It is not up to selectmen alone.

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15 Don’t be Fooled August 17, 2021 at 10:41 AM

Thank you be fore warned and Tim. This should be a no brained for residents to say no. On top of creating a path for massive high density housing downtown you will also be asked to pay for a sewage treatment plant using tax dollars. This is all to benefit developers. We can’t even get playing fields on par with surrounding communities.

Remember who is leading this charge in the EDC. Commercial real estate professionals guiding the processes and in my opinion misleading taxpayers into false multi-use zoning. Thank goodness we shot down use variances and for this reason. ZBA would’ve forced the citizens to fight this in court while making a unilateral decision (i.e Park Central). Keep Southboro and it’s charm. If you want high density housing complexes please go to westboro or Framingham and hang out in some of those areas. It’s not good for the town and I frankly don’t want to subsidize this via taxes and sewer.

Don’t be fooled!

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16 R Jackson August 23, 2021 at 1:26 PM

Go to the EDC homepage under Downtown Initiative tab and take a look at two PDF documents – Wastewater Feasibility Study and the Cost Funding. How about that sewage treatment plant installation behind School Street on the N-Star property? Tax payers will incur millions of dollars in start up cost and annual operating cost in perpetuity. Raising taxes and adding extra fees to your water bills is just the start. No thank you, EDC!

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