This week, the Planning Board reopened hearings on proposed changes to the Downtown District Bylaw. I’m recapping the main discussion points and the status.
To start the public comments, Board of Selectman Chair Lisa Braccio updated the public on the status and changes made since the spring hearings. She said officials would be taking another look at the bylaw’s definition of mixed-use developments based on criticism received. She acknowledged that the commercial use threshold might not be the right figure.
The definition would allow projects with only 10% of the ground floor used for commercial uses, and no commercial use on higher floors. Planning’s Meme Lutrell later criticized that it doesn’t make sense if the point of the zoning and mixed-use was to raise revenue by encouraging businesses. She worried that it would only encourage apartment buildings.
Concern about attracting projects that aren’t the pitched retail businesses was also raised by Main Street’s Ray Hokinson. He asked to see a worst case scenario on what the zoning could bring. He opined the changes were far more likely to attract apartments and law offices than ice cream parlors and boutiques.
Hokinson asked for a economic analysis of how the rezoning would increase revenue. Planning Member Andrew Mills followed up to say the board hadn’t been shown anything about what revenue would be left on the table by not rezoning.
Since then, EDC’s Coordinator Marijke Munsiff reached out to ask me to share something the EDC wrote to address that question. (It focuses on the vacant lot at 2 East Main Street and what new zoning could allow.) You can read that excerpt from their November 2020 Update here.
Resident Tom Fling worried about the potential for encouraging buildings shaped like skyscrapers. (Editor’s note: The buildings could be narrow, but would be capped at 3 stories.) He asked whether FARs in the bylaw were the right metric. In the spring, FARs were scrapped, but the replacement language allowing 80% lot coverage led to criticism that it would invite high density development.
In the past, the Economic Development Committee has assured that Design Guidelines will help protect downtown from some of residents’ imagined scenarios. But proposed guidelines weren’t ready for this hearing. A Working Group is still working with the Town’s consultant on what those could be. They plan to base them off of Northborough guidelines. Hoskinson asked to see the Hopkinton guidelines that were the originally planned starting point. He emphasized a preference for Hopkinton’s Main St to Northborough’s.
Not changed since the spring was the zoning map. It still uses the footprint of the downtown section of the current Business Village zone. Selectmen decided to use the hearings to solicit more feedback before making any changes.
Braccio noted that her board had voted not to expand the map to include additional properties. She reiterated that on Thursday night, but qualified that hearings are meant to give residents their chance to weigh in. Planning Chair Don Morris envisioned coming up with map options, then sitting down with BOS and EDC to hash out what makes sense to propose to voters.
Planning’s Marnie Hoolahan said she was concerned by the lack of information on what owners of multi-zone lots on the map think. (The split lots include two businesses on Park Street and Boston Road. The other properties on Latisquama Road, Foley Drive, and Park Street are currently residential.) She said owners hadn’t directly reached out to the board. If selectmen or the EDC had gotten feedback, those communications hadn’t been shared with Planning.
Discussion revealed that the Board of Selectmen never sent a letter to the owners of the seven properties. Munsiff said she spoke with all but one. She didn’t provide details, but asked a hypothetical process question that referenced five split lot owners wanting to be left alone and one wanting to be fully incorporated into the map.
Latisquama Road resident Kevin Miller again raised his concerns about the risks that split lots pose to their residential abutters. The new Downtown District is proposed to have a streamlined and less subjective approval process for commercial and mixed-use projects than current zoning.
Miller suggested an alternative map that leaves alone the property owners who don’t want to lose any of their rights. Instead of down-zoning split properties, the Town could maintain the status of those properties as currently zoned. A map would redefine those areas as remaining in the Business Village, outside of a newly created Downtown District. (My map to the right highlights the sections of split lots that are in the Business Village zone.)
If a developer sought to cobble together parcels from split lot properties to build a business, they would still have the right to pursue it through a Special Permit under the current zoning bylaw. Miller summed up:
If anything is going to go on in the property right behind me, I’d like to have the good, smart folks at the Planning Board have their traditional role in oversight.
Meanwhile, two Main Street residents asked Planning to consider expanding the map to include their properties.
Kristen Connell, owner of 15 Main St renewed her request. She told Planning members that her property is already partly commercial. The backyard includes septic for 11 Main Street and the playground for a daycare that is a plaza tenant.
Tim Fling suggested expanding the zone west, possibly all the way to Route 85. His main ask was to include his property at 18 Main Street. He noted that he is across the street from 11 Main Street and would be in the midst of commercial properties. (My map right highlights the two parcels.)
Hokinson reminded Planning that back in the 80s, residents of Main Street fought vigorously to protect the character of the historic residential section of Main Street. When 11 Main St sought to buy and subsume 15 Main Street, residents brought them to court. Ultimately, a compromise with restrictive covenants was reached. He said area residents were opposed to Commercial Creep.
Later, Hokinson pointed out that when he purchased his house it was in a residentially zoned neighborhood. He urged officials not to take zoning casually:
Zoning really is for stability and protection. You know what your rights are and you know what your neighbor’s rights are.
On Thursday, Main Street resident David Parry warned selectmen that the map issue was bubbling up and had the potential to blow up the rezoning efforts. He advised selectmen that they should head off talk about expanding the map west. He said didn’t want to see a repeat of residents pitted against residents. Parry called Braccio’s clarification about BOS’ prior vote a non-statement. He urged the Board to issue a statement to the Planning Board clearly opposing expanding the map and explaining the need to preserve Main Street’s residential historical character west of downtown.
Towards the end of the hearing, Lutrell said that she wanted to see changes to the propoed bylaw the EDC’s Julie Connelly had told her committee she planned to submit, including language on facades and setbacks. Last night, Braccio told selectmen those were being submitted to the Planning Board for inclusion in hearings.
The next hearing on the bylaw is scheduled for August 16.
In the meantime, Town Planner Karina Quinn committed to following up on a Planning member’s transparency concern. Towards the end of the night, member Jesse Stein said the chat had included “a number of editorials”. Those aren’t captured for the minutes and or available for the public to view in the recorded videos of the meeting. He pointed out that during in-person meetings, the Chair doesn’t allow people to shout out their opinions at random. Morris wondered aloud whether it should be treated that way or as if two people quietly talking in the audience.
Quinn noted that in order to chat, people have to log in, which also allows them to raise their hands to ask questions. Miller suggested that Planning should disable the feature in the future but allow the Q&A feature which is visible only to panelists.
Quinn said she would check with the Town Clerk to see if the issue has previously been raised.