EDC forum on Downtown challenges and hopes: Septic constraints, zoning changes, and more

Above: A number of residents attended EDC’s forum last week. They were urged to support quick action on a vision to revitalize downtown Main Street. (cropped from SAM video)

Last week, the Southborough community was invited to another forum on the Downtown Initiative. The public was briefed on experts’ recommendations for revitalizing the downtown area of Main Street. The Economic Development Committee also shared some of the obstacles and thoughts on how to overcome them.

Among the most daunting challenges identified in the report were major septic limitations and an unclear path to success for new businesses.

On Thursday, the EDC made it clear that they will be looking for community support as they seek solutions to those issues. It is looking for quick, meaningful action by the Town. 

Member Chris Robbins said that this isn’t an EDC specific project, though they are chairing some aspects. He lamented that some of the people from other boards and departments “critical to making this happen” weren’t  there. He urged the public to push other boards and departments  to help bring the vision to fruition:

the key thing is, we can’t wait another 10 years. And we need to accelerate performance in a high quality way.

That was echoed by member David McCay. He opined:

we have a window that may be closing before too long, before the economic tailwind that we’ve got turns into a headwind and makes the kinds of improvements we’re talking about more difficult.

The Urban Land Institute’s study of downtown included suggestions for “quick wins” along with long term strategies. The forum itself fit within “Develop a Consensus on Downtown Development”. The plan called for engaging “the citizenry” to help “Create a Downtown Vision and Action Plan”.

The forum was offered in part to allow residents to propose solutions and ask questions. In turn, residents warned the committee about other potential obstacles. But overall, the feedback was positive with residents hoping for improvements downtown.

One of the challenges that ULI had highlighted was “Lack of a Shared Vision Among Stakeholders”. A resident they quoted within that passage disagreed.

ULI wrote:

While some favor plans up to and including mixed-use development and added height or density, others are staunchly opposed to any change to the historic nature of the district. As one stakeholder bluntly stated, “We’re going to fight like hell over anything we don’t like.” Conversely, one business owner described the measures taken to maintain the historic look of the DVBD as “extreme” and of having the effect of stunting growth. Others seemed willing to accept some change as long as the historic character of the center is retained, (i.e. no chain store retail), which seemed to be the general consensus.

Main Street resident Steve Phillips took credit for the “fight” quote. He clarified that it was based on a perception that EDC was being advised to avoid making noise so they could slip changes through. He expounded:

It was our duty to enlighten [ULI] that Southborough is not that kind of Town.

Phillips opined that people are less polarized than ULI presumes. He said issues are complicated, pointing to the overlap in the historic district and business village plus the mix of residences, and town and school owned properties. He posited that for most it’s a question of how to redevelop responsibly without losing a sense of antique.

One of the longer term fixes ULI recommended was addressing the “Waste Water Issue”. The report said the lack of a septic system capacity is the “primary barrier” to revitalizing downtown. 

At the start of the night, Public Health Director Paul Pisinski addressed the issues. He explained that some tributaries to the reservoir start downtown. Basic septic systems can’t be installed within 200 feet of the feeds to the water supply. Plus, some properties are already in cesspool failure. The septic issues are impediments to many businesses – especially restaurants which have a “large biological demand”.

The ULI report recommends forming a sewer assessment technical committee. 

Pisinski detailed that any sewer system would have to be “homegrown” with treatment dealt with in town. Framingham won’t accept any additional sewage from Southborough in its pipes. He was skeptical that Southborough would be willing to invest in the expense of a treatment plant. 

Pisinski told the audience that two times in past years, Town Meeting voters rejected paying $30K for a feasibility study on a sewer system. That would now be much more expensive.

One potential solution for water treatment and/or parking for downtown was purchasing adjacent properties. Possibilities included an area behind the Southborough House of Pizza plaza or a parcel at the end of Park Street. EDC member Kathy Bartolini said that the committee filed for a state grant hoping for expert help to determine what can be done and is it economically feasible. She said if the grant doesn’t come through, they’ll look at other funding options.

Later in the evening, resident Al Hamilton cautioned the EDC about trying to raise capital through the Town. He reminded that other capital projects are impacting the the tax base and putting pressure on budgets for Town departments we expect services from. Chair Julie Connelly responded that they know they won’t be getting money from the Town now and “probably not ever”. They will likely be looking to the business community for help.

ULI’s report suggested alternate funding sources. One short term method was crowdfunding. A longer term suggestion was forming districts with a special tax or fee to support improvements – Business Improvement Districts (BID) or District Improvement Financing (DIF).

Connelly said that where Town help is needed is getting zoning and plans ready so they have something to offer potential downtown businesses. The EDC is looking for changes to the zoning code to make the process clearer.

Later, Zoning Board of Appeals Chair Craig Nicholson explained to the room that businesses people want to come downtown are separate from the people who create the buildings to house them. Developers need to see a clear path for approval to be able to attract a tenant. And without a tenant, a bank is unlikely to finance a project.

