Special Town Meeting: New zoning created for a Downtown District (Updated)

Above: Voters created a new zoning district to replace most of the Downtown Business Village District. (image cropped from public hearing materials)

Last night, 3% of Southborough voters determined the kinds of businesses and building projects that will be allowed in a district encompassing downtown Main Street. The motion that passed 182 to 65 was a bylaw revised by voters on Town Meeting floor.

The version of the bylaw voters passed had looser restrictions than the compromise proposed and posted in advance by Town officials.

The Board of Selectmen initially asked voters to approve the bylaw as printed in a handout at the meeting.** It had full support from the BOS, Economic Development Committee, and Planning Board, plus 6 of 7 Advisory Committee members.

Amendments proposed throughout the night were based on that version (rather than one in the Special Town Meeting Warrant).

Resident Paul Carter, a Civil Engineer who lives around the corner on Hillside Drive, proposed three changes. Two were adopted before the main motion was passed.

The amendment loosened the cap on the by-FAR cheat sheetright Floor Area Ratio (FAR) for projects from the 0.3 proposed to 0.4. (To read my previous explanation of FARs, click here.) By special permit from the Planning Board, developers can still seek up to a 0.5 FAR.

The appropriate FAR had been debated between committee’s earlier this fall. The EDC had argued that the 0.30 recommended by the Planning Board was too restrictive to attract developers.

Carter’s amendment also revised the Building Regulations:***

The maximum depth of street-level commercial spaces shall be the lesser of 30 feet or 60 percent of the depth of the building unless waived by the Planning Board 60 feet.

The change was supported by downtown Main Street resident Ray Hokinson. He said he had commented to the Planning Board on the cap to commercial space on the first floor as problematic and thought it was going to be stricken.

Before the new zoning bylaw changes can be enacted, they need to be reviewed by the Attorney General’s office. That could take several months. (Changes approved at the Annual at Annual Town Meeting in May were just approved in late October.)

Prior to the final vote, merits of the Article, potential for hidden costs/risks, and multiple proposed amendments were presented and debated for over two hours.

Selectman Marty Healey and EDC member Julie Connelly presented the bylaw, explaining the intent and process. They pitched the need for zoning changes to revitalize a downtown that hasn’t seen a new building project since 1978.

For those who want more details on the discussion, highlights are below. 

Multi-family housing

Voters rejected 148 to 100 the first proposal for an amendment – a motion to remove multi-family housing (up to 10 units) as an allowed use by special permit under the bylaw.

The proposal was made by Tim Martel, the sole Advisory member who had not supported the Article. He argued that the multi-family projects would be competition for the types of projects downtown really needs for its economy, the mixed-use projects. He reasoned that affordable and diverse housing would still be available through mixed-use. He followed that if the Town wanted a housing Article that should be brought to voters separately.

Martel objected to the bylaw having removed Major Residential Development as a requirement for multi-family housing downtown. Among the many restrictions for that bylaw, which is meant for large developments, it requires an open space allotment and that:

single-family dwellings (whether on their own individual lots or on a shared lot) are required within a multifamily development. Not more than 2/3 of the dwelling units on any parcel developed subject to these provisions shall be in multifamily dwellings containing two or more units.

BOS Chair Lisa Braccio made an impassioned speech about the need for diverse housing and the responsibility of Town Meeting to not keep kicking the can down the road.

(Contrary to some statements by residents last night, selectmen have been talking in forums and public hearings about the need to include housing diversity and affordable units as part of the bylaw. You can read an example of my past coverage of that here.)

In his presentation, Healey had told voters the area was different than other parts of town. He recounted that walking the nearby neighborhood, he had counted 26 multi-family units. He pitched a need for a walkable downtown to support businesses without extra traffic.

The multi-family and mixed-use projects both include a provision that at least 12.5% of 4+ dwelling units be affordable. Jesse Stein of the Planning Board and SHOPC (Southborough Housing Opportunity Partnership Committee) warned about the Town’s need to reach 10% affordable housing for “safe harbor” from unwanted 40B projects. He said that we’re at 8.6%.

Voters also heard that the special permits needed for multi-family projects allow Planning to consider development rate and traffic.

Wastewater treatment/Hidden Costs

Multiple commenters worried about the potential cost of a sewerage system needed to support development downtown. Selectman Marty Healey assured voters the zoning Article is revenue neutral.

Towards the end of the night, voter Karen Shimkus rebutted there is no such thing as revenue neutral. She warned that zoning has real life impacts and cost risks, including the potential future operating costs of a sewerage system. She argued it shouldn’t be considered before wastewater issues were dealt with. She urged voters to table it.

Healey stressed that any septic/sewerage investments would have to be undertaken by developers. He pointed out that if voters were to pay for a system it would require coming back to Town Meeting for approval. And he argued that if they had instead brought a wastewater project to Town Meeting, people would complain that they should first address zoning issues.

