Planning Board Will Hold Public Hearing on Town Center Affordable Housing Amendments

The Planning Board spent over two hours on Tuesday, March 16, 2021 discussing Town Center Affordable Housing Amendments associated with a proposed multi-family development project developed by The Szanton Company (article).  On February 8 the Town Council voted to refer the proposed amendments to the Planning Board for review, stating that “The amendments should preserve Town Center requirements to the extent feasible while also permitting an affordable housing project that provides a substantial public benefit. Recommended amendments should be returned to the Town Council by April 30, 2021.”

Based on the Planning Board’s discussion during their March 2 workshop, two amendment options were created. Option 1 includes all the amendments requested by the developer: density, height, building footprint, first floor non-residential use (either deletion or reduction), mixed use building definition expansion and parking discretion.  Option 2 differs from Option 1 in that it does not include any changes to the non-residential first floor requirement or any change to the mixed-use building definition.

During the March 16 meeting board members wrestled with the uncertainty of their role in the process.  The proposed development is supported by the 2019 Comprehensive Plan, which moves to increase both diversity of housing types and affordable housing, but conflicts with elements of the 2014 Town Center Plan. Town Council Chair Jamie Garvin attended the meeting and agreed that there is tension between “two guiding documents that don’t completely reconcile with one another.”  Garvin suggested that  there is a need to consider updating, revising, and researching alternative regulatory measures that would be able to meet enumerated goals within the Comprehensive Plan related to housing. 

At the heart of the board’s uncertainty on how to proceed is the notion that this is a policy issue rather than a planning-board issue.  Board member Jonathan Sahrbeck pointed out that the board’s challenge is knowing that the project has very strict requirements in order for the developer’s project to work and knowing “that any deviation from the things that will make will make this project work, would make the project not work.”  Sahrbeck added, “it has been taken out of the hypothetical realm and placed into a policy discussion — which is outside what the Planning Board does.”

Board member Andrew Gilbert agreed and pondered what the implications might be if the board made recommendations which would be “changing metrics; does an extra ten feet (in height) outweigh the public benefit?  These are all policy questions.”

Planning Board Chair Jim Huebener offered that his approach would be to “come up with something (not project specific) that can make affordable housing work in the town center and try to make it black and white; what do our ordinances need to look like in order to have affordable housing?”  

In an effort to get closer to the Town Council’s request for a recommendation from the Planning Board by April 30, Huebener polled the board on their support of the specific amendment which would not require commercial space on the first floor (Option 1). Two board members said that they would be comfortable with Option 1 — which includes all the request; two said no; and two said that they could consider removing the requirement of commercial space on the first floor for this specific project if the developer also removed one of the other requested amendments.  

With the majority in favor of retaining the commercial space requirement included in Option 2, the board voted to table Option 2 until a Public Hearing can be held on April 20.  From there, based on public feedback, the Planning Board will likely either craft a recommendation or request an extension from the Town Council.

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