Looking into the future, the Rochester Planning Board is setting into motion plans to revise zoning bylaws to encourage more mixed use and denser development in the center of town. The lull in the economy has freed up more time for the board to look into zoning changes that would impact the shape of future development, according to Chairman Arnie Johnson.
In specifics, the board is zeroing in on areas including New Bedford Road, Marion Road, Dexter Lane and Mary’s Pond Road to determine the boundaries of a new Center Village Zoning Overlay (about 72 properties)– which essentially would allow developers or occupants to pursue mixed-use projects.
Currently businesses in the Town Center (ie. Plumb Corner Mall) require a Special Permit to operate commercially as they are in an area zoned residential.
Mr. Johnson stressed the importance of working on bylaws to drive development to certain sectors of town before the economy kicks up and the planning board is forced to act “reactively instead of proactively.” The new zoning would encourage growth in the center, which is surrounded by land set aside for conservation, town-owned property, bogs and private homes.
“They can still do residential stuff, but now they have more options,” Mr. Johnson said of the effect of re-zoning the center.
Whether to encompass the site of the old airport (on Marion Road) in its zoning overlay was debated, but with no immediate resolution. According to Mr. Johnson, the site soon may be developable, thus re-zoning would be appropriate.
For board member Susan Teal, the benefit of denser development also extends to lifestyle choices.
“If there was a path along Marion Road, people would walk to the town center. The problem is Marion Road is narrow. If you lived in Boston, you would never drive even from the old airport to the town center,” commented Susan Teal.
“But you’d have six places to buy a cup of coffee along the way,” replied board member Bendrix Bailey.
During the next few months, the Planning Board is preparing to make its case to town residents that zoning changes encouraging mixed-use development in the center of town is beneficial to residents. Their hope is to pass bylaws changes at the Fall Special Town Meeting.
But many questions are circulating, including whether living in a mixed-use zone would require occupants to pay a commercial tax rate, as opposed to a residential rate. Currently the town has a unified tax for residences and businesses, but this could change.
At the meeting, Rochester resident Mark Wellington stated the concern about the changes mixed-use zoning could bring to a neighborhood. He said some of the residents in the “heavily residential area” near Walnut Plain Road and Mary’s Pond Road might not want businesses close by,
“If I suddenly found out the neighbor could put in something commercial, I think it may bother me,” he said.
After looking at a preliminary map of the overlay, Mr. Wellington encouraged the board to start small.
“I think you are making this too big, in my own opinion. I like the idea that things stay the same as they are,” he said, but added that if the district was small enough and away from residents near the old airport, he would more likely be supportive. “It is better to start out small and slowly expand.”
“You have to get them on board early,” Mr. Wellington added on getting support from locals.
Explaining these issues and gaining “buy-in” from neighbors would be essential before any town approval, Town Planner John Charbonneau explained. He said workshops and outreach to residents in the proposed Village Center would occur before finalizing the draft of the proposed zoning bylaws.
“I don’t think we’d want to go to Town Meeting without public hearings to get buy-in. That would be foolish,” Mr. Charbonneau said.
“Part of the presentation [to the public] would be a narrative that addresses [the public’s] fears,” Mr. Johnson stated.
It remains to be seen if the new zoning changes will pan out, but Mr. Johnson said he hopes to re-zone other areas if it proves to be successful.
“If it works out, we can apply this to other areas around town,” he said.
At the present time, the next step is speaking with Selectman Naida Parker regarding her discussions with residents along Marion Road about possible re-zoning. Ms. Parker had explored zoning parts of the area as limited commercial in the past.
With her feedback, the Planning Board will begin to strategize how to make a Village Center Overlay both palatable and embraced by Rochester residents.
By Laura Fedak Pedulli