Claire Reynolds, who coordinated the grants the Town received for downtown zoning and wastewater studies, told voters that there are a lot of grants out there to pay for projects.

Bonnie Phaneuf, a former Chair of the Board of Selectmen, asked if the planned road improvements downtown included groundwork for a future wastewater project, to ensure sidewalks wouldn’t need to be torn up again. Healey responded there wasn’t an approved project to include in the plans. Resident Michael Weishan asserted the possibility wasn’t included.

The Vacant Lot on the Corner of Main and Newton Street

The long-vacant property at 2 East Main Street was raised in multiple comments. In the presentation, it was given as an example of a languishing downtown residents complained about. Zoning changes were meant to make development more possible and enticing for developers there and throughout the district.

Weishan argued that parcel was the only one that wouldn’t require a sewerage system for development, therefore the entire bylaw was centered around that one property. Shimkus argued the lot might not perk. Reynolds said that the owner had his own system designed to take care of wastewater, not through taxpayer dollars.

Building Height

The Article included the same building height restriction as the current Downtown Business Village – 35 feet and 3 stories. As part of Carter’s amendment, he proposed reducing the maximum building height to 2½ stories. He reasoned that would cause buildings with sloped roofs more appropriate for the aread. Connelly responded that design guidelines call for sloped roofs.

Zoning Board of Appeals member Craig Nicholson argued for keeping the three stories to allow more residential, and potentially affordable, units. He successfully moved to amend Carter’s amendment to reinstate the original height restriction.

The final version approved was based on Carter’s amendment as amended by Nicholson.

Overly/Insufficiently Restrictive

Lyman Street resident Kelly Roney argued that the bylaw was too restrictive to entice developers. He proposed an amendment to strip out language capping the FAR and revising the definition for mixed-use projects to allow a higher percentage of residential use.

Connelly argued that the FAR (already amended by voters to be 0.40) was at a level the EDC was comfortable with based on public hearing input and discussions with other boards. She didn’t support removing it. Healey opined that after the balance reached in discussions, the proposed changes were a “bridge too far”.

Planning Member Meme Lutrell told voters the restrictions were based on the agreed upon goal of a small scale village style development. She furthered that the rewriting of the Article on the fly made her nervous because of potential for unintended consequences.

Roney’s motion was rejected by too large a margin to require a headcount.

During Shimkus’ comments, she argued that the bylaw was poorly written and would allow projects far too dense for the small downtown. She warned it would create too much traffic in an already congested area. She opined they were targeting the wrong location, and should be focusing on vacancies on Route 9.

Argument over “Not ready” for a vote

Early in the discussion, resident Peter LaPine moved the bylaw be postponed indefinitely, “It’s not ready.” That was supported by a few others in the hall.

Town Moderator Paul Cimino rejected the motion to allow a little more discussion. He asserted his right to allow other residents be heard on the Article (and then amendments) prior to a vote. When the request was repeated at later times, Cimino continued to shut it down, not ready to end the “healthy debate”.

When hours of discussion and amendments led to the time for a final vote, LaPine (with some support) pushed they should instead be voting to indefinitely postpone. Cimino rejected the motion, arguing that voting on the main motion was essentially the same.

The numbers

In the end, the bylaw, which required a 2/3 vote to pass, received 73% approval of those that voted. (An additional 10 voters checked in that night that apparently didn’t vote.) As of the last Town election, 7,638 voters were registered in Southborough.

*Earlier in the evening, voters approved changing the name of the Board of Selectmen to Select Board.

As with the zoning Article, all general bylaw changes technically have to be reviewed by the Attorney General’s office. Given the large number of Towns that have made the same change, I’ll presume it will be approved. But since the board was referred to as the Board of Selectmen throughout the night, I’m using that term in this post. (Perhaps for the final time.)

**The handout was the same version as I shared in previous posts. Upon questioning, officials clarified it has a formatting typo. Under section 174-8.12 F, “(5)” should have read “(5)” with no strikethrough.

***Updated (11/3/21 910 am): Now that the Southborough Access Media video has been posted, I’m able to share the exact wording. (At one point in the evening Carter had included “unless waived by the Planning Board, but prior to the vote he clarified that he intended to strike that phrase as well.)

Updated (11/3/21 11:43 am): Looking at the video, I was able to hear and better recap the request to indefinitely postpone and identify the resident who made the request.

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1 year ago

Can anyone explain how voting on the motion was “essentially the same” as voting to suspend when voters who wanted to have a say were turned away at the door?

1 year ago
Reply to  Beth Melo

My understanding was that it was a capacity issue. People were told that if there was not an open seat for them to take, they couldn’t stay to vote.

Carl Guyer
1 year ago

Revised Headline

“Town Meeting beats a dead horse”

1 year ago

I hope the downtown is fixed soon.

1 year ago

Specifically the road in from of the Spa.

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