The ULI report recommended changing zoning to be design based instead of use based:

which in turn will reduce the need for special permits or variances. This will streamline the approval process by establishing by-right development so that projects that comply with the zoning standards can receive their approval without a discretionary review process. It will also provide a greater degree of predictability for potential businesses, landlords and tenants.

The EDC and residents referred to the “ZAC bylaw” a several year effort to rewrite the entire zoning code that stalled out – never making it to Town Meeting.* McCay said that not following through was a “collective Town failure”. The EDC is now looking for help to move zoning changes forward. That could follow the ZAC “blueprint” or take another form.

Residents warned that any changes should be tackled through smaller, focused efforts. David Parry said that taking the entire zoning code to Town Meeting would be longer than three Town Warrants combined. There would be too many objections. They should focus on pulling simple pieces through. Later he noted that even changes for just the “Business Village District” would impact Fayville and Cordaville villages. He recommended creating a new district just for downtown. Later, McCay said he believed the ZAC did include specifics for downtown.

Hamilton agreed with the focused approach. He said that a zoning overhaul would probably be a “prescription for failure” at Town Meeting. Residents objecting to “one paragraph” would add up to too many to get 2/3 approval.

Main Street resident Ray Hokinson said that the final version of ZAC wasn’t too controversial. But it took over two years of attending weekly meetings to get there. He believed a zoning reboot would be another couple year effort. He advised tweaking the ZAC in pursuit of a “vibrant downtown”. 

Residents raised concerns about rundown streets with potholes, lack of sidewalks and traffic. Those were ones that EDC members hope will be mostly addressed by two Main Street road projects slated to start this spring.

The state run big Main Street reconstruction project will add turning lanes to the traffic lights, more sidewalks, and bike lanes. A second Town run project will fix the area East of Park Street and add sidewalks down part of Newton Street and Boston Road. That second project will look largely the same as now but cleaned up. Main Street resident David Parry called on the board to push for more in the Town run project. He suggested nicer sidewalks, possibly brick.

Throughout the night, several references were made to the mixed use project planned for 2 East Main Street. Capping off public comments, developer Peter Bemis updated the room on his project’s status.

Bemis explained that having a residential component was critical. When the former Building Inspector informed him that he’d overlooked a section of code, he hung his hat on that. (That appears to be reference to Mark Robidoux’s assessment that hotel zoning allows for residences in the same building as businesses.)

After learning that Robidoux was leaving in the fall, Bemis waited for a new inspector to be hired and settled in before moving ahead with next steps. He will be proceeding with the project, which includes going before the Planning Board.

Referencing McCay’s earlier statements, Bemis acknowledged that the changes in the economy influenced decisions to hold off on the project for years then move ahead.

As long as the above recap was – there was more covered in the forum and the report. I found the report interesting (And, if you quickly skim the pages setting the stage, it’s not that long of a read. The real meat starts on page 14.) You can view that here. The forum was only about 90 minutes and you can view that courtesy of Southborough Access Media here.

*There’s a whole long history on the stalled out zoning reforms. The bulk of the work done pre-dates me. (You can read Susan’s earlier coverage through early spring 2013 here.)

The 2008 Master Plan called for making changes to the zoning code. From 2008-2012 a Zoning Advisory Committee worked on revamping the code to controversial results.

The project was then booted over to the Planning Board which targeted 2012 Town Meeting for a vote on new bylaws, then a special fall 2013 Town Meeting. Article proposals cancelled both times. Cancellations followed public criticisms about communications and certain aspects of the code.

In 2014, on advice of their new (now former) Town Planner, they changed their tactic to address the bylaws in sections rather than as a whole. They started with a “Site Plan Review” Article for Annual Town Meeting in 2014. The board withdrew it on the floor, promising to bring it back the following year. That never happened.

Planning has successfully brought other zoning bylaws to Town Meeting since. But they have been unrelated to the ZAC project, covering issues related to solar projects, marijuana, historical adaptive reuse, and changes to the zoning appeal process. 

The board has representatives on an Open Space Bylaw Subcommittee that has been doing some work. But that has yet to result in a bylaw for Town Meeting. This year, Planning is bringing a tree focused bylaw to Town Meeting in support of becoming a Tree City USA.

In 2016, the board talked about hiring a consultant to help them with overall zoning changes. That’s the last update I have on overall zoning initiatives. 

Starting this spring, the Planning Board is responsible for overseeing work on a new Town Master Plan.

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New Resident
4 years ago

As a new resident I very much enjoy the quaintness of Sboro but can’t help look to surrounding towns and marvel at just how just how pathetic the downtown is. We have been very impressed with the efforts of residents in terms of putting on community events but the downtown is just a wasteland as a public space.

The inability to navigate safely recreationally (biking, running, walking), lack of play and open space (not owned by a private school) and lack of small local business make for a depressing experience. Not to mention what is developed (mainly the plaza) is unsightly and does not appear well utilized.

