Monday night, the Planning Board will open public hearings on zoning related Warrant Articles slated for Annual Town Meeting. That includes the proposed zoning changes to create a “Downtown District“. Last week, the Board of Selectmen held a public forum on the Article.
Vice Chair Lisa Braccio explained that over the last 5 months, Town boards have collaborated in an effort to create a “consensus document” that addresses concerns and input. She stressed that they are looking for public feedback. The board and Economic Development Committee (which spearheaded the effort) expect to make changes based on comments and issues that will be raised in the public hearings. She encouraged residents to participate in Planning’s hearings.
Braccio introduction to the forum helped paint Town official’s vision:
A lot of work has gone on in the last 2-3 years with creating a vision of a vibrant downtown with green space, walkability, and options for mixed use. A place we can gather when Covid is over, grab a cup of coffee, have a bite, or frequent the local businesses that make our Town a success and also an attractive place to live.
She then turned it over to the EDC’s Julie Connelly. The presentation covered: a look at how downtown Main Street used to look vs now, the map identifying the district borders, past feedback supporting the need for improvements, why zoning changes were targeted, the purpose of the proposed zoning bylaw, the property uses that would be allowed “by right”, the purpose of separate Design Guidelines, what” Floor Area Ratio” referred to in the bylaw means, and what “Mixed Use” allows. (Click here for the recorded presentation. Click on thumbnails below to view the slides.)
Some of issues raised in the forum are ones that selectmen and the EDC are already seeking to hear back from their consultant on.
Since neither board is comprised of zoning experts, the Town hired consultant Judy Barrett (through a grant) to help them write up the zoning changes. They hope to have her available to assist during Planning Board hearings. (If she isn’t, you can expect some issues raised will require selectmen to promise to circle back on the issue at a future meeting.)
Based on comments, past discussions, and apparent discrepancies, below are issues I expect to be discussed/debated at the hearings.
By-Right Uses and Design Guidelines clarifications
By-Right Use issues
The zoning language allows a slew of permitted commercial and residential uses. That means that the use itself won’t trigger the need for Special Permit and a Major Site Plan Review hearings. The intent is to make it more welcoming for desirable development.
The right removes unnecessary hurdles for the projects the Town believes residents want to see. The list of uses is a signal to business owners/developers about the kinds of projects the Town wants to see in the zone. Selectmen also indicated that if the list is doesn’t reflect their wants, residents should let officials know through the Planning Board hearings what uses they would like stricken or added. (You can find the list under part 4 of the proposed bylaw, pages 2-3.)
One resident wondered if there should be a limitation on the number of certain businesses allowed. Connelly to acknowledged that a diversity of businesses is desired.
At least one commenter was concerned about the impact on downtown if businesses were coming in without Planning holding special permit hearings. Selectman Marty Healey told forum attendees that he wasn’t concerned about opening a “floodgate” because of Design Guidelines that the Planning Board will enforce.
But it appears to me that the some by-right use projects may not be required to adhere to the Design Guidelines.
The Draft bylaw reads:
The Planning Board may adopt design guidelines and apply them to major site plan approval applications regardless of whether a special permit is required.
At Planning’s February 11th meeting, member Meme Lutrell interpreted that the proposed bylaw only requires applying the Design Guidelines to projects that go through major site plan review. She seemed to indicate that by-right projects don’t automatically require Major Site Plan review. (Special permits and site plan review could be triggered by other non-use factors, like the scale or footprint of the project.)
The BOS and EDC Forum presentation included:
By-right uses are allowed, without the need for a special permit or major site plan review, so long as they meet the district standards and requirements specified in the zoning ordinance.
Design Guidelines outside of the bylaw and incomplete
The Design Guidelines aren’t included in the proposed bylaws. The rationale is that zoning bylaws can become outdated due to the major effort required to pass any revisions. (It requires a 2/3 vote by Annual Town Meeting and a lot of legwork leading up to it.)
To allow the guidelines to be updated over time as needed, the Planning Board will be responsible for creating, updating, and enforcing them. Connelly stated in the presentation that the Planning Board could put into the guidelines a requirement to hold public hearings before making changes. But that requirement isn’t stated in the zoning bylaw.
In addition, while there is a draft of the guidelines, Planning members have indicated it is far from complete. The indication was that the guidelines were simply pulled from existing zoning bylaws and the board hadn’t had a chance to review and discuss them. At their meeting on the 11th, members agreed that it would be necessary to create them prior to Town Meeting so voters understand what they would be. They were targeting having that done by late April.
Floor Area Ratios
Design Guidelines aren’t the only ways the bylaw controls the look of downtown. There are limits to by-right footprints and project scale. They include requirements around green space, placement of parking, setbacks, etc. They also include “Floor Area Ratios” (FARs). The 2nd-to-last slide in the presentation gave a visual overview of how the ratios work to cap the “sprawl” by limiting the portion of the parcel a building can take up based on its floor area.
As currently proposed FARs would be 0.35 by-right or up to 0.5 by special permit. That would mean that a one story building could only take up 35% of the lot by-right, and two stories only 17.5% of the lot or 25% by special permit. Three story buildings (allowed by-right but capped at 40 feet tall without a special permit) would be capped at taking up 11.7% of the lot by-right or 16.7% by permit.
