Planning Board to Look at Ordinance Change
Planners are concerned that once-commercial properties are now useless because of a two-year time limit.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Planning Board will work on a solution to a vexing issue that's left some properties in limbo around the city.
The board next month will begin discussions on changing an ordinance that limits buildings that were grandfathered under zoning to a vacancy of no more than two years before they revert to the current zoning, which is often residential.
"There are several properties in this city that have defaulted on that status and are nonconforming but no longer in continuous use. Therefore they are kind of in a state of limbo," said Chairman Michael Leary on Monday night. "I want to generate a discussion at the next meeting to see if there are options that we can recommend to the City Council to amend ordinances so we can get those properties out of limbo and help the owners of those properties."
The issues came up earlier this year when the board sought an opinion from the city solicitor as to the fate of the West End Market. The building had been under renovation but owner Barry Garton was running into a two-year deadline that would revert the commercial building to residential use. The solicitor found the renovation could be determined a "substantial" enough use to allow the board to extend his special permit.
Planning Board member Wayne Wilkinson said the most blatant example of the problem is the former NAPA auto parts store on State Road.
"Technically, the building is rendered useless," said Wilkinson. "The only use that's allowed there is residential; for someone to spend the amount of money to develop that proerpty for residential ... I don't even know if you could because of the size of the lot.
"Eventually, it will be taken by the city for back taxes and there will be nothing left at that time but to demolish it."
One option the board will look at is removing the section that refers to a nonconforming structure being "abandoned or discontinued."
The ordinance states: (Section 12, Part 2) Abandonment of a nonconforming use: A nonconforming use which has been abandoned or discontinued for a period of more than two (2) years or has been replaced by a conforming use shall lose the protection set forth above in Section 12.1. (Ord. of 8-14-1990, § 1)
Building Inspector William Meranti said an ordinance change could run into state law.
"We're an old city ... we have some of these properties that seem like they're in neighborhoods but they're commercial, storefront-type properties that have absolutely no use," said Building Inspector William Meranti, who added there is no process for reviving the nonconforming use.
Meranti said changes may run into the state's 40A zoning but "there could be avenues we can take."
The meeting was a continuation of last week's regular Planning Board meeting, which was cut short when Planner Kyle Hanlon fell ill and was taken to the hospital. Hanlon was in attendance last night and said he was feeling much better.
In other business, the board approved:
• The move of pet supplies store Bark 'N Cat from Eagle Street to 28 Holden St. Owner Christa Abel said the business is outgrowing the space it currently occupies with Persnickety toys; she expects to open in late September.
• The development of six artists studio/residential lofts in the Blackinton Mill
• The relocation of J Star Gymnastics to 69 Union St., part of an overall redevelopment of the former automobile dealership by Scarafoni & Associates. Two of the buildings on the property are slated for demolition beginning this week.
• Signage for Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts presented by Mick Callahan of Callahan Signs. The signage for the new location for the campus police in what was the Brewer Perkins building at 277 Ashland St. is in line with a re-identification plan for the college. There will also be signage to aid motorists and others in locating departments during the ongoing construction on campus.
• Snoford LLC for property at 76 Union St. was postponed to September at the request of the applicant.
• The reaffirmation the community development plan, which has changed little over the decades. The plan is reaffirmed annually; Leary anticipated that the document will change to align with the master plan currently being formulated.
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Council Subcommittee Debates BYOB
Mark and Renee Lapier, right, speak with the General Government Committee of Lisa Blackmer, Chairman Keith Bona and Michael Boland about developing a BYOB ordinance.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The General Government Committee will look for expertise from public safety and the License Commission as it attempts to craft a so-called "bring your own bottle" ordinance.
BYOB restaurants are becoming popular in some areas; Big Shirl's Kitchen is the first in the city to seek guidance on how to operate as one. The committee met Wednesday to begin dicussions on the issue.
State law does not regulate BYOB other than stating venues with alcohol licenses may not allow BYOB. Because it is not covered by state law, municipalities can create ordinances to regulate it.
City Councilor David Lamarre, a former member of the License Commission, questioned the need for a BYOB ordinances when the city has no limit on alcohol licenses. "It just seems to me unnecessary."
