Northborough residents reject Zoning Board limitations
By John Swinconeck, Contributing Writer
Under Northborough’s bylaw, the ZBA has the power to allow a use in a zoning district not otherwise permitted. The largest use variance granted by the board occurred in 2005 and paved the way for the Northborough Crossing shopping center.
The article, which needed a two-thirds majority in order to pass, failed with 84 votes in favor, 151 opposed. A move to reconsider the vote also failed by a wide margin.
Petitioner Lisa Maselli said that the use variance was often a “misuse and abuse of power,” and called it a “tool that has major consequences when used.”
Use variances, Maselli said, are “not smart growth or good planning for the town of Northborough. They have the “potential to radically change the character of a neighborhood and the town at large.”
Most of the Board of Selectmen had previously voted not to recommend the article, although Selectman Aaron Hutchins abstained.
Some residents have become discontent with the ZBA’s decisions regarding a number of projects over the last couple of years, said Hutchins, addressing Town Meeting. The ZBA has also failed to adequately educate the public about their deliberation process, he said, creating a lot of confusion.
“The Zoning Board of Appeals, with all due respect, has brought this on themselves,” Hutchins said.
At an Oct. 23 hearing, the majority of Planning Board members also recommended the article be rejected. Two Planning Board members–Theresa Capobianco and Michelle Gillespie–voted in favor of recommending the ban. Gillespie said at the time that the proposed ban is indicative of a loss of confidence in the zoning board by residents.
There were 35 use variances granted by the zoning board between 2002 and 2013, according to Town Planner Kathryn A. Joubert, including 14 instances where commercial developers wanted to locate a project in the industrial district. Five variances were denied by the board in that time.
During the hearing, Maselli said that use variances serve developers, as opposed to preserving zoning districts.
Northborough’s zoning went through a major modification three years ago, which led to a decline in the request of variances. As a result, variances are no longer needed, said Maselli.
Attorney Mark Donahue had warned the Planning Board that banning the use variance will hinder economic development.
Planning Board member Leslie Harrison said that the article, while “misguided” should serve as a “wakeup call for the zoning board.”
The Zoning Board of Appeals had unanimously rejected approval of the article.
“It saddens me that there is such a lack of trust,” said ZBA Chairman Fran Bakstran, addressing Town Meeting. “I just don’t understand it.”
Bakstran said use variances were a “constitutional safety valve,” employed in other towns such as Shrewsbury and Ashland, giving landowners a way to use their property in ways that may not be outlined under the town’s zoning.
Bakstran cited a use variance granted to a restaurant on Solomon Pond Road that allowed owners to open a drive-thru coffee shop.
“I feel this warrant article is trying to be the solution to a problem we don’t actually have,” Bakstran said.
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