I know that I have been offline for a while, but I hope you’ll take this opportunity with me to discuss an exciting subject: ZONING. Wait, keep reading! I promise it will be interesting.
The Planning Board has proposed a variety of zoning amendments for Town Meeting (May 4, 2015) to consider. Most people “zone out” when it comes to zoning regulations, but zoning is an important part of shaping the place where you live and work, so I want to try to explain the proposed changes in plain language. I’ll go into each of the proposed changes over a series of blog posts, but I will begin in Housatonic, with perhaps the most significant of the proposals
All of the proposed amendments can be downloaded here, or viewed in the libraries. Also, there will be a public hearing on March 12, 2015, but in the meantime, please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.
The first proposed zoning amendment will rezone portions of Housatonic Village. The basic objectives of this proposal are to ensure that the zoning regulations reflect the existing fabric of the village, not “anywhere Great Barrington,” and that they regulations promote the scale and types of development that make Housatonic such a great village. Here’s some background and explanation:
History: In Housatonic by the early 1900s, the village streets were laid out, the railroad had passenger station and a freight, the mills lined both sides of the river and operated at full tilt, a street car circled the business district and connected to Great Barrington, and a variety of businesses and homes (including single family homes, multi-family homes, and boarding houses) lined the streets. In other words, the core area of Housatonic was more or less fully developed (built out). The image below is from a 1904 map of the village.
The lines marking out individual parcels (or building lots) reflected existing street patterns, topography, and the fact that the Monument Mills company owned much of the land. Zoning did not exist, and as lots were created, there was no need to meet minimum setbacks. So when zoning was instituted in Great Barrington in 1932, a series of setback standards and use regulations were imposed on top of an already-built village. Even so, the 1932 zoning code bore at least a passing resemblance to the existing development patterns: homes were allowed more or less side by side, and residential uses were allowed in business areas (for example, on top floors or alongside).
In 1960 the zoning standards changed, and for the worse. It was when the B-2 General Business Zone was adopted, and it is the year I have called a “turning point into nonconformity.” In this zone, residences had to be on larger lots with bigger yards (which, remember, did not exist since the village was already built and lots already created). Residences were essentially precluded from inter-mixing with businesses. Two-family homes were no longer allowed.
The two photos below show the same clusters of buildings. In the first, you can see the density and pattern of certain areas, and you might think the same zoning regulations apply to each. But in the second image, which shows the zoning districts (each color is a different district with different regulations), you can immediately see that zoning district boundaries bear little resemblance to the existing village pattern.
Existing Zoning: Today’s zoning is almost exactly the same as the 1960 zoning. The B-2 zone remains in place. Most of what exists in Housatonic village—small lots with homes near the street, and a mix of businesses and residences—could not be built under the existing zoning. Lots are too small. Mixed-use is difficult. Almost 75% of the lots in the B-2 zone are nonconforming. Nonconforming status is not the end of the world, but it could thwart property improvements. It takes time and money to get through the red tape of regulations when you are nonconforming. And, think of it this way, when zoning laws say something is nonconforming, it is like saying “that use (or that size lot) is not what we want.”
Why is that a problem? Because, for the most part, what we have in Housatonic actually is what we want. People want to see a village in Housatonic, not a commercial strip. It’s Housatonic Village, not Housatonic strip. In discussions and community meetings going back at least a decade (when the school closed), and certainly in those held in 2011-2012 during the creation of the Master Plan, people frequently say they like the size, scale and feel of Housatonic. It’s a compact small-scale village, and people like it that way.
Unfortunately, the existing B-2 zoning will not allow a compact small scale village to happen here. Instead, think of the commercial district of Stockbridge Road or South Main Street. Take Stockbridge Road and plunk it down in the middle of Housatonic. That’s what happened in 1960. That is what the B-2 zoning promotes. That is what we have now.
Proposed Village Center Zoning: The Planning Board suggests changing that, to amend the zoning bylaw so that it better reflects the fabric of the village. The idea is there should be fewer hoops to jump through if you to invest in your property. If you’re nonconforming that’s ok—we won’t hold that against you anymore. The proposal is to remove the B-2 zone and put in its place a unique Housatonic Village Center (HVC) zone. And while it allows retail, residential, and a mix of uses, it restricts the size of retail uses to 6,500 square feet, so that larger retail or chain stores better suited to the commercial strips do not disrupt the village business district. (By way of comparison, the Housatonic Post Office is almost 3,000 square feet, and the Housy Dome is almost 9,000 square feet.)
In summary, the Housatonic Village Center zone will:
- Eliminate the B-2 zone in the village and replace it with the new HVC district;
- Bring all currently nonconforming structures into conformance.
- Allow for mixed-uses, live-work, and small restaurants by right in the HVC;
- Cap by-right retail uses at 6,500 square feet, but allow retail up to 10,000 square feet by Special Permit from the Selectboard, and up to 20,000 square feet in the case of historic structures such as the former school;
- Reduce parking requirements to reflect the walkability of the village center;
- Rezone the east side of Meadow Street, currently split by zoning districts, to HVC.
- Rezone 425 Park St (Brick House Pub) and its rear lots from R2 to HVC, rezone 421 Park Street from I to HVC, and rezone 402 Park Street from R3 to HVC. Each of these Park Street parcels is nonconforming in their existing zone.
The following maps show the existing zoning and proposed changes. (Note, there are other changes proposed, such as the HVOD – Housatonic Village Overlay District and the R1B to R3 rezoning – which I will lget into in the next post…)
- Existing Housatonic Zoning
Proposed Housatonic Zoning
I hope this post gives you some background and helps answer some questions. Please take a look at the proposed changes and contact me if you have questions. I’ll hold “office hour” sessions at the Ramsdell Library on Wednesday, February 25 from 4-6 PM, and Wednesday, March 4 from 5-7 PM.
Finally, come to the public hearing March 12, 2015 at 7:00 PM at Town Hall, in order to register your support and/or concerns. Thanks for reading.