By Sarah Champagne, Managing Editor
SOUTHBRIDGE – Southbridge has almost completed a yearlong process of reviewing and updating town zoning bylaws, with a hearing of the Planning and Board a scheduled for Oct. 3.
The revisions to the zoning bylaws are expected to make the bylaws document easier to navigate. It will also update confusing language and assure alignment with relevant State laws. One of the main goals that of the project has been a more attractive environment for new businesses, which would elevate Southbridge’s economic health.
“This is about making it more transparent, but it’s also about economic development,” says Rosemary Scrivens, Southbridge Director of Economic Planning and Development.
The process, organized mostly by the Southbridge Department of Economic Planning and Development, has involved a working group of community stakeholders and the expert consultation of Barrett Planning Group, LLC and Community Circle. Barrett Planning is owned by Judi Barrett and Community Circle is owned by Daphne Politis. The two have also worked collaboratively previously. The working group made up of Southbridge citizens and business owners has met several times over the last year to provide input and hash out questions of what is needed from the new zoning document. Along the way, the Economic Planning an Development Office and the working group have followed a documented plan for public outreach, seeking the perspective of citizens and others who might be impacted by zoning.
According to a report from these consultants at the outset of the project, “The review is based on the Town of Southbridge Revised Zoning Bylaws, adopted May 1985 with amendments through Oct. 17, 2016.” The zoning bylaws that were adopted in 1985 replaced an earlier set of zoning bylaws that were written in 1941. The current revision seeks not to replace the zoning bylaws, so much as to organize them, create wording that allows for consistent interpretation, and to eliminate redundancies and contradictions.
According to Scrivens, one of the most significant changes in the final revision is the expansion of the central core zoning district. Previously, the central core district was an “overlay district,” meaning that areas of the central core could be subject to two different sets of zoning regulations. Or, to put it in more concrete terms, central core zone and other zoning districts currently overlap. While this may seem unremarkable, it had the potential to create confusion if rules for either zone contradicted one another, or if the wording was unclear for either. Eliminating the confusion allows new businesses to “set up shop” in town, so to speak, with little worry that unclear zoning regulations might interfere with their new or expanded enterprise. This translates, in theory, to a more economically viable Southbridge.
Five zoning designations have been renamed as well. The former Heavy Industrial zone is now “Manufacturing” in the revision. Light Industrial becomes Office an Research. Single Family becomes Residential One, two-family becomes Residential Two and Multifamily becomes Residential Three.
The yearlong process began with a schedule for the year ahead, including specific actions to seek public input and presentations to Town Council. The working group of community stakeholders first met Oct. 25, 2017. The consultants conducted stakeholder interviews in December 2017. In these interviews, they sought to get a solid idea of what people in the community wanted or could identify as problems.
The Department of Economic Development coordinated community outreach throughout the process, including several advertised public meetings.
“All along, there has been a lot of public outreach,” Scrivens says.
A final public information session was held in late August 2018, and while input and the final draft, or the “hearing draft” of the revised zoning bylaws, will be presented at the Oct. 3 Planning Board meeting. That meeting is open to the public.
Previous updates were given in to the Southbridge Town Council in December, January, and June by Barrett Planning and Community. At these presentations, Barrett and Politis provided their observations and recommendations on creating a more concise, readable and efficient zoning bylaw document. Barrett and Politis considered a close reading of Southbridge’s Urban Renewal Plan of 2011, Master Plan of 2013 and Economic Development Plan of 2016, along with other documents that are considered to reflect the needs and goals of the community.
A zoning bylaw document that is clear, well organized and relatively easy to understand is crucial to attracting new businesses to Southbridge, whether the business is considering operating in the central core or other areas of town. According to Scrivens, with the previously flawed version of the zoning bylaws, there could have been innumerable missed opportunities.
“We might not even know someone considered or looked at Southbridge for economic or business development if zoning is a deterrent,” she remarks.
Documents that are available online include