ORLEANS — The growing support for more housing options manifested itself last week when the selectmen asked the planning board to take a look at expanding its proposed apartment development bylaw amendment to include areas outside the village center district. On Tuesday night, the planning board voted unanimously to hold a public hearing on the idea March 27.
The extraordinary series of events was set in motion by Selectman David Currier Feb. 21, when his board reviewed articles recommended by the planning board for inclusion in the May town meeting warrant. Referring to an article that would reduce minimum lot size for apartment development in the village center but not in general business and limited business districts, he said, “Zoning needs to be better than this. To take a half-step I don't think is good enough.”
Currier's argument that the town should take advantage of all opportunities to increase housing options seemed to resonate with his colleagues, who asked the planning board to revisit the issue at its Feb. 27 meeting and possibly submit a revised article.
The apartment development zoning bylaw amendment presented to the selectmen last week would reduce minimum lot size for apartments in the village center district from 20,000 square feet of contiguous buildable upland to zero. In written comments, the board said the change “will allow 50 small parcels (in the district) to be used for apartment development, without the existing requirement that the building must contain a commercial use.” Such development would continue to require 30,000 square feet in limited business and general business districts, which town meeting reduced from 60,000 last year.
The proposed amendment would tweak the apartment development bylaw passed by town meeting in May to allow greater density of units in the downtown area. For years, planners have concentrated on building up the village center and keeping a check on sprawl in other zones.
With the need for housing so serious, Currier said, he didn't understand why property owners outside downtown “can't have the same right to put residential apartments on their lots. If we change it, it would help the whole town.” Later, he said, “If there's somebody in one of the (other) districts that wants to put in workforce housing, why not help them? Just because you change the regulation doesn't mean that every parcel” can be developed.
Selectman Mark Mathison also expressed interest in encouraging workforce housing in business districts, while Selectman Mefford Runyon said he “may be in favor down the line of looking at limited business zones and industrial zones” for housing options. Runyon cautioned, however, that “hurrying up the planning process feels wrong. We're working under a long-term planning vision, and I don't want to start changing it quickly.”
At the planning board's Feb. 27 meeting, Planning and Community Development Director George Meservey said he'd been advised by Town Counsel Michael Ford that the board had the right to put an article on the warrant without the selectmen's approval. Saying he was “trying not to argue in a direction,” Meservey set the stage for the board's discussion by noting that the town had rezoned the limited and general business districts for greater density and that zoning already allows two apartments in commercial buildings in the limited business district.
Many small lots in the business districts are in single-family home neighborhoods where there are no apartments, Meservey noted. He said the higher densities allowed in the village center are based on the district's infrastructure and services within walking distance.
“We have a desperate need for housing diversity in our community,” planning board member Steve Bornemeier said in arguing for another look at the warrant article. “If we encourage additional development, I don't see how that's detrimental. If things go too far, we have plenty of time to adjust. Zoning is a living process.”
Board member Tom Johnson, who also chairs the affordable housing committee, said a public hearing on expanding the proposed density change would continue “a healthy discussion.”
Without sewers in place in the village district, vice chair Andrea Shaw Reed said, “we haven't really tested the zoning we passed last year. I would love to test the zoning we have. I'd love to get the sewers in place and see where our planning attracts development.”
Member Richard Hartmann advised caution as well. He recalled the multiple studies and public hearings that led up to last year's passage of the apartment development bylaw. “We have a good plan to guide us to an area for that vibrant center,” he said. “I think we can revisit it, but I don't think this is the appropriate time.”
Noting the “variety of thoughts” on the board, Johnson suggested that a new public hearing would be “an opportunity to work through that.” In the end, all five members agreed.