Planning and EDC reach apparent compromise on plan to revise mixed-use zoning for Downtown Business Village

Business Village Zoning cropped from Town's zoning map
(click to enlarge)

Right: The EDC is pursuing revised zoning for the Downtown Business Village as part of their “comprehensive” efforts to “revitalize” downtown. (image from Southborough’s Zoning Map)

Last week, the Economic Development Committee and Planning Board came to a tentative consensus on rewriting zoning to “revitalize” the Downtown Business Village.

The EDC is seeking to encourage mixed use projects downtown by allowing street level businesses and upper floor residences. The committee will draft bylaw revisions. In turn, Planning Chair Don Morris said that he believed his board would be committed to working with them to finalize a version to bring to Town Meeting voters.*

The agreement was a compromise between the role EDC sought Planning to take and the position the board had recently taken. Last Monday night, EDC members repeatedly offered to “do the heavy lifting”.  Yet, they pushed for Planning to collaborate on “verbage” of an initial draft. Morris insisted that writing the draft is the heavy lifting.

As with most compromises, neither party seemed fully satisfied. And while the groups walked away with a preliminary road map, the path to get there was rocky. 

During the discussion, Planning member Meme Luttrell called out  a “scathing” email sent out by the EDC Chair that morning. It charged that Planning was “not willing to work with the EDC to modify zoning in any meaningful way”. That was just one of several statements in the message that Luttrell labeled as “misinformation”.

Luttrell reminded that she was appointed to work with the EDC on zoning in October. She said the committee was supposed to name someone to work with her but never did.

EDC member David McCay explained that Connelly’s message was based on the impression that Planning left with him with at their April 8th meeting. He said the message wasn’t to “throw stones” but Planning made it clear that they wanted to “punt” the zoning issues to the Master Plan Committee. Later, EDC member Chris Robbins and Luttrell disagreed about what they expected after she attended an EDC meeting on the topic.

Morris halted the rehash. He said there was clear disagreement over the past, but they needed to focus on future steps. 

At the start of Planning Board comments, Morris told the EDC that he would never turn away a proposal brought by another committee. He believed his board would bring a proposed zoning article forward – whether it was with or without their support. He did warn that while everyone may agree on making improvements to downtown, there may be components that some would never agree on.

As for EDC’s pitch on the need to get “it” done, Morris said they need to agree on what “it” is. He posited that before teamwork starts,

Somebody has to draft that first “it”.

Morris advised the EDC to crib from bylaws in towns that they consider successful rather than reinventing the wheel. Once they have a draft, they could bring it to Planning. 

McCay told Morris that he believed that approach was a mistake. He suggested that EDC should instead create an outline summarizing what they want in a bylaw: setbacks, by right uses, uses by special permits, permit triggers, etc. Then EDC and Planning should have joint monthly meetings to work on it. Earlier, he had characterized the initiative as “community development”, and asserted that it shouldn’t be seen as a burden imposed by the EDC. 

Morris pushed back saying, that what he “heard” from EDC was that they would submit a first draft. When Robbins chimed in they would “collaborate” on the first draft, Morris gave a firm no.

Robbins still spun the outcome as positive, emphasizing the collaboration going forward. He made clear that EDC wants more than a report card from Planning. They want “high valued interaction” to work as a team.

Though not specified in the meeting, Connelly’s email had stated the EDC’s goal was to bring an article to a Special Town Meeting in the fall. Given the tone of last week’s discussion, that timeline seems ambitious. 

In the meeting, Luttrell and Planning member Phil Jenks questioned EDC’s premise that zoning remedies are urgently needed. Both pointed to other issues as currently standing in the way of downtown development. 

Jenks noted that the EDC’s commissioned study made clear the “showstopper” was septic problems. Connelly reiterated that the committee was addressing that separately. Later, EDC’s Kathy Bartolini assured that they were taking a comprehensive approach, not just zoning. That includes working with the Public Health Director and gathering information from other Town’s that resolved the septic issue. 

Jenks also insinuated that current zoning works for now. He referred to 2 East Main Street as “the one project” that needed a mixed use permit. It was approved, though it was “messy”. Saying that other downtown properties are already owned and used, he asked what happens once you add mixed use:

You wait for somebody to come along with a bundle of money and say, “I’ll buy your business and your building because I want to be the first to put in a mixed use?

Connelly countered that there are limited options for space, but there are some. She believed more would open in the future based on opportunity.

Heading into Monday night’s discussion, the main dispute between the committees was Planning’s plan to pursue zoning changes through the Town’s process to update the Master Plan. In her Monday morning email, Connelly charged:

The Planning Board so far has indicated that they are not willing to work with the EDC to modify zoning in any meaningful way. Instead, they have created a new Master Plan Committee to update a 2008 Master Plan. This course of action is insufficient for several reasons. . .

In the best case scenario, this approach will delay the EDC’s Downtown Initiative, which received overwhelming support from the residents in our Fall 2017 survey, by at least two years.

The email was a call to action. It urged residents to support their efforts by speaking out at that night’s meeting or emailing the chairs of Planning and the Board of Selectmen.

The tone Connelly took at last Monday’s meeting was more congenial. 

Over the first 15 minutes, she and McCay laid out their case that zoning changes were needed and wanted. Connelly referred to results of a study and past work by the Town that indicated the need for zoning changes downtown. She pointed to a 2017 survey indicating that 85% of residents were “amenable” to mixed-use if done correctly. She even pointed to the failed ZAC effort years ago to make sweeping zoning changes as showing support.** She observed that the business village piece of the proposal hadn’t been controversial.

