This fall, a proposed office building at the corner of downtown Main and Newton Streets failed to get Planning Board approval for a Special Permit. An appeal has been filed in Land Court.
The project at 2 East Main Street was initially proposed by developer Peter Bemis as a mixed use building with upstairs dwellings.* The project concept had widespread support, but also a few key critics. Planning Board member Meme Luttrell argued that zoning laws were being misapplied. And an abutting business owner, Steve Mauro, raised concerns about drainage issues in the area.
Zoning Board of Appeals approved mixed commercial zoning uses at the site. But Bemis still would have had to get Site Plan approval from the Planning Board for Site Plan Review.* This summer, Bemis brought a revised proposal for an office building to the Planning Board for a Special Permit and Site Plan Review. He explained to the board that he believed the new project would be more likely to be supported. He also volunteered that he had a party interested in office space at that site. He noted that if the party pulled out, he would return to the board with different plans.
In the end, the revised project failed to get the super majority needed for a special permit.
Although, office buildings are a by-right use in the Business Village, anything over 2,000 square feet requires a Special Permit. The proposed 2 story building with 3rd floor dormers was listed as 6,751 square feet. The size and scale for the downtown corner is what drew public objections from abutters and No votes by two Planning Board members.
In October, when I looked back to see the outcome of the September vote, I missed the import. The board had voted 3-2 for both the Special Permit and Site Plan Approval. Until last Friday, I missed that 4 votes were needed for the Special Permit. Today, the Town Planner confirmed that an appeal has been filed against the permit decision.**
When the project went in front of the Planning Board, it again had some verbal support from abutters and from the Economic Development Committee. The vacant lot at the highly visible corner, downtown Main Street has been publicly lamented over the years. But Mauro and East Main Street abutter Mary Quirk voiced concerns about the large building’s potential impact on area drainage problems.
Over multiple nights of hearings, the Planning Board and Bemis hashed through details around parking, sidewalk access, drainage, setback, and other issues. At the final night of hearings in September, Mauro opined the building was too large for the corner. He argued that approving it would forever alter the unique district. Members Meme Luttrell and Marnie Hoolahan also noted issues with the size. Later, another abutter, Karen Sokel of Newton Street, said she hadn’t realized until that night how large the building was. She thought the size should be reduced.
(It’s worth noting that a rendering the developer shared at the start of the hearings appears to show more green space at the corner than the true plans. At that time, Bemis told the board that the rendering was for the general appearance of the building and wasn’t completely accurate. He pointed them to the actual plans for the true details. Below is the original rendering and the most recently posted plans.)
After the hearings were closed, Luttrell and Hoolan made clear that the size stood in their way of approving the project as submitted. Luttrell objected to the visual impact to the area, while Hoolahan focused on the site lines of the large building on the corner.
Chair Don Morris said that members should clarify what size she would want the project limited to in conditions. Luttrell suggested that 5,000 sq ft would be more appropriate for the area. Hoolahan supported the suggestion saying she’d be fine with setbacks for a building that size. Zack Bemis informed the board that Peter wanted the project to be voted on as proposed. Members wondered how the size limit would impact footprint and height. Resident Tim Litt asked how they could consider something significantly different than proposed after the hearing was closed. The board agreed with his point and scrapped discussion of a size condition.
Luttrell and Hoolahan voted against the project permit and the Site Plan. In a follow up memo from Town Counsel, he clarified that the Site Plan is considered approved under the 3-2 vote. However, he wrote that the project can’t go anywhere without a special permit which did require 4 votes.
On October 25th, the Economic Development Committee discussed sending a letter to the Board of Selectmen objecting to Planning’s decision. Minutes state the letter should be “forceful but tactful” and “make clear that the decision by the Planning Board has many negative consequences without making it personal.” Since the Planning Board is an independently elected entity, I’m not clear what EDC members hoped the letter’s effect would be.
Meanwhile, the EDC has continued to advocate for an Article to allow Mixed Use Zoning to be brought to Town Meeting. At the opening night of the Planning Hearings, EDC Chair Julie Connelly noted her disappointment that the developer wasn’t pursuing mixed use, something she believed was needed downtown.
*Current zoning doesn’t cover combining residences and businesses. Bemis applied under guidance from the former Building Commissioner that the four upstairs residences could be applied for as non-transient hotel units. Town Counsel opined that the Building Commissioner was wrong in his interpretation of the zoning bylaws. The ZBA convinced Bemis to remove the specific request for non-transient hotel units. They approved mixed commercial uses allowed under the bylaws. If Bemis wanted to pursue including the residential units, he apparently would have had to convince the Planning Board that they were covered by the zoning uses despite Town Counsel’s opinion.
**The Land Court lists an appeal filed on October 23rd by Watershed Investment Corp against the Planning Board. (Watershed was listed on the project’s presented site plans.) The appeal is scheduled for a case management conference on December 18th. On Monday, the board will discuss that case in closed Executive Session.
Updated (12/5/19 10:28 am): I originally mischaracterized the ZBA’s approval as going against Town Counsel to allow non-transient hotel rooms. After ZBA member Debbie DeMuria reached out to clarify, I updated the post. You can see more detail on that here in yesterday’s dedicated post.