The contrast of the will of people to put on these events and attend these meetings stands in sharp contrast the inability to get anything done over such a long period. Maybe it’s not fair or I am reading this wrong. Main St seems promising but would have been much better had burying the power lines been included.

Will continue to participate and maybe learn as we move forward.

10 year resident
4 years ago
Reply to  New Resident

Well said! I couldnt agree more. Residents want to come together. Downtown is in a sad state. Murro’s store is fine, but did the renovation need to include giant ciggarette adverts? Trashy. Where are the cute cafes and restaurants with patios? Put businesses on Main Street that encourage residents to come together. Cute shops and maybe a few businesses that bring in customers from other towns. We need more businesses like Tomasso’s. We could build something cute and quaint and useful. People are desperate for it!

Long time Resident
4 years ago
Reply to  New Resident

This gets my goat. Did you not have a look around before you moved in? And now that you are here you want us all to change for you.
Main St. is not a “wasteland.” It’s a street were people live.
As for the use of the word “pathetic”…well, I will refrain from commenting on that.

New Resident
4 years ago

We did look around. And we weighed location, cost, schools, community, housing market and lots of other factors. We decided to move in for the parts we love and work with the community to make improvements on the things we thought needed it.

I would hope a community would be looking for more residents who want to help improve the community. We might differ on our perspective… but give me engaged over complacent any day.

Julie Connelly
4 years ago
Reply to  New Resident

Thank you, New Resident and 10 Year Resident for your input. We can certainly both love our community and want to improve it and find more places and ways to bring it together. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just finding someone who wants to open a cute café. We need to have the infrastructure, waste water treatment, and proper zoning in place to allow proprietors to be able to open businesses. That’s the less glamorous hard work that the EDC is focused on now. We’ll be sharing more information and welcome input and participation. Thank you to all who attended the event. We know it is not always easy to come out to Town Hall on a weeknight, but we were thrilled with the turnout and hope you found it worthwhile.

4 years ago

Slow down. Let’s start with assigning someone (DPW head?) with the task of overseeing basic upkeep of downtown. Cracked sidewalks, fading crosswalks, out-of-place guardrail. Then we can move on to bigger improvements.

4 years ago

Right, someone needs to be assigned to oversee upkeep. As simple as that. Maybe it’s the DPW?

Matthew Brownell
4 years ago

Candidly, many of the roads in Southborough are in poor shape.

The road adjoining our neighborhood ( Lovers Lane ) is in the worst condition I’ve ever seen it . . . like the pockmarked surface of the moon. There are gigantic dead oak trees overhanging the roads ( from drought, winter moth infestation, etc). These are town trees, since the tree base is right by the side of the road.

When the overhanging limbs , 50 -80 ft up, come crashing down (one already has) , it is with enough weight and force to injure or kill . , . not to mention take out the electric power to avoid share of Southborough’s residents,

So, before I jump on the Economic Development Commission happy cart of major downtown development projects, or installing 6-figure lighting projects to athletic fields, I would like some commitment and assurance that Southborough’s town leaders can handle the fundamental, basic upkeep of roads.

Make sense?

John Kendall
4 years ago

I’m with you 100% on that. Fix the streets, take care of the numerous trees around town that are in bad shape. Then we can worry about pet projects

4 years ago
Reply to  John Kendall

Well said but remember the EDC is a group of developers, lawyers and commercial RE brokers looking for a project. We need to be careful on letting the steer the ship. This forum is also being used to their benefit to gain support through comment so don’t be fooled by what you read.

Concerned Voter
4 years ago

Not on board at all. Ridiculous run around by fee-based professionals.
Disband the EDC. Save the tax dollars.

4 years ago

The issue and discussion of ‘how to enhance OUR unique identity as a New England / MA town” reminds me of the Monte Python movie, Life of Brian, where the ‘conspiring disciples’ gather round their hidden lair to form an ACTION PLAN to save our Lord, but first must decide on parliamentary procedure to even commence a debate. For so long, its been comical, but now its more sad.
“Oh my, what to do?” how about …. anything that ‘enhances the identity of our town?”
Lets start by cataloging the simple improvements that 1) are generally agreed upon, 2) will fit into a meager budget and 3) can be coordinated in concert with the Main St improvement project. So what do i mean?

1. Match the downtown ambiance with utility … that which will unify the look & feel and create a focal point of community. Certainly make certain that the sidewalks are fixed, road will be repaved anyway, aesthetics are appealing and highlight history of the town, sponsored flower barrels etc. Nice!
2. What ‘other uses’ or attractions can be incentivized (public/private partnership) to bring residents to the center in ‘off hours (weekends, evenings, etc). Cleaning up the ‘brownfield lot’ on corner of Main and Newton can be accomplished and used for park, vendors, crafts, Pavillion, etc. Something. What would appeal to YOU? Coffee shop/beer & wine/ music venue, ‘open microphone’ night, local entertainment, ?? Anything that we brings people together to shop at local merchants on Main St.

you get the picture. Just seems so dreary downtown… ideas?

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