Selectmen to address concerns on Downtown zoning (including criticized map) – Tuesday

zoning map Downtown District and abutters

Right: Proposed zoning for the Downtown District has been criticized for utilizing a current map that extends into residential neighborhoods. Selectmen and consultants will address those concerns and others Tuesday night. (click to enlarge)

The Board of Selectmen has scheduled another forum on the proposed Downtown District zoning for Tuesday. This one is listed as a public hearing. Unlike their previous forum, the Board’s zoning consultants will be available to answer questions and provide clarity.

Selectmen hope the meeting will answer the public’s questions about why certain changes are proposed. (Or, as in the case of the map, why some changes aren’t.) They also hope to dispel what they refer to as misperceptions by many residents.

In the hearing, officials will be referring to potential revisions to their initial bylaw draft*. (That document has yet to be publicly shared.)

The revisions came out of Working Group meetings. Changes apparently include removing earlier requirements for FARs (Floor Area Ratios). (You can read more about FARs here.) At this week’s Board of Selectmen meeting, selectmen Lisa Braccio and Sam Stivers both said they weren’t convinced yet that the decision was the right one. Braccio noted that Planning Board’s Meme Luttrell also had concerns.

Braccio noted that they will continue to solicit and incorporate public feedback. The Board hopes to have a close to final version ready to insert in the Annual Town Meeting Warrant by late April. But, Braccio has acknowledged there may be more changes after that, as Planning Board hearings will continue up to the ATM scheduled for May 22nd.

Among other topics certain to be discussed on Tuesday are concerns raised by an abutter about the zoning map.

In multiple public meetings, resident Kevin Miller has said that he supports changes that encourage revitalizing business on downtown Main Street. He doesn’t agree with those changes extending into parcels on Latisquama Road and Foley Drive. (Many of the bordering parcels are split between the zone covered by the bylaw and the “Residential B” zone.)

Miller posited that developers could convince residential property owners to split their lots, so they can cobble together enough land for projects he believes inappropriate for his and neighbors’ backyards. He noted properties contiguous with CSX owned property that could have access to Park Street.

Although Miller has been the public voice for the concern, selectmen have indicated they also heard from others. At the Planning Board hearings, member Andrew Mills voiced shared concern over the issue.

Members of BOS and the Economic Development Committee have explained that they are using the existing map for the downtown section of the Business Village zone. Miller has argued that the EDC should have taken time to draw a new zoning map.

EDC’s Julie Connelly rejected that as requiring working with each owner of split lots. EDC members have pointed out that some of those residents may prefer the ability to sell off part of their lot to a commercial/retail developer. Miller noted that discussion as evidence that his concern is legitimate.

The rezoning has been pitched as not increasing any risk to abutters. Connelly has noted that the zone already allows commercial and retail uses.** 

Miller has countered by pointing to the increased list of uses that won’t require special permits. And it is true that EDC has pitched the zoning as reducing hurdles to encourage sensible development. 

EDC rebutted that while the by-right use list would grow, that doesn’t mean the types of buildings allowed would be more problematic. It’s worth noting that whatever zone a project falls under, it is still subject to the bylaws for Site Plan Review. That means large projects would still go through Planning Board hearings.

There are major differences in the authority and nature of oversight under Site Plan Review and Special Permits. Whether by the Planning Board of Zoning Board of Appeals, Special Permits are only to be granted if the board finds:

the proposal’s benefits to the Town will outweigh any adverse effects for the Town or the vicinity

In the past, Planning Board Chair Don Morris has stated the board doesn’t normally reject applicants’ Site Plans outright. Their role is to work with applicants on certain aspects of the Site Plan. Rejections generally only occur when submissions are incomplete. Otherwise, the Board uses “conditions” to regulate appropriateness of Site Plans.

