Downtown Zoning Article tabled to Fall Meeting

Right: The Article to rewrite bylaws for the area of the zoning map currently labeled the Downtown Business Village is now slated to be voted on in the fall.

This week, selectmen agreed to again push off the Article to revamp zoning for the Downtown District. Rather than tackling it for the Annual Town Meeting, the Board plans to schedule a Special Town Meeting in the fall.

The move was made at the request of Vice Chair Lisa Braccio. Braccio explained that there are a number of issues that still need to be resolved. Postponing the Article again will give officials more time to hash out some of the details and respond to concerns raised by residents and Planning Board members.

In addition, she hopes that selectmen and the Economic Development Committee will be able to put on a more traditional presentation at a fall meeting. (Projected slides won’t be possible at the outdoor Annual Town Meeting this May.) Braccio opined that garnering support for the zoning bylaw would be challenging with voters having only handouts to look at.

Adding to the list of issues Article proponents need to resolve are legal questions about voting threshholds. At their Tuesday night meeting, Chair Marty Healey referred to the need to be careful with language since some of the items in the Article only require a simple majority to pass.

He was referring to questions raised about whether some of the changes proposed can be combined in the same Article.

Two months ago, the state approved allowing zoning that increases housing diversity to pass by simple majority. That does include adding mixed-use and multi-family by right in downtown areas, two topics the proposed new zoning would cover. However, the Downtown District zoning also includes other changes reducing special permit requirements for some commercial/retail only uses.

The state issued guidance to municipalities cautioning them about combining zoning Articles with different voting thresholds:

Section 5 as amended provides that “any amendment that requires a simple majority vote shall not be combined with amendments that require a two-thirds majority vote.” A proposed zoning amendment cannot be adopted by a simple majority vote if it is combined into a single proposal with changes that require a ⅔ supermajority. Drafters of new zoning proposals should take care not to combine provisions that require different voting thresholds, so that proposals that will encourage new housing production will get the benefit of the simple majority threshold. If a municipality desires to combine proposals with different voting thresholds, the municipality should first confer with the municipal law unit of the Attorney General’s Office.

That issue is just the latest wrinkle in the Town’s efforts to rewrite the zoning for downtown. Other issues that still need to be resolved include the zoning map that would ease permitting thresholds in areas that include split lots in non-downtown neighborhoods and concerns about development density and building heights.

Braccio reminded that the Planning Board also still needs to develop related Design Standards. (The bylaw refers to Design Standards for Major Site Plan review to be created and updated by the Planning Board. Planning Chair Don Morris has stated that they should have those available for voters prior to Town Meeting.)

The selectman said she would inform the Planning Board that they can halt their public hearings for now. New public hearings would have to be held in advance of a fall meeting.

In the meantime, officials will continue to work on changes to the bylaw. Braccio plans to give monthly updates and would like to schedule 1-2 joint meetings with the Planning Board as well as more public forums. She will  follow through on reaching out to owners of lots split by the zoning map. (That is something she noted was held up due to some personal issues.) She also indicated she hoped to speak directly with a couple of outspoken residents who raised specific concerns. 

Braccio also pitched that by waiting, it gives them a chance to check in with the regular Town Meeting voters at Annual Town Meeting to get a sense of how they feel about the proposal.

This won’t be the first time the Article is being postponed. The Article was initially targeted for Annual Town Meeting in 2021. Prior to the pandemic, the Town was forced to push the Article to a planned 2020 Fall meeting that never took place.

The delay issue hasn’t plagued this zoning bylaw alone. 

Since I’ve been covering Town politics on the blog, I’ve seen some success in passing some zoning bylaw changes. But those have all been narrowly focused (e.g., Historical Adaptive Use, Solar, Medical Marijuana). Larger attempts to overhaul Town zoning bylaws that officials have referred to as outdated and problematic have consistently floundered. That has appeared to at least partially be based on the conflicting concerns and desires of different constituencies and the need for support from a supermajority of voters.

But lack of prior progress has also has been a result of zoning Articles/efforts tabled to take a different approach or “temporarily” shelved then never revisited. That’s something that Braccio assured wasn’t happening here.

On Tuesday night, Braccio focused on the silver lining of this delay. The selectman said she has reassured EDC’s Julie Connelly and Chair John Woods that they will continue to move forward this summer. She told her Board, “I view this as an opportunity, not a setback.”

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