Divided Northborough Planning Board opposes variance ban
By John Swinconeck, Contributing Writer
Northborough ??” The majority of Northborough Planning Board members Oct. 23 said they opposed a Town Meeting warrant article that would ban the Zoning Board of Appeals from granting use variances.
Petitioner Lisa Maselli said use variances can allow for the misuse and abuse of power by zoning boards. She compared variances to automobiles as a “necessary element in everyday life, but dangerous in the wrong hands.”
The variances serve developers, as opposed to preserving zoning districts, said Maselli.
Under Northborough's current bylaw, the Zoning Board of Appeals has the power to allow a use in a zoning district not otherwise permitted through a variance. If variances are prohibited, the only other recourse would be to modify Northborough's zoning during Town Meeting.
Variances ought to be used sparingly, Maselli said, and the variance procedure falls short in giving the zoning board “intelligent flexibility” under the protection of the law.
Only a third of Massachusetts communities allow use variances, according to Maselli.
There were 35 use variances granted by the zoning board between 2002 and 2013, according to Town Planner Kathryn A. Joubert, including 14 instances where commercial developers wanted to locate a project in the industrial district. Five variances were denied by the board in that time.
The largest use variance granted by the zoning board occurred in 2005 and paved the way for the Northborough Crossing shopping center.
Northborough's zoning went through a major modification three years ago, which led to a decline in the request of variances. ?As a result, variances are no longer needed, said Maselli.
Some Planning Board members warned that banning the variance could adversely affect many residents that live in the groundwater protection district. However, Planning Board member Theresa Capobianco supported the ban, calling variances “dangerous tools,” because they can circumvent the will of the voters. She said the extensive zoning changes made in 2009 made variances unnecessary.
George Pember, also a Planning Board member, however said the zoning board does a good job grilling applicants that seek a variance.
“It's not a rubber stamp,” Pember said, adding that the zoning board “should have the right to consider [applications] that don’t fit in ti bylaws, but make sense for the town.”
Attorney Mark Donahue warned that banning the use variance will hinder economic development.
Design Review Committee member Tom Reardon said he has seen no evidence of use variances having been abused by the town.
Two planning board members – Capobianco and Michelle Gillespie?voted in favor of recommending the ban. Gillespie said the proposed ban is indicative of a loss of confidence in the zoning board by residents.
Three members were opposed the ban.
“I think this proposal is a kneejerk reaction,” said Planning Board member Leslie Harrison.
Harrison at first called the proposal a “vindictive” effort to take power away from the zoning board, a statement she later recanted.
The Zoning Board of Appeals had previously voted not to endorse the article, one of two which will appear on the Town Meeting warrant.
Speaking after Wednesday's hearing, Maselli said that she had not been personally impacted by use variances, and appeared cautiously optimistic that the article would pass at Town Meeting.
The Special Town Meeting will be Monday, Oct. 28, 7:30 p.m. at Algonquin Regional High School.
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