The fact that uses can’t be rejected outright through Site Plan means abutters may care about their appropriateness. In the most recent public draft, not only was the list longer, but the trigger for many uses requiring a special permit was raised from over 2,000 square feet to “over 3,000 square feet per establishment”. (However, that detail was being debated by the Working Group, and could change.)

Still, Site Plan Review does give Planning some control over project appropriateness. For Major Site Plan Review, that includes conditions on parking and access, landscaping, and required “screening” for abutting properties.

The new bylaw also is intended to refer to special guidelines/restrictions for projects under Major Site Plan Review. Those are meant to be created and updated by the Planning Board. Planning has stated their intent of creating those and publicly sharing them prior to Annual Town Meeting.

Under Town bylaws, Major Site Plan Review is required for:

Any new development, or expansion in use other than a single-family or two-family residence which adds 2,000 square feet or more of floor area or which would require 20 or more parking spaces, regardless of the number of parking spaces existing on the premises, or any change of use of a facility that totals 2,000 square feet or more shall be subject to major plan review by the Planning Board.

That process is handled through Planning Board public hearings with notice to abutters.

Most smaller projects would still trigger at least a Minor Site Plan Review

Any new development, or expansion in use other than a single-family or two family residence which adds less than 2,000 square feet of floor area or which would require at least five but fewer than 20 parking spaces regardless of the number of parking spaces existing on the premises, or any change of use of a facility that totals less than 2,000 square feet shall be subject to minor plan review.

Currently, the Minor review is defined as handled by “The Site Plan Review Committee” comprised of specified positions in Town Government, mostly employees. However, the Planning Board will ask Town Meeting to cede that responsibility to them under an unrelated Article on Site Plan Review. That Article is the Board’s attempt to resolve a contradiction in the Town Code.

In 2015, Town Meeting adopted a requirement that only residents can serve as voting members of Town Committees. Since many of the employees don’t live in Southborough, that resulted in a conflict. The Planning Board is recommending that the best resolution is for them to take over the process.

The change would improve transparency by moving Minor Site Plan review to public Planning Board meetings going forward. They still wouldn’t require hearings or abutter notice.

The Board of Selectmen’s hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, March 30th at 6:30 pm. This week, Braccio indicated that the zoning attorney would be available for the full hearing. Their other zoning expert will only be available for part of the meeting.

The night prior, the Planning Board will resume its public hearings on all four of the zoning bylaw Articles headed to Annual Town Meeting. Planning’s Downtown District hearing is slated for 7:30 pm on Monday, but could get pushed later depending on how long prior items on the agenda take.

To zoom in to either board’s meetings, click here.

*At the March 23rd meeting, Selectmen agreed to adopt the revised document as the version of the bylaw to reference in future discussions. It wasn’t an endorsement of it as the preferred version to take to voters. They indicated changes are still likely to be made as they request public feedback.

**With the new document not yet posted, I don’t want to cause confusion by comparing and contrasting what the current bylaws allow for vs proposed changes. So for now, I’ll just share information on what the current bylaws already allow by right in the map under fire.

By right, the uses are allowed up to 2,000 feet include:

  • Retail sales and services which do not involve manufacturing on the premises.
  • Newspaper, job printing and publishing.
  • Office, bank, office building.
  • Hotel or motel, restaurant (excluding drive-through food service establishments).
  • Clinic or medical testing laboratory

There’s a longer list of uses allowed through special permits from the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeal. You can view that here.

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3 years ago

This too-big-for-its-britches EDC and its continued failed and controversial drive to redevelop the Downtown District should be rejected by every voter in this town. EDC continues to act with disrespect and disdain for the real stakeholders, the existing businesses and the residents who live there. The above article illustrates this exactly with Julie Connelly “rejected that (drawing a new zoning map) as requiring working with each owner of split lots.” These residents are our neighbors. Why would the voters hand this district over to this misguided group who has long represented the developers voice over the residents voices.

