Developer appealing denial of 2 E Main St special permit (Updated)

Above: A proposal for a building on the often publicly-lamented vacant lot downtown failed to get approval due to objections over the size/scale for the location. The developer is looking for Land Court to overturn the Planning Board’s decision. (images cropped from architectural drawings and plans)

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.)

Renderings of 2 East Main St revised proposal with parking cropped from plans2 East Main architectural drawings2 East Main architectural drawings

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.

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4 years ago

For years residents and the town complained about the lot going unused, over grown, and being an eye sore. A developer steps in, wants to build up the lot, and add businesses to down town which received an over whelming welcome by residents, but the usual loud “key critics” as you stated have continued to show that they are not business friendly and have made it incredibly difficult for ANYTHING to happen in this town. Shame on all of you.

The only eye sore this town has are these board members continuing their crusade of building up this town a complete nightmare and keeping Southborough from the growth that is happening in literally every boarding town.

4 years ago
Reply to  Townie

Developer buys lot subject to zoning laws at a price that reflect those zoning laws.

Developer decides development is not profitable under those zoning laws.

Developer seeks variance and is denied.

Developer goes to court.

Please. Cry me a river.

Note that the developer also appears to be sufficiently competent to understand zoning laws as he holds himself out as an approved civil engineer (PE) for septic systems.

4 years ago
Reply to  Townie

Just to clarify, this developer has owned this property for at least 15 years. The eye sore is all his.

4 years ago

I wonder what a 5,000 square foot building looks like? How would 5,000 square feet compare to, oh, let’s say the yellow building at the intersection of Southville and rt 85?
Can anyone give an example of a 5,000 square foot building?

Waste of time
4 years ago

Nothing will ever happen to move the downtown forward with the current planning board .both no voting members are anti development zealots who are driving their own agenda and misguided view of the future of Southboro. With the current makeup of the planning board and the very weak Chairman nothing will ever happen to move the downtown forward. I feel sorry for anybody who has to subject themselves to this board for any permits.

4 years ago
Reply to  Waste of time

The only “zealots” in this town are the irresponsible, scofflaw developers and their cronies who criticize planning board members who are actually doing the job. What’s the problem? They actually ask questions? and try to do the best possible job on behalf of the citizens? If you don’t like the board, the zoning law, or the process, go somewhere else where you think it is better. The citizenry can see right through the bla-bla. How about the town with a five time felon as one of their board heads? I would rather have smart, honest, decent Planning Board members who actually do the job than corrupt ropadopers.

4 years ago

I agree, it is unfortunate that it is so difficult to get anything done in this town, from fields, to main st, to a simple office building on main st, a dangerous intersection on Flagg and Deerfoot. Even things regarding public safety take an inordinate amount of time. Nothing gets done or takes way to too long and if often seems that the town always defaults to the vocal minority on these issues.

4 years ago
Reply to  ktp75

I don’t understand this term “vocal minority.” How do you know that those who are vocal are in the minority?
Anyway, I’m sure you have heard the saying about the squeaky wheel….

4 years ago

It all depends what the developers last name is, I’ll be nice and give no names

my town sb southborough
4 years ago

The Planning Board is the one and only board that considers law and bases the outcome of their decisions on the law, and appreciates what is BEST for Southborough, and aren’t involved with developers who benefit from desicions made on other boards. We are grateful to them all.

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