Connelly previously raised the idea to selectmen that it might make more sense to have the FAR vary by the number of floors. Resident Timothe Litt suggested that FARs might not be the appropriate metric to define the site restrictions. He opined that it seemed they were trying to twist the metric to do something it wasn’t very good at.
Impact to abutters
One caller was “baffled” by the outlined area for the Downtown District. He referred to the map he received in the mail as different to what he’d previously seen online. (I couldn’t find any maps with a different shape. I can say that the orientation for how it has been displayed in communications – and therefore the blog – has varied)
Resident Kevin Miller questioned why the zone was drawn to encompass properties that backup to residential properties on Latisquama Road and Foley Drive.
Connelly acknowledged that if she was drawing the map she would have done it differently.
Resident John Walter voiced concern that officials ensure that lighting for downtown projects isn’t problematic for nearby residents. (He also raised issue of potential drainage impacts to abutters as his biggest concern. That’s covered in the next section.)
Downtown’s infrastructure issues
In the forum abutters to downtown made it clear that they were concerned about condition of the area. Part of that was the “atrocious” and “ugly” condition. But there were also concerns about the issues with stormwater drainage. And there was reference to the need for the Town to figure out the wastewater issues for the area in order to pursue new development.
Walter opined that drainage issues require a very extensive and deeper water management plan than just moving stuff around a little. Residents and officials referred to the Town’s efforts to negotiate easement rights with the railroad (CSX) in order to implement improvements. (Easement rights have been held up by a disagreement between CSX and one of the railroad’s abutters at Main Street, Mauro’s Cafe. I’ll be covering an update on that issue in a later post.)
As for the wastewater needs, the Town is in the process of contracting a feasibility study on the issue. An RFP brought in two proposals. Selectmen hope to award a contract at their next meeting. First, they are looking for the EDC, which pursued the grant for the study, to vote on the issue. They are also seeking any feedback from the head of Public Works.
Selectman Brian Shea referred to criticism/suggestions he has heard that infrastructure problems should be tackled before zoning changes are made. He asserted that it’s important to pursue them simultaneously. He opined that it is difficult to conduct an appropriate feasibility study on the wastewater needs without understanding what types of projects could be coming in.
Language issues and streamlining recommendations
Mixed Use language snafu
One of the main motivations pitched for a special district by the EDC was to allow “Mixed Use” projects by-right that combine residential and reasonable commercial uses. (In those projects, residential units would be either upstairs or in the rear, not in front-facing street level units.) Lutrell noted that the current language in the bylaw defeats the intent to streamline the process.
In addition to individual by-right uses, the bylaw allows by-right the combination of any of those uses. But to cover permitted residential uses as the bylaw only refers to uses allowed in the residential zones. Those zoning bylaws don’t cover the kind of mixed-use units the bylaw is attempting to attract. (As members noted, you wouldn’t sit a single family house on top of a commercial building.) That means that mixed commercial and residential use projects would require going through the special permit process.
Luttrell suggested adding language under permitted uses about a certain number of residential units in a mixed use project. It’s one of several comments that the board has already passed on to the EDC out of their February 11th discussions. (Most of the comments were clerical edits and questions about cloudy language that could be problematic to interpret and enforce. Those included requests for clarifying defined terms and adding more terms to that list.)
Accessory apartments and multi-family housing
Planning’s Jesse Stein also serves on the Southborough Housing Opportunity Partnership Committee (SHOPC). Referring to that role, he pointed out that the bylaw is intended to create more diversity in housing. He noted that like other Southborough zoning bylaws it requires that homeowners seek special permits to add an accessory apartment or convert their house to a two family home. He suggested moving those to the by-right list.
As I noted in a prior post, officials don’t all appear to be on the same page about how many residential units should be allowed before a percent are required to be affordable housing. On the 11th, Stein recommended lowering the threshold from eight to four units and raising the “at least” percent of affordable units from 12.5% to 25%. Selectmen were already aware that this would be a topic for further debate in the hearings. You can read more about how the group that drafted the bylaw arrived at the proposed calculation here.
The Planning Board hearing is scheduled to open at 7:30 pm on Monday, February 22nd. However, the hearing could be pushed later depending on the earlier agenda items. You can find the documents for the hearing, including the draft zoning language and preliminary draft of Design Guidelines here.
Although the Town Moderator intends to delay Annual Town Meeting to late spring, The Planning Board is shooting to have a final draft of the bylaw completed for the Warrant by early March.* However, the board generally keeps zoning hearings open at all/most meetings until Annual Town Meeting begins. That means that if the officials aren’t satisfied that that they have a final version by the deadline, they can continue to incorporate public feedback. A revised version could be proposed as an amendment on Town Meeting floor.
*The Town Code requirement that the Annual Town Meeting be opened by the last Saturday in March. State law requires posting the Warrant by 7 days in advance. Prior to printing the Warrant, the Town submits the Warrant to Town Counsel for review.