This proposed “zoning initiative” is a straight up license to steal density, uses, and most importantly, say-so from the people who matter most: you, the actual residents and your elected officials, the Planning Board. This proposed zoning will allow developers to run roughshod over residents and existing businesses. This EDC is doing that right now. They just can’t accept that this thinly veiled developers dream would be rejected as the citizens nightmare. The EDC should be sent packing once and for all by the voters. Also, most importantly, the BOS, as the appointing authority, should take a hard look at the way this entire process has promulgated by the EDC and remove those individuals responsible for likely not meeting the state’s Open Meeting Law. This needs examination and accountability now. This group continues to vote on changes with little to no discussion. Pay attention voters: your voice supposedly can be heard at the meeting on Tuesday (as long as you are in agreement with the EDC).

3 years ago

We have a proposed solution.

Would someone kindly restate the problem that is being addressed?

From memory, we have a septic system issue that the developer of the Southborough Medical property indicated could be solved by linking up with his 60,000 + gallon per day facility. This was stated in a public meeting and should be on the video or in the minutes.

Is this option no longer available?


3 years ago
Reply to  Beth Melo

It was a Planning Board meeting back when Don Morris and Dana Cunningham were co-chairs.

Sam was there.

Marijke Munsiff
3 years ago

Dear Tom,
Let’s calm down, and get rid of all the easy but false name calling. There are no developers on the EDC, just volunteers who are trying to do what’s best for the town and its residents.
The Business Village District zoning bylaw dates from 1955 and needs an update (we are no longer interested in attracting a printing press to Main Street for example). This is not just the opinion of the EDC but was recommended in the 2008 Masterplan and subsequent studies commissioned with taxpayer money.
In April of 2019, The Planning Board asked the EDC to provide their recommendation(s) for a zoning update that would include mixed-use. The EDC has been working collaboratively with all boards and committees. The recommendation is to create a new Downtown District which would replace the current downtown commercial Business Village District.
With the new Downtown District bylaw, the town aims to clarify the types of uses that are wanted in a small village center. With the inclusion of specific development standards, the bylaw aims to control how buildings are constructed and designed (by having parking at the back of a building for example to encourage a village-scape feel).
The reality is that there is a lack of investments in downtown Southborough, therefore the area lacks typical desirable amenities. Economic activity has been leaving downtown and community activity in Southborough is mostly concentrated at the transfer station.
Current businesses welcome this proposed bylaw. They see a benefit of having some additional small-scale businesses in the area and are not happy with empty vacant lots. Maybe Tom can talk to them because members of the EDC did.
Southborough has a chance to make a small but positive change that will benefit businesses and residents by voting to pass the Downtown District zoning bylaw at Town Meeting.

All the information is posted on the EDC website and I urge residents to read for themselves what is being proposed and ignore all the shouting and detractions from people who don’t want to discuss the actual facts of the proposed bylaw.

You can also attend the BOS Public Hearing tomorrow at 6:30pm and voice your concerns, opposition or support.

3 years ago

“Current businesses welcome this proposed bylaw.”
I don’t see how this is relevant as the majority of Main St business owners are not Southborough residents.

Marijke Munsiff
3 years ago
Reply to  Interested

I’m not clear what you intend to point out with your comment. In fact, many businesses in downtown are owned by Southborough residents. Regardless of where the owners reside, all local businesses are part of our Southborough community and are valued greatly….and they pay taxes!
A vibrant local business community makes our town stronger in many ways: Local businesses provide jobs, they provide us with amenities, they buy local goods and services, they support our local events, charities and sports teams and they can even create a sense of place for our community. Buying local also keeps your money in our local economy.

3 years ago

I live very close to and have worked on Main St. I know who the owners of the businesses on Main St are. Those who do not live in Southborough have no vote on Southborough issues. Nor will their private lives be adversely affected by over development on Main St. But for those who live in or close to the Village District, life styles will be forced to change. Last night’s Planning Board meeting exposed some of the concerns that these Southborough residents will be facing. People should watch it

As I have said many times, I am not entirely against improving our tiny downtown area. But as written, the proposed bylaw is leaving it open for some really big development to happen. I was aghast to learn that condominiums are listed in the by-right bylaw proposal.

