Zoning Ordinance Re-Write Hears Views on Housing for Seniors

The Planning Board reached consensus on moving forward with the process of a comprehensive Zoning Ordinance re-write based on suggestions detailed in a Nov. 5 preliminary review.

The voters will have an opportunity to fund the re-write in the Town’s March 10 election.

“Unless the voters approve funds to do the zoning work in the next fiscal year, we’ll be able to do nothing but live with our own misery,” Mike Speltz of 18 Sugarplum Lane said. “Anything we can do to make voters understand the importance of this work is appropriate.”

The findings of the preliminary study were that there are positive aspects to the Town’s ordinance, but its length and disparities, as well as complications and overlapping, contradictory provisions, make it difficult for the public to understand,” Jonathan Edwards of Arnett Development Group told the Board at their Feb. 11 meeting.

“The ordinance is most challenged due to lack of specificity,” Town Planner Cynthia May said. “And there are areas in the Zoning Ordinance that would be better situated in regulations, such as parking, loading, lighting and landscaping.”

Additionally, Edwards recommended it would be beneficial in a re-write to consolidate definitions and reorganize, simplify and clarify the ordinance, reducing its length.

Other significant recommendations discussed included abolishing the Town’s responsibility to administer workforce housing income verification requirements and procedures, which May said town staff doesn’t have time for and isn’t well qualified to do; eliminate limitations on alternative development types; apply workforce housing standards to all districts permitting residential use and eliminate procedural disincentives; and accommodate the growing need for accessory dwelling units and multi-generational housing.

Local developer Richard Flier told the Board a major draw to the region he has seen in his own experience has been families looking to live close to their loved ones.

“We have found there is a huge demand for older people to lease,” he said. “Many people are forced to leave town after living here all their life. They still want to have the sidewalk and amenities of the Town. I find in looking at this town that there is something unique in terms of the school system. I see people leaving in droves for jobs and warmer weather, but we’re seeing what brings people back is being closer to their families, and more older people are taking care of their grandchildren.

“There needs to be more thought about bringing in models that allow you to jump light-years ahead in your town,” he said. “We can make the Town more exciting by using the school system as a draw, but not in the way we have in the past.”

Flier recommended inviting the type of housing that encourages older generations to stay and bring their families to live near them.

“Here we have potentially jobs and families, and people aren’t traveling as much,” he added. “We should think more about flexibility for development, the size of Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) and exploring the market more. Sometimes you just have to have a major change in your thinking about everything.”

“There’s a drive to have younger generations come in, but if we want 20- to 30-year-olds to come to town, we need to be looking at smaller PUDs and having more mixed uses,” Ted Combes agreed. “We really want the walkability factor. Transportation is expensive. People want walkability to work and entertainment at night. We need to bring in the older generations with the younger generations.”

Member Jim Butler recommended allowing for cluster housing in the ordinance.

“There are some who will rent one or two bedrooms, and others who can’t afford a $400,000 or $350,000 home,” Butler said. “We want to make it affordable to them. There’s a section of people that would like to come to this town that can’t make that threshold. To get under that $350,000 or $400,000 range, we need to see more variety. There are people who want to live in a single-family, but don’t want a lot of land. I think we need a good balance to make it work.”

Speltz suggested using “transfer of development rights” to allow increased density in some parts of town where appropriate as a trade for decreased density where the Town seeks to preserve open space.

Butler additionally raised the issue of incentivizing elderly housing, and member Mary Soares said she thinks the cap on elderly housing units in town should remain in the Zoning Ordinance.

“It’s important for us to maintain control of the number of elderly workforce housing units,” she said. “We built the Town on our School District. If you restrict a good amount of housing to only elderly, you lose those younger families. We want there to be a diverse group in our town. But I think because we put all this infrastructure in place for the schools, we have an obligation to make sure we have houses for people who want to move in who have families.”

Edwards noted the Zoning Ordinance exists to achieve the kind of town that is desired in the future.

“I saw many things in the Zoning Ordinance that made it impossible to achieve some of the things in the Master Plan,” he said.

In discussing how to move forward with re-writing the ordinance, Edwards recommended the Town avoid amending the ordinance section by section.

“When we do that, we run the risk of an un-coordinated document yet again,” May said. “At some point we’re going to do that to some extent, but we need to do it cohesively and all together.”

“You must define a process to go about this,” Edwards said. “When you pull a spider web in one place, it’s going to move everywhere else. I don’t think we should do this piecemeal.”

Edwards recommended using the three months left in the fiscal year to define an efficient but inclusive process by which they will tackle the re-write.

“The difficulty with changing or writing a new ordinance is figuring out what you want it to say,” he said. “The quicker the process is, the more meetings and the more intensive the meetings. There should be a good deal of public meetings and workshops to get feedback from residents on what they want the ordinance to say.”

Edwards said if the Board identifies serious sticking points, as long as they are incidental with regard to the overall ordinance, they may choose to make an amendment.

“But you need to be careful with amendments,” he said.

“We need to define a process and way of going about this,” member Lynn Wiles agreed. “We need to be in unison in how we want to approach this. We want to make sure the quality of life improves based on what we do here.”

May said she anticipated they could establish a framework for the re-write by the end of June.

“Things that I have seen cause a re-write to drag out for years are indecisiveness on the part of the planning board members due to worries about unintended consequences,” Edwards said. “There are always concerns about things that could happen down road and the effects you can’t think of now. There are ways to ameliorate that.

“The unintended consequence of not doing something is what you have now getting worse,” he added.

Depending on how frequently the Board commits to focus on the project, Edwards said realistically he believes the Town could complete the re-write in about 18 months.

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