Downtown Initiative update: Selectmen holding forum Feb 16 on proposed zoning changes

Above: The Town’s proposal for revamping zoning bylaws downtown will be presented in a public forum a week from Tuesday. (images cropped from EDC materials)

At Annual Town Meeting, voters will be asked to adopt zoning changes proposed to revitalize the Downtown area. Here’s an update on the Town’s efforts.

Downtown Forum and Communications

In prior years, when selectmen have sought public buy-in on potentially controversial Warrant Articles, they’ve hosted public forums. They will be relying on zoom for that this year.

The Board of Selectmen plans to partner with the Economic Development Committee to hold a public forum on Tuesday, February 16 at 7:30 pm. The Town plans to mail an invitation to all abutters of the project and promote it to the general public.

As of yesterday, no mailing had gone out. But the EDC did share the document meant to be shared on “Downtown District Proposed Zoning Changes”.* Today, the Town posted information about the forum on its website.

Here are highlights from the “Information update for residents and businesses”. 

The packet pitches a need for revitalizing downtown. It paints a new vision:

A walkable and well-connected small town “Main Street” with locally owned restaurant and pub, lunch café, ice cream shop, boutique style stores and/or other small businesses as well as residential properties.

The document seeks to counter arguments that an initiative encouraging development would undermine the Town’s bucolic or small town character:

The lack of strategic and urban planning has resulted in an erosion of economic and community activity in our Downtown. What makes downtown Southborough unique, is its historic character of which much has been lost in the last 50 years. . . .By not taking any action, we are not preserving the downtown and we are not helping the few small businesses that are still there. We have to act now with adopting clear and updated zoning laws and design guidelines to attract commercial investments that are desirable for Southborough and make business sense to potential investors.

An appendix of “Then and Now” photos of downtown provides visual examples of downtown’s “erosion”.

As for how creating a special zoning district would support that goal, the packet states:

It is the purpose of the Downtown District to make mixed-use development options more readily available in the downtown area. In addition, to encourage thoughtful and distinctive development or re-development opportunities that prioritize a diversity of uses, use and design compatibility, accessibility, innovative parking solutions and overall compliance with the performance and design standards to follow

The packet refers readers to the EDC’s dedicated page where they can find renderings of the Committee’s vision. (You can view those “How it COULD Look” photos here.)

The packet’s introduction describes “a Community Development effort that will bring more local options and opportunities to Southborough residents and – simultaneously – help existing businesses currently operating in Downtown.”

proposed Downtown District zoneIt includes a recap of work the EDC and Town have done to date and some decisions made. An overview is provided of the zoning changes proposed. It also includes the map for the Downtown District, and the current version of the proposed bylaw to be discussed at the Planning Board Hearings.

What comes next

Selectmen’s Forum(s)

Selectmen discussed using the Downtown Forum to educate abutters before public hearings. They also consider it a “dry run” for their presentation at the Planning Board. As the official proponents of the Town Meeting Article, selectmen are required to present and answer questions from Planning and the public. They plan to partner with EDC. 

Since they aren’t zoning experts, selectmen discussed potentially having the consultant who helped draft the zoning Article on deck to help.

The February 16th forum may just be the first of multiple sessions hosted by the board. The forum will take place on the night of a regular BOS meeting. If public participation is too extensive to get through that night, they will schedule additional forums.

Planning Board Hearings

The Planning Board is scheduled to open its zoning Article hearings on February 22nd. They will continue to hold hearings from then until whenever the to-be-postponed Annual Town Meeting is held.

This week, selectmen discussed the potential for criticism of certain components of the bylaw by Planning and other boards. Although the bylaw was drafted with help from Planning members, the full Planning Board wasn’t involved. And Selectman Chelsea Malinowski, who also serves on the Southborough Housing Opportunity Partnership Committee, warned that SHOPC members were concerned about the Affordable Housing threshold.

The topic was a subject of concern and debate among selectmen and other officials who worked on the draft zoning. There was debate over the appropriate number of multi-family or mixed-use residential units should be that trigger requiring a percent to be affordable housing. Their consultant was pro multi-family but expressed skepticism that the area will attract affordable housing.

After hearing all of the “implications” of each choice, the group settled on requiring at least 12.5% of units in any project with 8+ residential units to be affordable housing that count towards the 40B inventory.

I copied the section of that discussion from the November 20th meeting minutes. You can read that summary here. (Or you can watch the recorded discussion here.)

Given past history with zoning bylaw changes, I’d presume other issues and concerns will be raised. Typically, officials the language of zoning and other controversial Articles based on public feedback. With Town Meeting on hold, I’m unsure when final language for the Article is due for the 2021 Warrant. But even after that deadline, it’s common for officials to make amendments – promoted in advance and proposed to voters at Town Meeting. (Of course, any voter can also propose their own amendments on Town Meeting floor.)

* I’m not clear if the Town is investing in mailing packets to each abutter or if a letter will point them to where they can find the pdf on the Town website.

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Michael Weishan
3 years ago

Not an auspicious beginning to see that the EDC ripped images without permission for their presentation from a copyrighted video, Ghosts of Main Street, ( which I produced for the Southborough Historical Society. When the EDC was informed that there would be a small fee to reproduce the images (as there is for everyone; it keeps the lights on) they demurred and just used them anyway.

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