True, what you have said about a vibrant local community, but there is no guarantee that is what we get. I look around and see many empty retail spaces, not only in Southborough but in other towns as well, and this was the case before the economic downturn due to covid-19. Why would a developer have empty store fronts when he could have full condominiums?

We have to get this right. Kudos to Planning Board for speaking up and voicing concerns.

3 years ago
Reply to  Interested

Beth 😊 Your comment encouraged me to look deeper and converse with friends some more. It’s complicated and and I made vocabulary error. You are correct, I should have used “special permit”.

I’m really worried about downtown becoming over developed. I’m worried too that we, as a small town, might not be able to fully support small retail and we will end up with more empty spaces. “You have to sell an awful lot of cupcakes to make rent,” a neighbor once said to me, while we were discussing how nice a town bakery would be. Retail is tough, high overhead and marginal profits. It can only pay minimum wage and employees are part time so to avoid medical benefits. No one working in retail would be able to afford to live in the above units. Which bring me to another worry, I really don’t want to see 3 and 4 story boxes in our tiny downtown.

Thank you for the opportunity to explain my point of view. And thank you too for explaining some of the language in the proposed bylaw.

Marijke Munsiff
3 years ago
Reply to  Interested

There seems to be some misunderstanding about the term by-right zoning. By-right zoning does not mean by-right construction. Maybe at a later date, I will elaborate about the rules and regulations (District Development Standards) in the proposed Downtown District that concern the size, setting within the lot and architectural features of a building etc. etc.

By-right uses are allowed, without the need for a special permit, so long as they meet the district standards and requirements specified in the zoning ordinance (setback, height, parking, green space etc.).

The advantage of by-right zoning is predictability. Development can proceed in accordance with pre-set regulation rather than with case-by-case exercise of discretion by officials.
Other advantages:
– Encourages desirable uses,
– streamlines the permitting process for those desirable uses,
– preserves the Town’s priorities for the vision of Downtown
– helps attract investment by providing certainty.

There is information posted on the EDC website which shows a comparison between the existing Downtown Business Village District permitted uses and those that are proposed in the Downtown District. I’m including the link here:

Please let the Board of Selectmen know if there are uses listed there which you think don’t belong in a downtown village.

3 years ago

Echoing some of the sentiments already posted on the thread, I am definitely supportive of revitalizing and increasing business in the downtown area, making it more attractive to visit and spend time at, as well as increasing the towns tax revenues.

The issue I have, which correlates with others, is that it doesn’t seem that the EDC has done as much due diligence as it could or should have in regards to the proposal. From what I have seen, read or watched, it appears that some of the issues or costs that may be associated with this proposal, such as sewer pipes (to a currently unbuilt treatment plant), the treatment plant itself, redoing the railroad crossing to be more accessible, drainage issues, and parking issues to name just a few. Sure, surprises or unforeseen issues/costs can occur, but it doesn’t seem as though the drainage, sewer, parking/traffic issues were really well studied or planned for thus far, and really should have been.

Additionally, while Ms. Munsiff notes many of the businesses support this, and I do believe her, I don’t feel that the EDC surveyed the people surrounding the aforementioned district, or at least, not recently. As with the drainage, sewer, and parking issues, this is likely something that could have been addressed or taken into account beforehand, by surveying the residents again (if they’d already done so at an earlier point in time). As a resident of the town for the past 2 years, I can say I’ve never been surveyed, and feel it would have been in the EDC’s interest to take the residents concerns into account. I am not saying you have to do as the residents ask and forego any of the EDC’s plans, but asking for the input prior to a ruckus being caused, definitely would have been a better way to approach this.

