Zoning Overhaul Meeting - Jul 13th, 2017

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Tonight's public meeting was held to present the second reading draft of Arlington's Zoning Bylaw recodification. There were four sections to the meeting agenda.

  1. Introductory Presentation
  2. A short questions and answer period
  3. Table exercises
  4. Reports from table discussions.

I presented a personal perspective on zoning and permitting during the introductory presentation. My remarks are below.

My name is Steve Revilak, and I'm a member of the Zoning recodification working group. I joined this group for two reasons. First, I'm a town meeting member. Town meeting is responsible for deliberating and voting on proposed changes to our zoning bylaw, and I've always found these articles pretty interesting. The second reason comes from my experience with a home renovation project.
I live on Sunnyside Ave, which runs along the Alewife Brook in East Arlington. We were planning to re-do an addition. I live in a flood plain, so any renovations that might impact the flood plain have to be reviewed by the Conservation Commission. I appreciate that; as someone who lives in a floodplain, I understand the importance of managing this kind of resource. So, we went before the conservation commission, made the changes they requested, and received our Notice of Intent.
I also live on a non-conforming lot: it's a single family attached house, on 3000 square foot lot. Our property has been non-conforming since the last ZBL rewrite in 1975. Because of the non-conformity, any change to the exterior dimensions of our house requires a special permit, period. Since we had already done an NOI, the special permit application was pretty straightforward -- once I figured out that are two special permit granting authorities in town: the ARB and the ZBA.
Both boards issue "special permits", but they have very different functions. The ARB mostly deals with large projects along the town's major corridors, and their application requirements are pretty extensive. I happened to find the ARB's special permit instructions first, which had me worried for a while. Eventually I realized I'd have to go before the ZBA, and their application is much less involved.
In the end, we decided not to go forward with the renovations -- I filled out the special permit application but never turned it in; the construction estimates were more than we could afford.
In retrospect, it was very educational to go through this process. I've learned that permitting is a lot of work for a homeowner, particularly when a project has to be reviewed by several bodies within the down.
I'd like to think we can make this process easier for homeowners, in in terms of figuring out what they can do with their homes, and in terms of navigating the permitting process itself.
What you'll see tonight is a (proposed) recodification of Arlington's Zoning Bylaws. As an earlier speaker said, we've made a conscious decision to avoid making policy changes right now. But I think we've made a big improvement in terms of readability and understandability. And I hope that helps.

Notes from the Q&A section

(?) Martin, Architect: Is there a particular model bylaw that you used as a reference when doing the recodification?

No, the recodification was based on the language in Arlington's current zoning Bylaw.

John Worden: For the last recodification, we made a cross reference of sections in the old bylaw to sections in the new bylaw. Are you planning to do a cross-reference?

We weren't planning on doing a cross reference, but a zoning diagnostic will have a summary of what changed.

Elizabeth Pyle: I'd like to see a key, or some sort of document that provides an overview of the changes.

Chris Loretti: I'd like to know why each change was made, and who requested it. Also how will sign bylaws be enforced if they're moved out of zoning and into the general bylaws?

We're still figuring out how sign enforcement will work.

?: What was the budget for this work?


Notes from table reports

Each table was asked to discuss three questions

  1. Introductions
  2. What issues have you encountered in reading, understanding or using the current zoning bylaw?
  3. What could make the Bylaw more user friendly?

Some tables discussed these questions, and some didn't. What follows is a collection of comments made after the table exercise.

A guide to using the Zoning Bylaw would help (but this should be a document that's separate from the bylaw itself).

I'd like to have definitions hyperlinked in the electronic copy of the document. So when a defined term is used, you could click to see the definition.

The Zoning Bylaw references several state laws. It would be nice if those references were hyperlinked.

Definitions should include examples, in plain language. For example, our group tried to figure out if we could put up a shed. "Shed" doesn't appear in the definitions. (i.e., it wasn't immediately clear that a shed is a type of accessory structure).

An FAQ would be helpful. This should also be separate from the Zoning bylaw.

In the current zoning bylaw, many things are scattered around and there are too many footnotes.

We'd like the web version of the new ZBL to be user-friendly. In particular, it should be easy to search.

We'd like to see more pictures and diagrams.

The new ZBL should include a map of the zoning districts.

A clearer format might be helpful for town meeting members. It would be easier for them to understand the effect of proposed zoning changes.

It would be nice to have a way to track changes going forward, so we can see how the ZBL changes over time.

As part of this process, it would be nice to see a list of things that aren't being addressed now, but are expected to be addressed later.

There are really two audiences for the ZBL: homeowners and developers. The recodification should keep both audiences in mind.

It would be nice to have a way to understand why some of the definitions are the way they are.

It would be good to break complex paragraphs up into lists.

There's a concern that some very recent case law decisions may not be reflected in the recodification.

Could you look at how other towns have organized the sections of their ZBL, and how they've used hyperlinks. You might be able to get some ideas from them.

The ZBL sites sections of Massachusetts laws. I'd like to go back to including the text of the Massachusetts laws verbatim, rather having references to it.

I'd like to see a specific list of changes that were made to conform to case law.

I hope you'll do a careful proofread of the new bylaw. You have to make sure that simplifying the language doesn't introduce unintentional policy changes.