Southborough officials continue debate over Downtown District Bylaw as Town Meeting approaches

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By Susan Gonsalves, Contributing Writer

Part of Southborough along Main Street would be subject to a much discussed downtown district bylaw. (Photo/Jesse Kucewicz)

SOUTHBOROUGH – Members of the Southborough Advisory Committee and Board of Selectmen reviewed the 10 warrant articles for the Nov. 1 Special Town Meeting during a nearly four-hour session Oct. 7.

The article prompting the most discussion was a proposed bylaw to create a downtown district.

After discussing the matter in previous meetings, members of the Economic Development Committee still disagreed with some of the restrictions put forth by the Planning Board.

Among the areas of disagreement are 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 a previously agreed upon .35 ratio. 

Selectmen Chair Lisa Braccio said that if amendments are proposed at Town Meeting, voters will likely get confused and ask that the article be indefinitely postponed.

She added that there would be no visual capabilities at the meeting and voters would have to rely strictly on the documents in their hands.

Selectman Martin Healey said he supported the proposal going on the warrant but he hopes the EDC “sticks to its guns,” and makes the argument for changes. He said that changing a few numbers would not be too overwhelming for voters to comprehend. 

Selectman Sam Stivers agreed, noting going into the meeting with a handout featuring a “marked up version with a half dozen changes… is not a steep hill to climb,” for voters.

Healey said he was supportive of the article going forward for both “practical” and “cynical” reasons. 

He said he believes some provisions in the bylaw are “long overdue and helpful.” He said he also believes that if the bylaw is adopted without loosening some restrictions, “the effect is to kill it as a mixed-use zoning bylaw.”

Healey said he suspects the town will watch other communities “doing terrific things,” in terms of development while Southborough remains the same.

“I hope I’m wrong and it generates development in downtown,” he added.

Responding to comments that the Planning Board made “eleventh-hour changes,” member Meme Luttrell, who was in attendance on Oct. 7, said public hearings were held to listen to input. The changes were made as a result of that feedback, she said.

Luttrell said the changes around mixed-use in the proposal “does not kill mixed-use. It encourages more commercial development instead of residential.”

Advisory Committee member Tim Martel said the inclusion of multi-family projects that aren’t mixed-use in the bylaw is “really problematic,” and will cause outrage among the voters.

Martel said residents will see its inclusion as a “back door to put up high-density housing.”

Braccio said that multi-family houses would require a special permit from the Planning Board.

Advisory Committee Chair Kathryn Cook questioned presenting a Town Meeting article when the Planning Board, Selectmen and EDC couldn’t agree on all of it.

“What are we accomplishing if it’s not supported by all boards?” she asked.

Selectmen Andrew Dennington and Stivers spoke about the importance of presenting the bylaw to voters at this time. Once it is passed, changes and tweaks can be made in the future, they said.

Braccio reminded selectmen that they voted to support the decisions made by the Planning Board in its latest draft of the bylaw. 

The Planning Board is scheduled to meet again tonight at 7pm.

Braccio noted a consensus may not happen and she is worried that two years of work may end up being “a lost opportunity” for Southborough.

The zoning bylaw requires a 2/3 vote for approval.