Warrant Articles Address Zoning Issues: Accessory Dwelling Units, Assisted Living Proposals, and Site Plan Approval

The warrant that Annual Town Meeting will encounter beginning Saturday morning features five zoning amendment articles that, if approved, will expand local housing options and fortify the site plan review process.  The articles include Articles 23, 24—Accessory Dwelling Units; Articles 25 and 26—Assisted Living Overlay District; and Article 27—Site Plan Review.

Accessory Dwelling Units, Articles 23 and 24

The Planning Board is presenting a refurbished proposed zoning amendment to town meeting that would expand allowable accessory dwelling units from attached to detached.

The amendment fell a few votes short of approval at the 2019 special town meeting, and the revised version was withheld from the streamlined 2020 annual town meeting warrant,

Now – except for one feature that has been separated into a companion article – the zoning amendment only needs a simple majority to become law.

That’s because Gov. Charlie Baker’s housing choice initiative, signed into law in January, changed the requirement to encourage housing construction.

Independent of that change, “we did listen to what people were saying at town meeting,” said Planning Board Chair Shawn Hanegan. “And it seemed the majority of people who were opposed were a little bit afraid that they wouldn’t have a say.”

“The most notable difference is the addition of a site plan review as part of the process, with the requirement that the abutters be notified,” explained Hanegan.

“With review, they have a chance to look at the design and express concerns and reasonable accommodations could be made,” he said. “It could adjust certain things if it affected site lines or things like that.”

Bedford is already zoned for accessory units, but they have to be embedded in the primary residence. The revised bylaw does not change the existing requirements, such as only one unit per lot, and no more than two bedrooms. Maximum size is 900 square feet. The primary address has to remain the owner’s residence.

Hanegan stressed that, based on trends in other communities, Bedford won’t be swamped with applications for new units if the change is approved.  “It should be something like two per year,” he said, adding, “But it does make a difference to those people.”

The Planning Board spun article 24 off from its predecessor, as an incentive allowing an additional 100 square feet if an accessory unit does not meet the criteria of the state housing choice initiative. Thus that provision still requires at least a two-thirds majority vote for approval.

The incentives for the larger units are universal design or energy sustainability. “We feel like we should be encouraging that in Bedford,” Hanegan said.

Assisted Living Overlay, Articles 25 and 26

A swath of the southwestern quadrant of the town will be open to accommodating new assisted living complexes if town meeting approves articles 25 and 26 by at least a two-thirds majority.

Article 25, the zoning amendment creating an overlay district, was sparked by a proposed assisted living complex on South Road just north of Evergreen Avenue, on a site now owned by Iovino Excavating. The site also abuts the Minuteman Bikeway.

“Any assisted living development coming under the proposed zoning would be subject to a special permit review by the Planning Board,” emphasized Hanegan.

Criteria for the permit, as detailed in the proposal, specifies minimum standards for lot size, setbacks, and building height, with detailed provisions on everything from open space and landscaping to “provision of convenience amenities” and energy efficiency.

A key stipulation is: “Project density and design is appropriate for the neighborhood in which it is proposed and integrates the physical design and interaction of activity in the area.”

Hanegan said when the Planning Board considered the South Road development in the context of current zoning, “There wasn’t really anything that was applicable.” The zoning for Carleton Willard Village is more tailored to nursing home use, he said. And a zoning change limited to a specific location is vulnerable to a legal challenge.

“Some members felt, ‘Why don’t we make it blanket residential?’” But most of the board opted for the overlay, comprising South Road from Loomis to Summer Street, as well as all of Summer. Proposals in other parts of the town could be accommodated with similar overlays, the chair noted.

“We chose the best approach to create zoning for assisted living usages, and we did a lot of work to be sure there would be proper setbacks, cap the number of units, and blend in with the neighborhood,” said Hanegan.

He emphasized that for the developer, LCB Senior Living, “this isn’t the end of the story. We have to go through the site plan.”

Article 26 incorporates the new overlay into the town zoning map.

Site Plan Approval, Article 27

Article 27 is a streamlining and a strengthening of the site plan approval process, as delineated in the zoning bylaw, primarily for the Great Road, business, commercial, and industrial districts.

“Right now, site plan review is a pretty weak statutory process,” acknowledged Hanegan. “It varies widely, but right now the Planning Board basically gives advice about what we think about different aspects.”

“There is a fair bit of confusion about what about what the Planning Board is able to do with a site plan review,” he continued. “A lot of people think we have a say over something. In reality we don’t have a binding say over anything. It’s advisory.”

He added that “even with the new strengthening, it doesn’t specifically deny a use that’s allowed in the bylaw. But it can adjust the impact of construction, traffic, drainage, parking. It would give more ability for the Planning Board to be responsive to the neighborhood and its needs.”

The proposed amendment does provide for denial if “the applicant fails or refuses to make such amendments to the site plan as are necessary in the opinion of the Planning Board to cause the site plan to meet the criteria for approval.”

The amendment gives more of a role to the code enforcement director in the approval process, he noted.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763

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