Mark and Renee Lapier, owners of Big Shirl's, said they were not oppposed to licensing and regulation but were thinking of the convenience of their patrons and not the overhead that would come with a liquor license.
The small, 40-seat restaurant would have to expand for storage space for alcohol and add anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 to its insurance bill, said Mark Lapier. To cover that cost, "we'd have to push the booze I don't want do that."
Lamarre said the city could lose in meals tax if people began going to Big Shirl's with their own bottles. Renee Lapier said more sales of meals might make up for that.
Committee member Lisa Blackmer said she didn't think BYOB is the tipping point for diners.
"I think people decide to go to a restaurant because of the food," she said.
Committee member Michael Boland worried that too much attention was being paid to the needs of a single restaurant.
"We should be doing what is good for the community, not what's good for Big Shirl's," he said.
Chairman Keith Bona agreed but said the Lapiers' concerns should be taken into consideration. In questioning both the couple and Lamarre, it was decided the ordinance should look at licensing and fees; waitstaff TIPS (alcohol serving) training; state open bottle laws, hours of operation and compliance.
The committee will invite E. John Morocco, retired public safety commissioner, and License Commission Chairman Jeff Polucci to its next meeting in August to discuss the issue in more depth.
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West End Market's Time Running Out
Joanne DeRose makes the acquaintance of her colleagues on the Planning Board. DeRose was appointed to replace the late Edna Rudnick.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Planning Board is awaiting a legal opinion before it continues a permit for the West End Market at 437 West Main St.
Barry Garton purchased the historic market four years ago from Charles Huberdeau, who operated a secondhand and antiques shop there, with the intention of relocating his coffeehouse Brewhaha from Marshall Street. But time and money has forced him to change his plans.
"The extent of the renovation was such that we just decided to do everything that needed to be done," said Garton. "Basically, the money that I borrowed to move there, to shut down and to buy new equipment, all got eaten up by the renovations."
Garton now wants to lease the space but is running into a two-year permit deadline that could see the commercial site revert to residential.
"I'm a little at a loss to be honest with you," Building Inspector William Meranti told the planners. "I think that in all fairness to Mr. Garton, he has been working on it and it has not been abandoned ... for that period of time."
According to the city ordinance, the variance runs out after a property has been unused or abandoned for two years. There's no spot zoning to grandfather it so it reverts to residential.
Chairman Michael Leary said it was obvious a significant amount of work has gone into the building but the board couldn't extend a permit without having the legal authority to do so, particularly not knowing who might be taking over the property or when it might happen.
He cited the 2006 permit as stating "this permit shall lapse on Oct. 16, 2006, if substantial use has not started at that time."
"It doesn't say substantial construction, it doesn't say substantial work, its says substantial use," said Leary "... the question is how does the city define substantial use?"
If the permit lapsed in 2008, the question is moot. If the permit is good throughout the "work period," even if it's four years, then the two-year deadline begins now. That would give Barton time to find a leasee for the spot.
David Babcock's last meeting was Monday. After serving on the board for more than two decades, Babcock is retiring.
"I see an art gallery or an office of some kind but the storefront would remain the same," he said, because the intent had been to maintain the historic porcelain front with the West End Market name.
Planner Wayne Wilkinson described the opinion as a "test case."
"There's a bunch of commercial buildings in North Adams that are in the exact same situation," he said. "They haven't been used in two years; their obvious only use is a commercial use."
He pointed to the former NAPA store on State Road as one example that's sitting vacant because it can no longer be used for commercial purposes because it's reverted to residential after two years being vacant. "We need to change the ordinance or come up with a new idea," he said.
The board continued the matter until its next meeting pending an opinion from the city solicitor.
The board also welcomed a new member and bid farewell to an old one.
Joanne DeRose attended her first meeting as the mayor's appointment to fill the seat held by the late Edna Rudnick. DeRose is an account executive at National Grid and member of the city Democratic Committee and the North Adams Rotary Club. Rudnick died last fall.
David Babcock ended his term on the board at 22 years, three months after asking the mayor not to reappoint him. Babcock is retiring from BerkshireWorks on Sept. 9. Leary personally thanked him for the years of service he's given the city of North Adams.
Wilkinson and Paul Senecal were selected as the nominating committee for the Feb. 14 election of officers.
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