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GB planners eye a zoning fix for dozens of noncompliant properties on State Road

"The new zone would continue to allow retail and commercial establishments, like the current B-2, but it would also allow for a variety of residential uses." -- Great Barrington Town Planner Chris Rembold

Great Barrington — Zoning. To some it’s a mystery. To others, it’s a surefire cure for insomnia. To still others, it’s just a pain in the posterior.

The town government is keenly aware of those who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous zoning, so its members have set about trying to streamline the approvals process for projects and to bring nonconforming properties into compliance with a zoning code that is, in some case, simply outdated and unworkable. Indeed, making appropriate revisions to the zoning code was one of the goals of the town’s award-winning master plan.

Great Barrington Planning Board member Jack Musgrove, second from right, responds to a question during the Jan. 25 meeting. To his left is member Jeremy Higa. To his right are, from left, Town Planner Chris Rembold, recording secretary Kimberly Shaw, Chairperson Brandee Nelson and member Jonathan Hankin. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The Great Barrington Planning Board has actually created new zoning designations for parts of town in recent years. Three years ago, the board successfully rezoned the village of Housatonic, relieving residents and business owners of the burden of outdated and restrictive zoning bylaws. For much the same reason, a new zoning designation, Mixed Use Transitional (MXD) was created for a handful of streets connecting South Main Street to Maple Avenue.

This year the board has turned its attention to State Road, that section of routes 7 and 23 that stretches from the so-called Brown Bridge to the traffic light at Belcher Square where Route 23 East breaks with Route 7.

Many homes and multi-family residences on State Road are out of compliance with zoning. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Last Thursday (Jan. 25), the board discussed a draft proposal it’s been working on for months: changing the zoning designation of that area. Currently it’s zoned for general business (in this case, known officially as B-2) and has been since at least 1960, when the town’s zoning code was substantially overhauled. Great Barrington actually established its first zoning code in 1931, well before most other towns in the region.

That means residential structures such as homes and apartments are either out of compliance with the zoning bylaws or their use is restricted. Same goes for many of the lots that fail to meet the setback and size requirements of B-2. In addition to State Road, lots include parcels on small portions of Avery Lane, Gilmore Avenue, Mechanic Street and Hillside Avenue. Both the structures and the lots are, however, grandfathered in because they were in existence – largely in their current forms – before 1960.

What are practical implications for a typical property owner in that neighborhood? Well, let’s say you own a home on State Road that is out of compliance and you want to add an improvement such as a small deck on the back of the house. Since your home does not conform with B-2, you will need a special permit.

A special permit might not sound like a big deal, but it definitely is. Special-permit applications are often complicated and difficult for the layman to complete. So in order to build a simple $1,500 deck, a homeowner might have to hire a lawyer or consultant to complete the application and represent the homeowner before the Great Barrington Zoning Board of Appeals, which would hold a hearing, consider the application and grant the special permit, attach conditions to it or reject it altogether – all while the lawyer’s meter is running. That could double or triple the price of a small project such as a deck.

If it passes muster with residents at the annual town meeting Monday, May 7, the new zoning designation will be known by the snazzy name of B-2X.

“The new zone would continue to allow retail and commercial establishments, like the current B-2, but it would also allow for a variety of residential uses,” Town Planner Chris Rembold wrote to property owners in a Jan. 11 letter. “The overarching goal of this effort is to bring currently nonconforming structures and uses into conformance to the extent possible, allow for mixed uses and variety of housing options, and reduce parking requirements.”

Click here to read Rembold’s letter and to view a draft of the proposed zoning revision and amended zoning map.

This is what the town’s zoning map would look like if the proposed amendments are approved at the annual town meeting Monday, May 7. The proposed B-2X zone is in brown. Image courtesy Great Barrington Planning Department

“The primary goal is to fix the zoning imposed in 1960 which did not reflect the pattern of usages at the time,” Rembold told the dozen or so residents and business owners who showed up at the meeting at the firehouse.

Rembold said existing businesses and existing residences would not be affected. Planning board Chair Brandee Nelson added that the meeting was a public hearing but she “wanted to give the neighbors an opportunity to ask questions.”

The B-2X designation will not only affect State Road but small portions of other streets that intersect with it such as East Street, Gilmore Avenue, Mechanic Street, Avery Lane and Hillside Avenue.

One woman, who declined to identify herself but lives in one of the affected areas of those streets, asked whether B-2X would affect her ability to turn her home into a business. Rembold said B-2X would allow her to operate a small home-based business “but using the lot primarily as a business will not permitted.”

Members of the audience ask questions of the Great Barrington Planning Board at its Jan. 25 meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The woman wondered if the rezoning was “an asset” the town would be taking away from her. She then asked whether such a rezoning would have any implications for the value of her property and the taxes she pays on it.

“A simple rezoning does not trigger automatic increase or decrease,” Rembold replied. “Values are based on recent [comparable] sales.”

If a rezoning were to trigger a marked increase in sales – lower or higher – then it could affect the value of the properties, and therefore the amount of the tax liability.

“It’s almost impossible to tie it directly to a rezoning,” Rembold said.

Ray Almori, who owns Plaza Package, asked whether the new rezoning would affect current parking requirements, which he described as “onerous.” The town regulations for off-street parking require, among other things, one space for each 200 square feet of net usable floor area. Almori described that as unnecessary and a financial burden for someone with a business such as his.

Rembold said that, in B-2X, unless a business is “substantially expanded,” no new spaces will be required. “Substantial” is defined as expansion beyond 20 percent or 500 square feet, whichever is less. Even then the owner could apply for a waiver through the special-permit process. A permit could be granted if the applicant demonstrates that the extra spaces are not needed.

That came as a relief to Almori, who, in 2014, bought three properties known as the Ely Block just to the east of his package store and across the street from a Sunoco gas station and car wash.

Workers remove items from the old Ely Block grocery store in advance of its demolition in August 2014. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The properties had been falling down and in disrepair for at least 20 years. Almori demolished the rundown apartment building next to his package store and a former grocery store adjacent to the apartment building. The decrepit grocery store had especially concerned town officials after a portion of its roof had collapsed several years earlier.

Since the demolitions, Almori has been eying the now-vacant lots as a location for some sort of retail operation but was concerned about the town’s parking requirement both for the expense it would entail and amount of property the unnecessary parking spaces would take up. But he said, after the meeting, he was relieved that the new regulations would be more flexible on parking.

The planning board continued its discussions and announced that it will hold a public hearing on the proposed B-2X rezoning Thursday, March 8 at 6 p.m. in Town Hall.

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