To try and provide some ‘solution’ to some of the issues that have popped up both here and on the Planning/BOS calls regarding this, one of core issues for the residents is that the district is stretching down Park St, and could adversely affect those abutting those properties. Light/Sound pollution concerns, the potential for St. Marks to amass a number of lots and build more faculty housing and so forth, are just a few of the concerns I’ve seen/heard. and I think these issues need to be addressed in addition to those already noted above.

To help provide better service, we need more tax revenue, but the downtown isn’t the only place that can happen, as there are numerous (and it seems growing) buildings/office space along Route 9 that needs to be filled, as well as around the train station. I hope the EDC is focusing more on trying to attract businesses to these areas, especially the empty buildings along route 9, as with the pandemic, just seems like more and more are going vacant, and while the Downtown initiative is a good idea, it has its flaws and will take time to implement in some form or another, whereas the benefits of the other areas improving could be a little more immediate.

Marijke Munsiff
3 years ago
Reply to  Thomas

The proposed zoning bylaw for downtown is part of the Downtown Initiative – a Community Development project that has multiple components which are addressed/coordinated with several Town boards and departments.
The EDC started the Downtown Initiative in 2017 with a resident survey. Through the following years (2018-present), the EDC has:
• held multiple Public Forums,
• produced informational presentations delivered at public meetings,
• created and distributed brochures at town events,
• reached out to individual businesses and residents,
• created an exhibition– initially located at the library, later at the senior
• hand-delivered the January 2021 information packet to abutters and businesses,
• Provided the presentation for the Selectmen’s February 16th Public Forum.
As for drainage issues, this is in progress as the DPW is working with engineers as part of their downtown chapter 90 project. The railroad crossing is also being addressed with CSX as part of this same project.
As was requested by the Planning Board in April 2019, the EDC coordinated and brought forward a first draft of an updated zoning article for the downtown area that is currently, the Business Village District (dating back from 1955).
This first draft was discussed and further fine-tuned through multiple joint meetings with the Planning Board, Board of Selectmen, SHOPC and others. The article was subsequently voted to be sponsored by the Board of Selectmen. The EDC has been the catalyst in bringing forth a recommendation from the 2008 Master Plan, the 2015 & 2020 SHOPC Housing Production Plan and the ULI study from 2018. With constructive input from all boards, committees and residents, the town of Southborough can take a positive step in creating a bylaw that will benefit the whole community.
The EDC created draft Design Guidelines to ensure that any new construction in the Downtown District (if adopted at Town Meeting) will fit within the historic nature of the area. The Planning Board can now review and approve/augment the document.
Parking requirements are addressed in the Downtown District zoning bylaw.
Lighting is addressed in the proposed Planning Board bylaw article for Town Meeting.
The proposed Downtown District will not change St. Mark’s ability to amass property.
In addition, the EDC:
• completed a pre-feasibility report in preparation for hiring an engineering firm to conduct a technical wastewater feasibility study/recommendation. This study will be funded by a grant that the EDC applied for and received.
• Understands the necessity of having an attractive and inviting Downtown. Through the Shared Streets and Spaces grant, awarded in the later part of 2020, the EDC purchased planters, bicycle racks and a picnic table for Downtown. Donations to purchase plants to fill those planters are welcome!
• is applying for funding for improved wayfinding (signage) for our downtown.
• will work with DPW (as part of the Chapter 90 project) with their plan on improved pedestrian and bicycle connectivity.
The EDC is not just focused on the Downtown Initiative. Route-9 is also a priority. The Town, with input from the EDC and other committees and departments, recently submitted an Expression of Interest to the State’s One Stop program for potential grant funding. Route-9’s various impediments to growth are addressed in the projects brought forward.
EDC members continue to meet with the local business community as well as potential new businesses looking to locate in Southborough.
What are some of the reasons that Southborough’s stretch of Route-9 has undeveloped lots, dilapidated buildings, and vacant office space?
– Restricted zoning
– Long permitting process
– Lack of wastewater infrastructure (which makes certain uses impossible, f.e. lab space)
– East-West traffic pattern
– Lack of amenities that company employees need – frequently noted by commercial realtors
Southborough’s main competitive advantage over surrounding towns is our location and single tax rate. If the town is serious about attracting and keeping businesses in Southborough, the issues that have been identified for decades will have to finally be addressed: zoning and infrastructure.

