Commercial Zoning?

So what’s wrong with Pepperell’s current commercial zoning? Plenty. Unlike many other towns, Pepperell has only one commercial district (but no fewer than 5 residential districts!). The one-size-fits-all approach seldom works in zoning, and this is no exception. Among the many things that are wrong the following are the most grievous:

  1. Multi-family housing: One basic principal of zoning is that commercial uses, especially busy ones like shopping centers, fast-food-restaurants, and movie theaters, should be kept out of residential areas. Unfortunately, the Pepperell Zoning Bylaws allows apartments anywhere in the commercial districts, and then permits even the busiest, noisiest uses next door. When Pepperell’s current zoning was adopted 40 years ago apartments were thought of as commercial uses because they were operated as businesses (real estate property management). Remember that in the early 1970s there were such things as condominiums: all multi-family housing was rental (unless one of the apartments was occupied by the owner). Because of low demand for commercial real estate in Pepperell, much of our commercial zone is taken up with housing. The next time someone says to you that we need to expand the commercial zone, ask them why this: if there really is a shortage of commercial real estate, why are there so many apartments in the commercial zone? Why aren’t some of these being converted to stores and offices?
  2. Anything goes: Virtually any commercial (and most industrial uses) are allowed in our commercial district. There are no restrictions on the size of the buildings, except for parking requirements. Among the permitted uses are big box stores, car washes, tire dealers, supermarkets, hospitals, hotels, banks, fast food restaurants, body shops, nursing homes, funeral homes, miniature golf courses, and flea markets. Take a drive down Webster Highway or Amherst Street in Nashua. Just about anything you see there can be built in our commercial zone. How many of these do we really want in our town? Do we really want Pepperell to look like, say, Dracut, Billerica, or Salem, NH? Some people wish it did.
  3. Inadequate review by town: Although a site plan permit is required for larger projects, there is no mandatory architectural review by any town board. The only architectural guidelines are in section 9446 which requires applicants to “minimize unreasonable departure from the character, materials, and scale of buildings in the vicinity, as viewed from public ways and places.” Sounds good, but ultimately meaningless, since “unreasonable, ” “materials” (visible?) and “vicinity” are undefined. Does “character” refer to architectural style or something more subjective?
  4. Traffic: Section 9462 requires applicants to “maximize pedestrian and vehicular safety on the site, egressing from it, and in the immediate vicinity.” Unfortunately, safety, isn’t the same thing as traffic flow. When I was on the planning board in the 1990s we approved the drive-through window for the Duncan Doughnuts. The result was serious traffic jams on Main Street on Saturday mornings from customers backing up at the window. Fortunately for the town, the owner was willing to work with us to help solve the problem. Someone less public-spirited, however, could have told us to go to hell, since the congestion, although a major headache to drivers, wasn’t really dangerous. Stopped traffic doesn’t cause much accidents. Therefore, an applicant could refuse to undertake traffic mitigation improvements (say, an expensive traffic light) on the grounds that the light isn’t needed for safety, since the traffic jams caused by his business actually reduce the severity of accidents (by lowering speed!). Many judges would undoubtedly agree.

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