It seems Town officials may have finally reached consensus on Downtown District zoning. (At least the three most involved boards and committees have.)
Last night, selectmen voted to approve bringing a revised version of the Downtown District zoning bylaw to Town Meeting voters in less than two weeks. It accepts compromises reached between the Planning Board and the Economic Development Committee.
Two story buildings would now be allowed to have residential use for 50% of the above ground gross floor area. The 40% residential cap would still stand for three story buildings.*
In addition, up to four residential units would be permitted without requiring a special permit from Planning. That’s one more unit than in the Town Meeting Warrant. Yet, it’s still half the number that were in an earlier version discussed at Public Hearings this summer.
One area that EDC had objected to which remains unchanged is the Floor Area Ratio. It is still proposed as 0.30, as previously approved by Planning and the Board of Selectmen. (If you are unfamiliar with FAR, you can an explanation I cobbled together here.)
The proposed zoning bylaw is Article 10 in the Warrant for the November 1st Special Town Meeting. It is part of the Town’s efforts to revitalize the downtown area, where nothing new has been built since 1978.
The compromised version was supported by Planning and EDC during the Planning Board’s hearing on Monday night. Selectmen and a few members of Advisory also participated.
The one hoped for, but still outstanding, vote of support is from the Advisory Committee. (The committee didn’t have a quorum on Monday.) They are scheduled to take a position in their meeting at 7:30 pm tonight.
EDC, Planning and the BOS have been working on zoning changes to incentivize desirable, mixed-use residential and commercial projects with small scale businesses downtown. In recent weeks, the parties had been in disagreement over some of the details.
EDC’s and Planning’s compromise followed difficult and heated discussion. In the end, Planning Chair Don Morris quipped it must be the right compromise because no one was completely happy.
At an earlier point in the meeting, the potential of reaching consensus seemed in doubt.
While many parties repeatedly spoke about being “so close” to agreement, it appeared no one was doing much moving from prior stances.
The EDC repeated their arguments against the recommendations made by Planning in September. Planning clarified why they held those positions.
Selectman Marty Healey reiterated opposition to restrictions he characterized as an anti-housing stance by Planning. Morris objected, asserting the board approved many housing projects sprinkled around Town.
Morris furthered that if the bylaw was supposed to be Housing bylaw, it should be called that. Instead it was pitched as an economic development initiative. Members of EDC clarified that it was meant to be mixed-use zoning.
One area of dispute was capping allowed dwelling units without a special permit at three, since four triggers an Affordable Housing component. EDC’s Julie Connelly argued that three units would be undesirable to developers. EDC Chair Rob Anderson argued that the special permit would discourage developers from including an Affordable unit.
Planning Member Meme Lutrell continued to caution about allowing an Affordable Unit to be allowed by right. She worried about overloading the Building Commissioner and the potential that units wouldn’t be properly counted towards the Town’s inventory.** Healey scoffed at the idea that zoning be restrictive because of Town staff workload.
Healey said that if Planning couldn’t agree to loosen restrictions, he hoped that the EDC would move to amend the Article on Town Meeting floor. Yet, most parties agreed that getting approval from 2/3 of voters was unlikely if the boards and committees involved weren’t in agreement.
EDC stated that the Article’s restrictions prevented two story buildings with a fully residential second floor. Planning’s Andrew Mills explained that was based on the pitch of three story buildings with a second floor dedicated to office space. Planning members suggested compromising by allowing 50% residential in mixed- use but capping the buildings at two stories.
EDC members rejected that, arguing it prevented the possibility of the described three story project. Repeated criticisms were made about Planning making recommendations for changes in September.
Chair of the Board of Selectmen Lisa Braccio defended Planning’s efforts and process, telling the EDC and fellow members that she trusted the Town’s elected zoning experts.
Braccio expressed strong frustration that she was watching all the officials’ long, hard work towards zoning change go down in flames. Healey suggested that both sides were digging in their heels in defense of initial positions.
Not long after, middle ground was found. Since Planning and EDC were both accepting of two story buildings with 50% residential or three story buildings with 40% residential, they agreed to treat them differently.
As for Lutrell’s worry about oversight of Affordable units, arguments were made that the requirements were manageable. Morris pointed out to Lutrell that the Building Commissioner reports to selectmen. If she proves to be overloaded, they would likely provide more staff or a raise. He also assured that he’s seen the Town Planner, Conservation Agent and Building Commissioner support each other to get work done.
As for the Town Meeting where voters get to decide, it is scheduled to open at 7:00 pm at Trottier Middle School on Monday the 1st. You can find my overview of what else is up for a vote (and safety logistics) here.
For the official Warrant and the zoning map related to the Article, click here. (That is also where I would expect the Town to soon post the revised version of Article 10.)
*The handout for revising the zoning Article will replace the previously listed definition for MIXED-USE DEVELOPMENT with:
A development that includes any combination of permitted nonresidential uses and one or more dwelling units within a single structure; provided, however, that the inclusion of two (2) or more dwelling units in a mixed-use development shall not be deemed a multifamily dwelling. The ground floor facing the street shall be used only for permitted nonresidential uses, and residential dwellings cannot exceed (a) 40% of the gross floor area of the above ground level floor space of a three-story building (no residential dwellings in the basement level); or (b) 50% of the gross floor area of the above ground level floor space of a two-story building (no residential dwellings in the basement level).
**In 2013, the Town’s failure to update the Affordable Housing Inventory with the state, creating a window for a 40B project to be forced on the Town, was one of the controversies over the Park Central 40B development.