Kelly Roney
3 years ago

I would like to know what those who oppose zoning changes downtown want to see downtown. Do they want no changes at all? If that’s it, I suspect many of them just want to drive through as quickly as possible. If an opponent wants to see a more vibrant, economically viable, and revenue-producing town center, how?

Of course, the EDC’s proposal should allow a developer to make a profit. Duh! The rest of us want our sad, down at the heels town center to freshen up, so incentives that have no budgetary cost seem a great way to make those changes possible.

Vote No
3 years ago

EDC Coordinator, Ms. Munsiff, seems to suggest that voters dig deeper into the information! After checking out the EDC website, voters should view the EDC meetings on YouTube for some non-scripted education. While not developers themselves, some EDC volunteers most definitely DO have connections to real estate development (info source: LinkedIn). Individual voters can decide themselves if such connections matter in terms of a potential conflict of interest with the current proposed bylaw. This context, however, is likely important at least for awareness. If the goal is to foster open, honest dialogue about Downtown planning, it may be misleading to portray EDC members as just simply volunteers.

why ask why?
3 years ago

Why are we even considering building a sewage treatment facility for potential downtown businesses? Leave that burden to the developers of such properties – as had been done in the rest of Southborough.

This is absurd to ask taxpayers to fund a sewage treatment plant for the benefit of for profit businesses and/or property owners.

No, thank you.!

Just Say No
3 years ago

Exactly, why ask why. Taxpayers should not be subsidizing and accommodating private developers. With the unwitting taxpayers picking up, the cost of any sewage treatment plants or other goodies, that only increases the developer’s return. Lining the developer’s pocket. Let developers pay their own costs. Who pays the operating costs also? Forgot about that one, right?

Watch out for the EDC related grant getters and their cheerleaders. It’s your tax dollars, your money. If they get funds, it looks like looking a gift horse in the mouth. When in fact it is pretty presumptuous to go buying assets that can assist intrusive or unwarranted development in a bad location or help an unsavory developer. What about traffic and other impacts? Did anyone bother to look? Just say no.

Just Say No
3 years ago

Thanks Beth for the above response, but not at all what referring to — although buying lots also is presumptuous. It is the presumptuous of purchasing or constructing a sewerage treatment plant (as just one example) using taxpayer funded grants to benefit private developers, that is the buying of assets being referred to above that is objectionable. Also objectionable is the presumption that taxpayers should pay operating costs. Someone has lost their mind, never mind voter support.

All voters should just say no. One look at the long winded bla-bla from EDC says it all. Over development and over urbanization is the cause of numerous negative impacts that just aren’t worth it. This EDC has ignored all the concerns and all the negatives. It never bothered to examine traffic impacts. Has it occurred to anyone that now is the time for reducing development and carbon footprints? It’s all about reducing carbon footprints, recycling, and reusing. This EDC should be disbanded. It just doesn’t get it. It is focused on the wrong location and the wrong things. It treats this developer giveaway in a cavalier and backwards manner, going for fullest densities and impacts, with no real comprehension of what it is doing. Cut their budget to zero and disband and start over. Taxpayers should not be paying for these waste of resources of time and money.

3 years ago

Why not focus on RT 9 to start? This seems to be over the top for downtown. Revitalize it yes but slam in apartments and 4 story buildings seems like a bad idea. Change is good apartment buildings with little to no parking and retail shops that are in undesirable locations for owners probably not great.

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