Southborough Boards continue to disagree about specifics of downtown district bylaw proposal

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By Susan Gonsalves, Contributing Writer

Representatives of multiple municipal boards in Southborough recently met via Zoom to discuss the town’s proposed Downtown District bylaw. Screenshot/via Town of Southborough
Representatives of multiple municipal boards in Southborough recently met via Zoom to discuss the town’s proposed Downtown District bylaw.
(Screenshot/via Town of Southborough)

SOUTHBOROUGH – Trying to reach a consensus on a proposed downtown district bylaw is proving to be a challenge for the Southborough Board of Selectmen, the Economic Development Committee (EDC) and the Planning Board.

During an Oct. 5 Board of Selectmen meeting, EDC members outlined their ongoing concerns about changes made to the proposed bylaw, which is slated to go before Special Town Meeting on Monday, Nov. 1. 

It will need a two-thirds vote for approval.

EDC member Julie Connelly said the initial ask of the Planning Board two years ago was to have “by right” mixed-use development in town. The idea was to allow residential units over commercial space, a concept contemplated in the 2008 master plan and many other reports over the last decade, she said.

“We literally brought one line,” Connelly said.

The EDC objects to three areas in the most recent Planning Board version of the proposal. 

Those include a mixed-use restriction that residential units make up no more than 40 percent of a building, a limitation to three residential units permitted in a mixed-use development (down from eight in a previous version) and the reduction of the floor area ratio requirement to .30 from the previously agreed upon .35. 

Connelly said the 40 percent restriction “undermines the entire premise” of allowing mixed-use development in town.

Selectboard Chair Lisa Braccio said the bylaw should be looked at as a whole, recognizing that there currently is “no by right, no mixed-use” allowed. This bylaw, she said, would allow uses in downtown that aren’t possible now. 

She said it is a “great starting point.”

Braccio mentioned several times the goal of the bylaw is to “revitalize” downtown and bring small businesses in, such as a bakery, coffee shop, microbrewery or child care center.

However, Selectman Martin Healey said the 40 percent restriction “says something very unfortunate about the town of Southborough,” and its commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity of housing.

“Do we walk the walk or just talk the talk?” he asked. “It’s really important for Southborough to put up or shut up about this sort of stuff.”

Although Healey said he agreed with a lot of measures in the proposal, he said, “we’re kidding ourselves if using traffic concerns, preservation and unusual algorithms to keep out housing. We’re kidding ourselves about what is really going on.”

The bylaw calls for everything “street facing” to be commercial on its first floor. 

Connelly and EDC member John Wood spoke about wanting the option of a handicapped-accessible unit on a first floor and being in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, though.

Connelly said she thought there was “camaraderie” among the three groups, initially working toward both bringing in businesses and diversity in housing.

“I’m surprised to see pushback,” she said. “I’m sort of surprised by accusations we’re making a housing bylaw.”

Selectman Sam Stivers agreed with Healey’s suggestion that the voters should ultimately decide.

Stivers said modifications could be made down the road but said it is important to get something in the voters’ hands to consider at Town Meeting. 

Braccio said otherwise, the town will have to wait three years before trying again. 

EDC chair Rob Anderson said, “The simple act of getting zoning through should not be enough to say it is a success.”

The Planning Board has left its public meeting open and will discuss the issue again on Monday, October 18.

 

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