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Rezoning a Hot Topic at Bellingham's November 14 Town Meeting

Nov 29, 2018 06:00AM ● By Pamela Johnson
written by Pamela Johnson, Bulletin Publisher

Rezoning was the big issue at Bellingham’s Nov. 14 Special Town Meeting. Budget articles totaling over $3 million passed with relatively little discussion, and Article 4, concerning the sewer enterprise fund, was passed over; but once Article 11 was read, the process slowed considerably.

Town Planner Jim Kupfer presented an overview of articles 11, 12 and 13, all of which concern rezoning areas of town. He explained that Bellingham is a patchwork of zoning and the goal is to consolidate areas—to facilitate development in one area (Article 11) and to protect areas from development in other areas (Articles 12 & 13). Article 11 called for rezoning a section of Hartford Ave. (near Varney property) from agricultural and suburban in order to create an industrial district, the rationale for this action being that Depot Street had been constructed specifically to be an industrial corridor having access to an active train line. Maintaining a diverse tax base helps keep the tax burden from falling too heavily on residents.

Planning Board Vice-Chairman Brian Salisbury pointed out that Bellingham is changing; the bylaws are outdated, and this was an opportunity to make desperately needed zoning changes. Since development will continue to come to Bellingham, these changes would enable the town to be proactive rather than reactive and have more control over future development.
“A ‘no’ vote will not stop development,” said Salisbury. “It will continue in an unbalanced way. A ‘no’ vote will not fix the traffic problems.”

Fifty-year Bellingham resident Pauline Hamwey spoke against the rezoning of Hartford Avenue, as did her husband, Ken [full disclosure: Hamwey is the Bulletin Sports Editor]. “When is enough enough?” he asked. The Hamweys said that they had attended several meetings held by the Planning Board on this subject and were told that the input of the residents in the affected neighborhoods would be seriously considered in any decision-making, but that although there was “no one at any of the meetings who wanted this [the rezoning of Hartford Avenue],” the Planning Board voted to do it anyway.

After several other residents voiced concerns over traffic, Planning Board member Peter Pappas stood up and said, “This rezoning only concerns that one area of Hartford Avenue. The traffic is not going to change.” Many in the audience quite vocally disagreed.
Hartford Avenue resident Gerry Fredette noted the deplorable condition of the street and asked, “If the vote is ‘yes’ and the land is changed to industrial, is there a plan to fix Hartford Avenue?” to which Pappas replied, “If it stays residential, then no, but if it’s rezoned to industrial, then, yes, because [as part of the permitting process] we can get the developer to fix the road.”

Despite Conservation Commission member Cliff Matthews and Zoning Board member Jim Dunlea and Selectmen Don Martinis and Dan Spencer also speaking in favor of this rezoning article, the article failed to receive the two-thirds marjority needed to pass, with a vote of 102 to 87.

The opposite happened when it came to rezoning Farm and Maple streets from industrial to suburban. There is a large parcel of land in Franklin on the Bellingham line in the area of Maplegate Golf Course that a developer is interested in. Although the land itself is in Franklin, the only access to it is through Bellingham via Maple Street, so while Franklin would reap the tax benefits, Bellingham would have to deal with the increased traffic. Rezoning to suburban would help Bellingham have much more control over that situation. Articles 12 and 13 easily passed, rezoning both Farm and Maple streets to suburban.

A lengthy discussion also took place concerning article 14, which proposed an overlay district for downtown Bellingham. Town Administrator Denis Fraine explained that over the past two years, Milford developer Kevin Lobisser has been meeting with town officials to come up with a plan that would be mutually acceptable for development of 80 acres of land located behind the Municipal center; access would be via Mill Street in the center of town and on Mechanic St./Rte. 140 near Antron Engineering. He noted that this overlay district had been recommended by the Board of Selectmen, School Committee, Planning Board and Finance Committee, and based on the conceptual plan, would generate approximately $1 million in tax revenue.

Kupfer pointed out that residents are voting on an alternative use for that parcel of land; there isn’t a specific plan on the table yet, just a concept. Any specific plan would still have to go through the town’s extensive permitting process.

The existing zoning for the area would remain in place; the overlay would add another layer of zoning that would allow for denser development, i.e., smaller lot sizes that would allow for more single-family homes.

Lobisser spoke about his vision for the development, noting that it would be pedestrian-friendly and include some higher-end homes and townhouses, with 40 percent of the land dedicated to open space. He would put up $3 million for the school department to mitigate the effects of the estimated 60 children that would be added to the school system over the roughly 10 years of ongoing development. School Superintendent Peter Marano said that he is comfortable with that.

Bellingham center property owner Tony Khoury voiced concern that Mill Street would turn into a bypass road, and High Street resident Lolly Jackson questioned why the conceptual plan had to be so big. “You’re losing a lot of us because everything is too much; it’s too big. Why can’t this be smaller?”

Before the final vote, Selectmen Chair/State Rep. Elect Mike Soter said, “Tonight we heard people say that they don’t want industrial zoning; this is suburban, and I think it’s a great project.”

In the end, the overlay district was approved by a vote of 75 to 28.
Afterward, Salisbury noted, “The town corrected two significant problems with our zoning bylaws—aligning our zoning to our existing infrastructure on Maple and Farm streets, the benefits of which can only be appreciated in terms of future problems avoided.”





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