Special Town Meeting: Date pushed; Downtown District zoning hearings to reopen (with same map)

Above: The latest version of the Downtown District zoning bylaw headed to Special Town Meeting has reinstated a proposed Floor Area Ratios explained in an EDC update. The image above represents the maximum FAR that would be allowed by special permit. The by-right FAR is even lower density. (image cropped from EDC Update)

Last night the Board of Selectmen voted to delay the Special Town Meeting that had been scheduled for October 4th. The date is now tentatively reset to November 1st.*

Chair Lisa Braccio explained that Planning Board Chair Don Morris asked for the delay. He was concerned about the timing of Public Hearings on the Downtown District zoning bylaw and zoning map.

While Planning’s hearing on the zoning bylaw is scheduled to open on Monday, many residents spend time out of Town in July and August. Braccio said that moving the meeting out a month would allow two additional hearings in the fall.** It would also allow more time to finalize Articles for the Warrant to avoid too many amendments on Town Meeting floor. Plus, it gives selectmen and the Economic Development Committee more time for community outreach.

The EDC is already at work on the outreach. Last week, EDC issued its June Update. It featured information on revisions made to the Downtown District zoning bylaw. It also touts the bylaw’s purpose and clarifies some details.

The draft shared includes changes approved by selectmen on June 22nd. It addresses concerns voiced by residents, Planning Board members, and some selectmen. The prior draft was criticized for allowing high density development and much taller buildings.

EDC FAR explanationThe new draft replaces the proposed 80% Max. Lot Coverage that alarmed many (including selectmen)*** with the previously proposed Floor Area Ratios (FAR). Those are of 0.35 by-right and up to 0.5 by Special Permit.

It also scraps the proposal to allow four story buildings by Special Permit. A draft last spring allowed for special permits to allow up to 48 ft and 4 stories. Residents noted that’s a height not allowed anywhere else in town.

The revised version does still increase the height currently allowed in the Downtown Business Village from 35 feet to 40 feet. While most areas of town are capped at 35 feet, the increased height is lower than two other business zones. The Highway Business District and Industrial Districts allow up to 45 feet.

However, not all of residents’ concerns have been resolved. As previously proposed, the new bylaw would raise the Special Permit threshold to 3,000 SF per establishment rather than the current 2,000 SF. That means that more and larger businesses would be allowed by-right within the zone.

The EDC has argued that by listing the by-right uses for the zone and replacing some subjective approvals with specified guidelines, it encourages the kind of development that residents want to see downtown. However, concerns were raised that not all of the land in the zone is restricted to downtown. 

One reason for pushing the bylaw from Annual Town Meeting to a Special Town Meeting had been to allow Town officials to work through issues raised about the zoning map’s boundaries. As of June 22nd, selectmen had been unsuccessful in finding a resolution. The board voted to send the original map to the Planning Board for hearings. The stated intent is to continue to collect input on the map issues.

If you aren’t familiar with the map issues, scroll down for more on that.

The changes in the latest draft also include edits requested by Planning Board members assigned to the working group. Some of that appears to be language clarifying what is allowed by right and under special permit for mixed-use (residential and commercial) developments.

At the June 22nd meeting, selectmen also discussed a draft of the Design Guidelines to be maintained by the Planning Board for projects in the zone. The guidelines are separate from the bylaw to allow more frequent updating as materials and technology change. The goal is to have a finalized draft prior to Special Town Meeting, so voters will be reassured of what they can expect.

Last night, Braccio updated fellow selectmen that their zoning consultant advised against using the version previously discussed, which was based on a version used by Hopkinton. Consultant Judy Barrett had explained that Hopkinton’s was for a specific purpose. She advised that a more suitable starting point was a version used by Northborough.

Braccio said that the Town does still have consulting funds to keep working on the guidelines with Barrett. They also will still be able to continue working with their consultant attorney on the bylaw, since he is part of the firm recently appointed as the new Town Counsel. (Look for more on that in a separate post.)

For the latest version of the draft zoning bylaw, click here. For the redline showing changes to the version posted in March, click here. For the update with explanations of the proposed posted by the EDC, click here.

Downtown Zoning Map issues

The bylaw was drafted to use the same map that is currently zoned as the Downtown Business Village. Those boundaries cross through residential properties on Latisquama Road and Foley Drive. Abutter Kevin Miller has been outspoken about concerns over the potential risk the split lots pose.

Miller has posited that developers could convince residential property owners to split their lots to cobble together a parcel large enough for projects he believes inappropriate for his and neighbors’ backyards. He noted properties contiguous with CSX owns property contiguous to split lots that could provide access to Park Street.

This spring, Braccio announced plans to reach out to owners of split lots. The intent was to find out if they would support changing the zoning map to put their properties fully in their residential zones. At least one property owner informed selectmen they want to keep their lot split this spring.

The potential that land owners may want to keep their properties split to maximize their property value potential was foreseen by the EDC. It is also consistent with the risk scenarios that Miller described during Planning and BOS meetings.

Of course, the ability of developers to piece together parcels already exists and hasn’t been taken advantage of. However, Miller is concerned about the zoning changes that would eliminate or raise thresholds for Special Permits. Under Special Permits, the Planning Board can rule that some projects are inappropriate for their location. Projects that are by-right can’t be rejected as long as they follow the regulations. That means, if the zoning map doesn’t change, abutters to boundary properties have reason to pay close attention to what kinds of projects would be allowed by-right.

*Although selectmen designated November 1st in their vote, there were still a few follow up conversations to be had. They hadn’t yet vetted the date with Trottier Middle School or the Town Moderator. If there is a schedule issue, selectmen could revisit the date. (Braccio did ensure that the Town Assessor was comfortable with the change. He plans to present the new proposed tax rate at selectmen’s second meeting in November. She also checked with the Town Clerk.)

**Between now and November, the Planning Board’s posted schedule currently shows the following meeting dates: July 19, August 16, September 13, September 27, and October 18. However, if they deem it necessary, Planning could choose to schedule one or more additional meetings.

***In March, Braccio explained that the 80% max lot coverage had been plugged in by the consultant after questions were raised about whether FARs were the right metric. The 80% figure wasn’t agreed upon by the working group that had been working on bylaw revisions.

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