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Let's fix our zoning recodification process

The following viewpoint is by Christopher Loreti, the former appointee of governors Romney and Patrick to the Arlington Redevelopment Board.

The public process the Town of Arlington has adopted for the recodification of its zoning bylaw is seriously flawed. Instead of seeking genuine public input on the changes it is making, the town would have you believe that with a few exceptions it has identified, it is currently not making any substantive changes to the bylaw. This is simply not true.

The party line adopted by the town is that the initial revision to the zoning bylaw merely reorganizes it to make it easier to use and make it consistent with state and federal law. In fact, the revised bylaw contains many substantive changes that those involved in the process either won’t acknowledge or in some cases don’t even seem to be aware of.

Variety of changes

A look at the most recent publicly available version of the revised bylaw the “second reading draft” includes a variety of changes of interest to Arlington residents:

  • If the neighbor uphill from you plans to build a 10-foot retaining wall near your property line (as recently happened to the poor abutter of 50 Washington St.), you should know that the revised bylaw drops “retaining wall” from the definition of a structure, meaning the wall no longer needs to comply with the setback requirements for an accessory structure.

  • If you are concerned that your neighbor is operating a beauty parlor out of his house in your residential neighborhood, you should know that the revised bylaw drops “beauty parlor” and other similar businesses from those prohibited as home occupations.

  • If you don’t like all the commercial cargo vans and pickup trucks parked in the driveways on your street, you should know that the revised zoning bylaw no longer considers commercial vehicles of less than 10,000 pounds gross weight to be commercial vehicles. This means that as many as space allows can be parked on a residential lot anywhere cars are permitted to park.

  • And if you are concerned about potential 40B developments in town, such as the one planned for the Mugar site, you should know that the revised bylaw drops a provision enacted by Town Meeting several years ago that requires the chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals to administer oaths to those testifying at 40B hearings. 

Would reduce current protections

This is just a sampling of the unacknowledged changes that are being made to the zoning bylaw, all of which reduce the current protections the bylaw gives to Arlington residents.

The public process the town is using to make these changes has yet to include any public discussion of the changes — and is not expected to do so — prior to the legally mandated public hearing that is held by the Arlington Redevelopment Board (ARB) for all zoning bylaw changes. By that time, it is too late for any final revisions to receive full consideration before the bylaw is presented to Town Meeting for a vote.

The ARB missed an opportunity for meaningful public participation at its July 13 forum on the zoning recodification. Instead, it chose to stack the meeting with public officials involved in the recodification process, provided no comprehensive list of all the changes being made to the bylaw and the reasons for them and avoided any discussion of the bylaw changes.

Instead, it focused the discussion on the process and on usability enhancements to the bylaw. Read it here >> This sort of input would have been far more timely if it had been sought before the project started, rather than after the second draft of the revised bylaw was released.

Suggestions before Sept. 14 forum

The next public forum on the zoning bylaw recodification is scheduled for Sept. 14. Here are a few suggestions for the ARB to make it more useful for Arlington residents:

  • Rather than leaving it to the public to ferret out all the changes to the bylaw, the ARB should require the proponents of all the changes (other than those that are purely editorial) to identify the changes in relation to the existing bylaw and explain why they are needed, just as citizens are expected to do when they propose bylaw changes.

  • All of the additions to and deletion from the existing bylaw, and the reasons for them, should be summarized in a document available to the public several weeks before the forum. (This includes sign regulations that have been repealed from the zoning bylaw but not replaced elsewhere).

  • Instead of taking much of the forum time to describe the process, for consultants to wax about the benefits of recodification, or for committee members to talk about their experience with the bylaw, the time should be used for the public to ask questions about and comment on the proposed changes.

  • Table exercises should be eliminated. The purpose of a public forum is not to demonstrate support for the organizer’s predetermined agenda; it is for the public to be heard.

  • ACMi, the town’s cable-TV station, should be invited to film the forum to make it more widely available to residents.

While most people familiar with the town’s zoning bylaw would agree that it needs to be more clearly written and updated both for internal consistency and consistency with state and federal laws, the town needs to be much more transparent about all of the changes it is making.

Instead of conducting a sales job to convince Town Meeting to adopt the revised bylaw, the town needs to engage the public in the process by fully disclosing and seeking feedback on the proposed bylaw changes. Arlington residents deserve no less.


Aug. 1, 2017: 40 participate in effort to make zoning code clearer


This viewpoint was published Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017.

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Comments

Mark Rosenthal on Wednesday, 09 August 2017 23:57
Who can average Town citizens complain to if the ARB proves recalcitrant?

First, I'd like to thank Christopher Loreti for alerting town residents to the fact that, under the guise of "recodification", the Arlington Redevelopment Board is proposing many changes to the zoning bylaw that are in fact quite substantive and harmful to the interests of Arlington residents, despite the ARB's claims to the contrary.

However, I'm afraid I find the section "Suggestions before Sept. 14 forum" to be unhelpful. It's a list of suggestions for the Arlington Redevelopment Board. Since that's the very body that seems committed to making substantive changes while denying that that's what they're doing, I'm skeptical that the ARB will take those suggestions to heart.

What would be more helpful is an explanation of the power structure, so that average town residents will know who, if anybody, the Redevelopment Board members report to, and how the ARB members get onto the board in the first place.

First, I'd like to thank Christopher Loreti for alerting town residents to the fact that, under the guise of "recodification", the Arlington Redevelopment Board is proposing many changes to the zoning bylaw that are in fact quite substantive and harmful to the interests of Arlington residents, despite the ARB's claims to the contrary. However, I'm afraid I find the section "Suggestions before Sept. 14 forum" to be unhelpful. It's a list of suggestions for the Arlington Redevelopment Board. Since that's the very body that seems committed to making substantive changes while denying that that's what they're doing, I'm skeptical that the ARB will take those suggestions to heart. What would be more helpful is an explanation of the power structure, so that average town residents will know who, if anybody, the Redevelopment Board members report to, and how the ARB members get onto the board in the first place.
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