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Reality Returns to Planning Board: HDC Recognized Design Authority In Center

With discussions continuing on Town Center District Design Guidelines, Planning Board Chairman John Giger distributed a map of Groton center to his colleagues "so that we can all agree on the locus for the design guidelines." He said that the "area under discussion starts at 134 Main St. to Rte. 40 picking up the Groton Inn property and Lawrence Academy's Waters House. It then travels across Main Street, down Broadmeadow Road to the Rail Trail, connecting with the current Station Overlay District properties, and includes buildings along Main Street - the Robertson house next to Town Hall, Prescott School, Ace Hardware and the mall."

Land Use Director Michelle Collette said that it would require an article be presented before Town Meeting to "make any design guidelines restrictive on these properties." Giger responded, "We want to have something broad, covering a larger area as property is put into the Town Center Overlay District, then use the Design Guidelines. Are we going to define these if in fact you put these properties into the overlay district?"

Collette stated that she felt this was a legal question regarding a 'de facto zone. Can we do this without town meeting vote?" Giger added, "We had to go to town meeting to put 134 Main Street in the district." She said she felt that this was a jurisdictional question regarding design guidelines, the overlay district and other properties, adding, "How do you do this? It is tied to legislative action at Town Meetings."

Planner George Barringer asked, "Are we saying that these are guidelines or regulations. Are they voluntary guidelines? If you make this law, it will have to correlate with zoning."

Giger said that the challenge is to try to write a set of guidelines to fit everything. He reminded his colleagues that during a site walk from Hollis St. to the Natural Food Market, it was clear that participants wanted to continue to view Gibbet Hill from the north side of Main St. "It is different on the other side of Main St.. If you want to divide these into districts, you will need guidelines for each set of lots," he said. He added that there were not sufficient funds for the consultant Peter Flinker to expand his scope from the Mobil Station to the railroad bridge. "We would need to go back to Town Meeting for more money," he said.

Giger cautioned that current design guidelines apply to a subset of properties in the district. Barringer pointed out that the "guidelines are voluntary until the property is put into the Town Center Overlay District zone - and a property owner decides if they want to go into the Town Center Overlay District."

Collette noted, "One could argue that instead of going lot by lot, it makes more sense for the board to make a recommendation for the best zoning for the area. It would be an uphill battle politically. The Town Center Overlay District is a tool that can be used. The Board doesn't have jurisdiction over these except through Site Plan, and it really is a split with the Historic Districts Commission (HDC). Our best hope is that the Historic Districts Commission would adopt the same guidelines."

Chairman Giger stressed that both sides of Main St. fall within the jurisdiction of the Historic Districts Committee. "The question is how to differentiate the responsibility between the Planning Board and the Historic Districts Commission."

Selectman Anna Eliot observed, "One is process and the other is where you want to have a certain type of build out." Collette responded that the only way to do mixed use is in an overlay district.

According to Collette, the HDC has authority over the whole area and helped author the Design Review Guidelines - and has jurisdiction over Groton School and Lawrence Academy. Giger added, "In the Historic District, it is their responsibility except for public safety and parking."

Barringer stressed, "We should not have a Design Review Committee in the Historic District. All of this responsibility belongs to the HDC with the exception of access and density and control over the design guidelines."

"There are only four lots in the overlay district on Main St.," Giger said, adding, "We make it hard on a developer caught between the two town boards."

Planner Jason Parent reiterated a suggestion he made at an earlier meeting that there needs to be a joint meeting between the Planning Board and the HDC in the very near future to discuss their ideas, go through the guidelines, and determine their willingness to use these guidelines. "We can put in our own things such as access and 'connectivity' in place. Without the HDC adopting the guidelines, they are meaningless. The only place where they could be adopted is on property outside the HDC, but in the Town Center Overlay District."

"We can have the HDC look at our guidelines and only adopt those that are applicable. Members of the HDC have a lot of professional expertise and that could be complementary to the Planning Board," Barringer cautioned and added, "It could be double jeopardy with the design review committee and we may need to amend the zoning regulations."

Groton Herald

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