At the annual town meeting on May 5 and 6 the town took decisive action on the attempt to create a new strip zone by citizen’s petition. The applicants, led by Dick Conway and George Clark, sought to include their properties on Hollis Street in an expanded commercial district that would extend clear to the Rotary.

Despite the fact that the Planning Board hearing on the article in March had encountered strong opposition from many of the property owners within the proposed district who had no desire to live in a commercial district, the applicants seemed taken aback when the same irate folks showed at the ATM. It was clear that they had no problem with existing commercial properties such as Clark, Conway, the daycare center, and Matley’s being rezoned, but they had major objections to bringing the congestion, noise, litter, and traffic that might accompany extending the commercial district into their own residential neighborhood.  The question was almost put to a vote on Monday night, which would have resulted its defeat (zoning articles need approval by 2/3s of those voting).

The applicants should have anticipated this opposition and realized that the town would never put through a zoning change over the resistance of affected property owners, and have prepared an amendment to reduce the size of the proposed district. But they didn’t.  They were saved from certain defeat by the moderator, who instead of taking a vote invited amendments from the floor.  Had the opposition been better organized or a little more sophisticated, they would have simply called for a vote and defeated the article. Instead, they took the bait—“I want to amend by taking my property out of the district.”  Someone else suggested adjourning so that more property owners could be consulted.  And the meeting was adjourned to the following night.

When the meeting had resumed, someone apparently had convinced the applicants to introduce their own amendment, which now reduced the expansion to the five allegedly commercial properties.  This was adopted and passed. Although any expansion of the commercial district at a time when demand for retail and office space is at an all-time low (at least since the 1930s) is unwise, some good things have come out of this. For many years it has been an article of faith by Town Counsel, the Planning Board, and the Town Meeting that the town must avoid illegal “spot zoning,” which has been defined to mean non-continuous districts of almost any size.  Commercial districts need to be expanded by accretions of existing districts, that is, ever-expanding commercial strips, or so we were told.

But not this time. By adopting these changes the town created three, small, disconnected commercial districts, rather than a linear strip. Is this bad? The residents of Hollis Street didn’t think so.  They felt that just because part of Hollis Street is commercial, there’s no need for their entire block to go the same way, even if they have commercial neighbors.  For years we’ve been hearing the argument that if there’s commercial activity near a residential district, then it makes sense to rezone the entire neighborhood commercial.  Does it?

At a time when there’s little demand for commercial space too rapid expansion of the commercial district risks spreading existing over a larger area without any overall improvement in commercial activity.  This sloppy sprawl has a name—blight. Property owners wonder whether they should improve or maintain buildings that might be soon torn down for commercial use.

Still, it would have been better had this article been defeated, since it expands the existing “free-fire” commercial zone, which provides very little protection (nearly any commercial use is allowed, without architectural review or adequate sign control).  The planning board has charged a citizens committee with developing new guidelines for a new, more neighborhood-friendly, limited commercial zone, and this should have waited until this had been completed.

Four of the five properties rezoned commercial are already being used for clearly commercial purposes (the day care center is allowed under current zoning, but it is housed in a former bait and tackle shop).  But the fifth, the assisted living home, was not.  There is little commercial in this property’s appearance.  The land is currently zoned for this use, and was already an assisted living facility when the present owners bought it several years ago.  Any gain that the owners would realize as a result of this rezoning would be a windfall profit, since the existing zoning was reflected in their purchase price.  And the town now faces the very real possibility that this pleasant-appearing structure could be replaced by a fast-food restaurant, strip mall, bowling alley, tire dealership, or other use inappropriate for land adjacent to a town field or school.

For years businessmen and women have been telling us that the town needs more commercially zoned land, and that the present supply is inadequate.  Well, their bluff has been called. Let’s see what goes into this new commercial district, and whether or not the town can really attract new businesses.