Town Meeting Update: Proposed zoning process improvements

Above: The Warrant for Saturday covers two Articles to revise language in zoning bylaws related to process. (images cropped from

Two Articles on the Warrant for Saturday’s Annual Town Meeting focus on fixing issues in Town zoning bylaws. Although neither would seem to be controversial, voters can be nervous about zoning changes. So, I’m giving an overview of each.

Both of the following were postponed from the 2020 Annual Town Meeting. Both are supported by the Board of Selectmen and Advisory (with the proposed amendment being made to the second).

Warrant Article 34 – Amend Town Code – Zoning – Miscellaneous Provisions

This Article brought forward by the Zoning Board of Appeals is to deal with issues that came up over properties when owners sought to replace/repair/renovate pre-existing non-conforming structures. Under the current bylaw, the residents had to go to the ZBA for a public hearing.

After consultation between the Zoning Department and Town Counsel, the department requested the ZBA propose some language changes to address the issue. You can read more about that in my post from January 2020. You can see the Article here.

Warrant Article 36 – Site Plan Approval – Amendment – Section 174-10

There is a proposed amendment that will be proposed on Saturday. It would reverse a change made to strip out potential constructive approvals since I last covered the proposed zoning change in 2020.

The original intent of the Article was to fix an issue related to Minor Site Plan Review. But while the Planning Board was at it, they suggested some changes that impacted all Site Plan Review, including Major.

As I wrote last year, in June 2019, Town Planner Karina Quinn informed the board that there was conflicting language in the Town Code on the process.

Under zoning bylaws, responsibility for certain minor projects/changes is assigned to a Site Plan Review Committee. That committee was defined to be comprised of Town employees/designees (Town Planner, public safety & works officials, etc.). But, a 2015 update to the Town Code restricted voting rights of Town committee members to Southborough residents only.

That means that the SPRC can’t do its job, since its members often don’t live in town.

Planning Chair Don Morris asked if Quinn preferred using the SPRC for minor review. Stating that she had only used it once, the Town Planner said she preferred to hold public hearings. The board agreed to recommend to Town Counsel that the SPRC be dissolved and the zoning bylaw updated.

The change proposed by Planning would specify that Minor Site Plan review is still not subject to public hearings. That avoids the more stringent requirement to post in the newspaper 14 days prior. Reviews and votes would still be subject to general Open Meeting Laws.

Most of the proposed changes simply switch the responsibility for Minor Site Plan Review to the Planning Board. Other changes, including to Major Site Plan Review, focus on requirements for submitted materials. It also clarifies that the board’s requirement to act on Major Site Plan Review hinges on the timing of a “complete” application submission.

Last spring, the final version of the Article for Town Meeting also proposed to strike the following language that applies to minor and major site plan review:

Failure of the Planning Board to so act and to notify the applicant within said 60 days shall constitute approval of the site plan.

Apparently that was based on advice from Town Counsel that it isn’t in the best interest of the Town for a project to be approved without a decision or any potential for conditions imposed by the Board. 

But Selectman Sam Stivers raised a concern over what would happen without the clause. He posited that if the Board chose not to act, an applicant could be left in limbo with no ability to appeal. 

Planning Board Member Meme Luttrell rebutted that the bylaw states that the Planning Board “shall act on a complete application for major site plan approval and shall notify, in writing, the applicant, the Board of Selectmen and the Building Commissioner of its action within 60 days of the receipt of a the complete application filed with the Town Clerk.”

Selectman Marty Healey agreed with Stivers about a potential loophole. The bylaw states, “Any person aggrieved by the action of the Planning Board on a either minor or major site plan approval application may appeal said action. . .” Stivers and Healey worried about how an applicant could appeal if Planning didn’t “act” and just sat on an application. 

Stivers suggested that constructive approval be put back in, although he would have been fine with increasing the length to 90 or even 120 days.

In response, Planning voted to make an amendment to put the language back in. To keep things simple for discussion at Town Meeting, they decided to stick with the initial language rather than changing the timeframe. They will make that proposal at Town Meeting.

As with any proposed amendment, it is up to voters to approve or reject it. Which means the un-amended version could be approved instead. (Of course, voters are also allowed to propose their own amendments, although there are limits to what can be proposed without proper advance notice to the public.)

You can see the proposed Article here and the proposed amendment here.

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2 years ago

Why are nonresidents allowed to be a part of a Southborough town government committee? As stated above, the issue was raised that nonresidents were a part of the SPRC.

That is the first mistake!

This situation can be easily corrected by limiting committee membership to Southborough town residents!

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