Southborough Town meeting approves downtown district bylaw

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By Laura Hayes, Senior Community Reporter

Southborough Town meeting approves downtown district bylaw
Town Meeting members hold up their red cards to vote during the Special Town Meeting on Nov. 1. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

SOUTHBOROUGH – Southborough Town Meeting voters approved bylaws to add a downtown district, Nov. 1, after several hours of debate and proposed amendments. 

The bylaw required a two-thirds majority to pass.

“We think that this is a huge improvement to what we have now,” said Economic Development Committee (EDC) member Julie Connelly. “We think that it will garner responsible development. It doesn’t mean something is going to happen tomorrow, but it’s an absolutely critical first step to opening the door to maybe having something in the future.”

What the bylaw proposes

Select Board member Martin Healey said the bylaw encourages investment in town and in the downtown district. 

“I didn’t realize the statistics, but there hasn’t been anything done there, built there, in more than 40 years,” said Healey of the downtown district.

The town established its EDC, and Healey said one of the areas they focused on was downtown. 

A number of surveys, in turn, indicated that the town should take steps to attract small businesses to downtown.

Southborough Town meeting approves downtown district bylaw
Select Board member Martin Healey speaks during Town Meeting in Trottier Middle School. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

Southborough looked at what other communities, including Hudson, have done to promote economic development. One of the ways towns can make downtown improvements is through zoning, Healey said.

The current downtown zoning bylaw is over 60 years old, said Connelly. This bylaw added a downtown district to Southborough’s zoning map. The map of the district indicated that it would be located to the north of the current Village Business District and include parts of Main and Newton streets. 

Healey said zoning in downtown has been primarily special permit zoning. 

“In other words, there’s not a lot of as of right zoning,” he said.

The bylaw included a number of permitted uses by-right including mixed-use developments, bakeries and offices and banks, for example. It also included uses permitted after receiving a special permit by the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals, such as microbreweries, exercise facilities and animal clinics. 

Voters react

Before the bylaw was ultimately approved, several Town Meeting members moved to postpone it indefinitely.

Others offered amendments, some of which were successful. 

One such amendment increased the by-right floor area ratio and the depth of street-level commercial spaces.

Advisory Committee member Tim Martel wanted to remove a portion of the bylaw that would have allowed multifamily dwellings up to 10 units.

Southborough Town meeting approves downtown district bylaw
Advisory Committee member Tim Martel speaks during Town Meeting. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

He expressed concern about how that portion was written, fearing it would undermine other goals to promote mixed use development.

Multifamily dwellings would still be allowed under mixed-use. But they wouldn’t be residential-only structures, Martel said. The subsection competes with the main purpose of the bylaw, he said.

“The fact of the matter is, if we want to change our housing structure in the town, it should be its own bylaw,” Martel said. 

Select Board Chair Lisa Braccio said Southborough has talked about opportunities for diverse and affordable housing. 

“By taking this out, you’re taking out an opportunity to have affordable housing in our downtown in a smaller scale,” Braccio said.

Martel’s amendment ultimately failed. 

Other approvals

Though downtown district bylaw debate dominated the day, Southborough voters also weighed in on a number of other articles at Town Meeting, Nov. 1. 

Town Meeting approved changing the name of the Board of Selectmen to the Select Board. 

Voters also greenlit a request to add a Senior IT Specialist to the IT department. 

Voters then approved an amendment, which eliminated a $99,682 increase from the Board of Health and benefits budgets. 

Chelsea Malinowski, who is chair of the Board of Health and vice chair on the Select Board, said there was a consensus among members of the Board of Health and Advisory Committee to use other funding sources for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2022. 

The article originally sought funds to boost two Board of Health positions to full-time status. That boost will still take place. It will now be funded from different sources, though. 

“Even though we’re removing the budget increase, that does not diminish the need for the public health staffing, which will be coming in for FY [2023] budget,” Malinowski said.