There was a good crowd at Wednesday hearing seeking clarification or changes to how their property was being zoned under the new designations.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The effort to bring the city's zoning up to date has been "very slow and very tedious," beginning several years ago with cleaning up language and sections in the ordinances and moving on to the latest update of aligning zones with property boundaries.
"This is a work in progress, very slow, very methodical, very tedious," said Director of Community Development Michael Nuvallie. "We want to do it well, we want to make sure we cross all the t's and dot the i's."
More than 300 letters were sent to property owners affected by the alignment and change in zoning designations. That caused some consternation as landowners tried to figure out what the changes would mean and prompted strong attendance at Wednesday's public hearing in City Council Chambers.
A team including the Community Development and Assessor's offices, inspection services and the mayor's office and facilitated by Nathaniel Karns, the retired director of Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, who stepped in because of BRPC staffing changes, have worked on the maps streamline the city's zones and color code them. The goal is to modernize the zones and usage tables and be able to put them into a Geographic Information Systems format.
"We wanted to make sure we heard from everyone," said Mayor Thomas Bernard. "I just really appreciate everybody who's coming out to ask questions to see the work that's been done so far, to push back on it.
"This isn't the end of the process. This is kind of the middle of the middle of the beginning of the process."
Nuvallie said the work in part flows from the city's comprehensive master plan, Vision 2030, that was created through a community participation process and that has aided the city in realizing grants and funding for projects.
"But the issue was when this was adopted in May of 2014, we suddenly realized that it laid on top of old antiquated zoning," he said, holding up the thick book. "So we've got a brand-new document on one hand, and we've got — if you open up the first part of the book — zoning adopted in 1965."
Planners have had to categorize new uses that would never have come up 50 years — solar arrays and wind turbines, personal storage structures, microbreweries and marijuana production. The first pass-through reduced 16 sections to 13 and got rid of antiquated terms like sanitarium.
The city is continuing to tweak the old zoning ordinances. "That's what we're trying to do tonight, nothing more nothing less," Nuvallie said.
The major issue the working group found in going over the old zoning maps was a proliferation of zones and parcels split by zones. The current zones will be reduced to more straightforward designations with the nearly 20 zones reduced to five Residential zones ranging from R-1 (the least density) to R-5 (highest density); three business zones; and one designation each for service, industrial, airport, and urban renewal.
"So we want to create boundary lines for new zone maps that take advantage of actual boundaries, and not run a line through the middle of someone's house," Nuvallie said.
Building Inspector William Meranti said the old zoning might state that the industrial or residential zone included property 200 feet from the road — but what if the parcel was 240 feet deep? What zone was that in?
Now the zones will be surveyable because they will align with property boundaries rather than arbitrary distances.
The uses inside these zones will not be significantly altered, if at all, a concept that a few at the meeting were having trouble accepting.
"Don't get hung up on the title," Karns said. "Basically, it's a name change, that's the only thing that these changes."
Those landowners have been affected by the changes were later able to get answers on their specific properties and provide feedback on any issues; anyone not at the meeting can contact the Community Development Office with questions. The proposed changes will be reviewed again before being presented to the Planning Board and City Council for another public hearing.
The working group will also be looking at the use tables in more depth in the coming months.
Developer and artist Eric Rudd encouraged the working group to consider current and future uses that will help facilitate the city's growth, recalling his own efforts in changing minds when he developed the Beaver Mill and Eclipse Mill into work/live spaces.
At the time, he was limited to arts and creative studios but the city should be thinking of the future — or to the past, when live/work spaces were the norm in every neighborhood.
"I've always found it instructive to kind of take a macro view of things before you get so buried into all the details," Rudd said. "And the macro view is that 150 years ago, 125 years ago, people came to North Adams and built a house, built a carriage house or a barn, and they opened up a carpentry shop or a blacksmith shop, whatever they wanted to do."
Rudd says he gets calls regularly from people inquiring about live/work space and he doesn't feel the city's zoning is being responsive to those needs. A home business or art gallery probably would have the same number of deliveries as the average homeowner gets from Amazon nowadays.
"We should advertise to the world, come to North Adams to have live/work," he said. "Come to our residential areas, take these old houses and have a studio, have a little gallery, have a computer business, and work that way, because that's the way society is changing."
Karns said the uses for mills have been dramatically expanded by right or by special permit to redevelop into hotels, restaurants, microbreweries and living spaces, among other uses.
"They're not going back to the bench manufacturing and what they were built for," he said. "When we look at what the different owners are doing for the different mills ... I think we've tried to accommodate that very well."
Meranti said home businesses are also allowed by special permit to operate if they have no or minimal traffic but that a gallery — a studio with a sign and open to customers — he agreed would not be allowed under current residential zoning.
"I think that what we're doing is we're picking the low-hanging fruit at the moment," he said, like cleaning up designations, lot lines and archaic language. "We aren't making wholesale zoning changes in this round."
Rudd said he would be willing to participate in discussions on how the city could open up zoning to more creative uses.
"This should be the time we use as an opportunity to try to look into the future," he said. "Try to open up our arms wider and invite a lot more people here who will do much more interesting stuff and make North Adams much more interesting."
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