That night, Connelly stressed that the Master Plan Committee isn’t charged with writing zoning code. They would just bring recommendations back to Planning on what should be done in terms of zoning. She opined that waiting for a report at the end of an expected 18 month process was counterproductive and futile:

We know what those [recommendations] are because nothing in zoning has changed. Nothing downtown has changed. None of the facts or mitigating factors have changed since 2008.

So, we know what the problem is. We know what the solutions are. And by stalling this, we’re really just kicking the can down the road for three years

Reiterating his position at the EDC’s Downtown Initiative Forum in February, McCay said the Town needs to act before “economic tailwinds” become “headwinds”.

Luttrell justified going through the MPC, which she chairs. 2/3 of Town Meeting voters need to pass zoning changes. She pointed out that if the MPC’s vision aligned with EDC’s it would be a huge advantage in gaining the broad support needed. And she didn’t believe it would take as long as EDC was indicating. She said they had already begun discussing the zoning issue in broad terms.

Jenks, who had also supported going through the MPC, told the EDC he was giving them a gift by stepping down soon. (He isn’t running for reelection in the May 14th Town Election.)

Later, Bartolini said that as a member of both committees, she can bring the drafts of the initiative to MPC for feedback along the way.

In discussing Connelly’s email, Luttrell also refuted the following statement:

Six months ago, the EDC approached the Planning Board requesting simple amendments that would not change Planning Board oversight of Downtown projects or the rural character of Downtown, but would permit small-scale, controlled mixed use to allow apartments or condos to share building space with ground-level commercial use.

The Planning member said there is no such thing as a simple zoning change because changes can have unintended consequences. And the draft EDC proposed didn’t address mixed use, it simply adds a use. It would allow apartment buildings downtown and anything that anyone lived in. The amendment also sought to increase the size of projects approved outside of a Planning Board hearing process.

McCay disagreed with her assertions. He claimed that the added use was clearly only within the mixed use section of the code and that the changes wouldn’t change Planning oversight.

During the discussion, there were multiple references to the failed ZAC.* EDC members said that they would be looking at some of the information from that work. Jenks advised there’s a lot of good stuff to “cherry pick” from, “but don’t call it ‘the ZAC'” given the negative associations many had with the process.

This Tuesday night, the Board of Selectmen are scheduled to discuss the downtown initiative and bylaw updates. That meeting will be held in the Town House Hearing Room at 6:30 pm. The item is last on the agenda.

*While Morris seemed to believe his board wouldn’t turn away a draft from EDC, there wasn’t a majority vote to support the plan. Luttrell, and Jenks were the only other attending members of the Planning Board meeting on Monday. Jenks is stepping down and Luttrell expressed skepticism about working on zoning revisions before getting more feedback from the MPC. Members Mills and Stein had supported working through the MPC at the previous discussion on April 8th.

**For those of you not familiar with “the ZAC” – In 2009, the Town began a process to replace the zoning codes. The Zoning Advisory Committee worked on a proposal for years. Voters never actually got a chance to reject it. The rollout was delayed multiple times, partially due to controversies and lack of consensus. Finally, the Planning Board scrapped the effort, intending to instead take on zoning changes one piece at a time. Since then, the board has only addressed specific new zoning issues not revising sections of the old code.

Morris – who had co-chaired ZAC for years – objected to it being referred to as a failure last Monday. He explained that the difficulty had been that people were looking for a document that highlighted the changes from the old zone to the new proposal. But since it was a completely new format, that proved difficult. The entire big rewrite proved to be too big for the public too support. And small sections couldn’t be brought forward due to overlaps.

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Taxpayer Alert
5 years ago

Who is the EDC to be pushing around Planning Board? The EDC are noisy bullies who display inappropriately aggressive behavior to an elected Board and get along with no one. They are teeing up next deals and fees for fee based professionals. Many of them allegedly have direct conflicts of interest or appearances of conflict.

Take a look at their Conflict of Interest forms and other letters. See the COI form of Attorney Dave McCay, former Chair and current member, which states he is a [removed street name] resident and partner in his firm. His attorney partners work directly for Capital Group and Depietri (also a [same removed street name] resident, by the way). He sits on both the Marlborough EDC and the Southborough EDC. It is not possible, in my opinion, to represent the interests of one town over the other for potential business and not be conflicted — but there it is. He does not belong on this board and should resign.

While on the EDC, one of his attorney partners, Robert Gibbons, wrote a threat letter (?!) on behalf of Depietri / Capital Group to Planning Board on the highly controversial Park Central. Later, in a truly unbelievable moment, McCay is involved in the marketing of the Depietri / Capital Group owned Park Central site by EDC to Amazon.

This firm and its partners are doing direct business with Depietri / Capital Group. Pay attention folks and ask questions. The voters are owed explanations and the town deserves better members with no conflicts or appearances of conflict.

This most recent round of the EDC spreading misinformation by email as described in the article above is allegedly illegal. This type of select emailing allegedly constitutes “campaigning” by a committee, which is not allowed by law. Those responsible must be publicly questioned at the next BOS meeting and held accountable to state standards by BOS. BOS must show leadership on this matter and stay out of the EDC’s favoritism and bias to the development community over the impact to residents who live in the areas of EDC’s target. Fairness and balance please.

The EDC bully advocates should be pushed out or resign and make way for new members with no conflicts or appearances of conflict. Time for answers, accountability, change, and new members with new ideas.

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