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Much-debated Zoning Overlay on Fall Agenda

September 27, 2018

BILLERICA -- An update to local bylaws regulating recreational marijuana, new teeth to sewer hook-up requirements and a proposed zoning overlay that has divided the Board of Selectmen will all come up for discussion at the upcoming Fall Town Meeting.

The meeting will start Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall and continue subsequent Tuesdays and Thursdays until members address all 34 articles.

In recent weeks, a pair of articles creating a mixed use zoning overlay at Technology Park, has generated conversation and some backlash.

Article 41 amends zoning bylaws to allow commercial, residential and industrial uses to more easily coexist. Article 42 locates this zoning overlay at Technology Park.

Unlike the three other planned unit development overlays, or PUDs, in Billerica, this industrial-specific version requires developments to be planned on at least five acre parcels. Other PUD overlay language passed by the town, only required about one and a half acres.

However, Selectmen Mike Rosa and George Simolaris have expressed concern regarding this plan and unsuccessfully tried to amend the previously approved proposal Monday.

The Board of Selectmen voted down the measure in a 3-2 vote.

Both said they would support the overlay if the residential component was dropped.

Conceivably, Rosa argued the 130-acre overlay district could fit over 5,000 condos if built to the 60 foot building height maximum, potentially overloading town sewer resources, throwing the town’s affordable housing requirement out of whack and generating traffic.

“The question is do we need anymore condos in Billerica?” he said.

If even a few hundred residential units are built Simolaris said “it’s going to be a burden to our schools, public safety systems and traffic.”

Though the Planning Board has final say on projects, Rosa said he is concerned because there is no plan, so residents don’t know what is coming into the area.

Billerica Community Development Director Rob Anderson said while 5,000 units is mathematically possible, the number does not take into consideration other factors like buffer zones or existing buildings.

Currently, Technology Park is primarily offices and parking lots. Despite a thriving economy, the complex has struggled with a vacancy rate “north of 30 percent,” according to town officials.

“Anytime a developer isn’t picking up the phone and suggesting something, that’s the worst case,” Anderson said.

The overlay is a way to attract interest in the park, by increasing the possible uses of the area, he said.

The articles were recommended by the Finance Committee.

Also on the warrant:

* Town Meeting Representatives will consider instituting a fine for residents who do not connect to the sewer.

Article 36 would add teeth to a bylaw that has been on the books since 1974.

According to the proposal, residents who do not connect will receive a surcharge equivalent to about 60 percent of the cost of an annual residential wastewater bill. Town Manager John Curran said the total annual payment would be about $240.

The town has spent tens of millions on sewer upgrades and Curran said if people don’t connect, the town cannot make “financial assumptions” about revenue from sewer fees.

“We’re spending $90 million on sewer and if you’re telling me only 40 percent of the people are going to connect it’s not sustainable financially to continue to spend,” he told selectmen.

According to the warrant, over 630 residents are currently violating the bylaw amounting to $200,000 in lost revenue annually. Town officials say non-contributors are driving up the rate for people who do connect by about $15 per user.

The Finance Committee had not made a recommendation on the proposal as of Tuesday afternoon.

For those who struggling to afford the cost of connecting, which can be several thousand dollars, Article 29 establishes a low interest loan program for qualifying residents to connect to the town sewer.

* Billerica’s medical marijuana regulations will come before town meeting to be amended and expanded to govern recreational marijuana.

The town’s moratorium on recreational marijuana expires at the end of the year.

Like medical marijuana, recreational businesses will be limited to an industrial area off Route 3, including Republic, Esquire and Sterling roads.

In the language, the buffer zone for uses like schools and playgrounds was cut in half from 1,000 to 500 feet after a youth gym moved into the area, limiting eligible locations.

The bylaws also call for a 3 percent local sales tax on recreational marijuana.

Article 30 through 32, 34 and 35 address marijuana. All are recommended by the Finance Committee.

* For it’s first round of appropriations, the Community Preservation Commission recommends $1.6 million for projects around the town.

Article 25 proposes funding for affordable housing, historical document preservation, repairs to the Clara Sexton Memorial Museum, renovation of the Howe School, exterior work on the Middlesex Canal Museum, design and construction of fields and disc golf.

The Finance Committee recommended this article.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins

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