Residents have their say on village zoning

Proposed changes to village zoning have elicited a strong response from residents, and last night an impressive number turned out to share their opinions at a public hearing. The exchange was (mostly) civil, and in the end it seemed to have an impact.

“We thought we were doing the right thing,” Zoning Advisory Committee (ZAC) co-chairman Dana Cunningham told the standing-room only crowd at Cordaville Hall. “Speaking for me, there’s no doubt we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board.”

‘Encouraging demolition’
What drew the most ire from residents was the proposal for an “overlay” district in the neighborhoods surrounding the four villages — downtown, Fayville, Cordaville, and Southville — that would allow by special permit some commercial development and multi-family housing in areas now zoned residential. When Cunningham asked for a show of hands of who was opposed to the overlay district, nearly every resident raised a hand.

The primary concern among residents was that the overlay zoning would encourage demolition of existing single-family homes in residential neighborhoods in favor of more profitable multi-family ones. “You’re encouraging demolition,” Latisquama Road resident Tom McCarthy said. “It’s all overkill. You’re killing the neighborhood.”

Demolition was also a concern for Main Street residents. Main Street homeowner Michelle Hokinson said the proposed changes would allow the historic homes along Main Street to be torn down and converted into businesses. “What protects these homes?” she asked.

“Our intention wasn’t for developers to come in, demolish homes, and build a Starbucks,” Cunningham said. “If it’s a concern, maybe we should exempt historic homes.”

‘Be careful what you ask for’
The ZAC has said one of the goals of the proposed zoning changes is to promote development downtown, but several residents wondered whether there is a demonstrated need to justify the changes.

In particular, residents pointed to the vacant lot at the corner of Main Street and Newton Street, owned by Southborough businessman Peter Bemis, as an example of the limited demand for downtown development. “Bemis hasn’t been able to do anything with that lot. He’s been looking for tenants for years,” McCarthy said. “The [downtown] area doesn’t seem to suit any more commercial development.”

“How about we clean up downtown and then see if people want to come there,” Lyman Street resident Sue Grinblatas said. “This is all premature.”

But one Newton Street resident said she would welcome additional businesses downtown. “I think it would increase property values if there were nice, little shops that you could walk to,” she said. “This plan is just what I was looking for.”

Southville Road resident Freddie Gillespie said just because a village is zoned a certain way, doesn’t mean you’ll get the development you hope for. “Rezoning doesn’t guarantee a Starbucks, a bookshop, and cute shops,” she said. “Be careful what you ask for.”

Biting off more than we can chew?
The zoning revision project extends far beyond the villages. It’s a rewrite of the town’s entire zoning code, from Route 9 to open space to the villages and more. Ultimately, all the proposed changes would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority of Town Meeting. That vast scope had some residents concerned.

“It’s hard to get town meeting to remove one parenthetical from one sentence … and here you are trying to rewrite the whole thing,” Davis Road resident and Advisory Committee member John Butler said. “I think it’s outrageously ambitious.”

Several residents recommended taking a more incremental approach with a deeper level of community engagement. “Pick a patch and get that patch right,” Butler said.

Cunningham agreed. “My recommendation is going to be to go in smaller increments,” he said. “There’s just too much stuff.”

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Kate Matison
12 years ago

Excellent, clear summary of last night’s meeting. My question to ZAC was how they would reconcile the proposed rezoning with the contiguous rows of historic houses that form the backbone of the villages and the Main Street center district. Both the Southborough Survey (2000) and the Master Plan (2008) recommended preservation of these historic neighborhoods . My concern is that rezoning could disrupt the integrity and charm of these districts, which the residents value. The Committee promised to respond after consulting Planning.

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