MANCHESTER >> The Planning Commission has completed the first wide-ranging overhaul of the town's zoning and sign ordinances in more than 30 years, and will be bringing their proposed replacement — a new Land Use and Development Ordinance — before the Select Board for possible approval Tuesday, Dec. 15.
The purpose of the new ordinance will be to streamline the regulations and development review process, eliminate inconsistencies which have emerged within the older ordinances, bring the provisions into compliance with state laws and better implement the goals of the town plan, said Janet Hurley, the town's zoning administrator and town planner.
"What's happened is that it's become cumbersome and difficult to use," she said.
While the new document is largely focused on ironing out inconsistencies and making it more user-friendly, the new proposed ordinance also raises the building height limit in the commercial-1 zoning district from 30 to 35 feet. This will allow for buildings to be constructed with a third story. It will also advance a goal of encouraging more development in the downtown core of the town, she added.
The setback requirement in the commercial-1 zone is proposed to be relaxed from 20 to 15 feet to encourage having buildings closer to the street with parking space behind the buildings. Setback and greenspace requirements were also relaxed in the Commercial-2 districts for the same reasons, according to a summary of the proposed changes.
"These expanded uses do not change the essential character within each district, but will offer more clarity for applicants proposing changes of use, particularly within the commercial, industrial and mixed use districts," the summary goes on to state.
Raising the allowable building heights may be the foremost policy change contained within the new proposed ordinance Hurley said, noting that the former maximum height was established in part because that was as high as the fire department's equipment would reach back in 1983, the last time the zoning ordinances were extensively reviewed. But now, with the fire department's platform firetruck, which is capable of reaching much higher, that's less of a factor, she said.
"We already have some buildings that are that tall, so the planning commission felt that was a conservative enough change that it could be included in this," she said.
But the main overall change is the simplification and re-organization of the document to make it easier for developers and residents to use and understand, Hurley said.
"There is now a logical flow," she said, with some internal conflicts eliminated or straightened out. The overhaul should help the town move in the direction of implementing some of the "smart growth" initiatives it describes in the town plan.
The town also received word earlier this week that it had been awarded a $16,100 state planning grant for a second phase of the re-write of its land use and development ordinance.
Growth continues to be focused primarily in the retail sector, while the housing and jobs needs of the community remain largely unmet, and concentrated mixed-use development of the downtown remains elusive, the prepared statement released Tuesday announcing the award of the planning grant states. The second phase of the rewrite process "will address the weaknesses that continue to prevent concentrated mixed use development of the core, development of workforce housing and conservation of the outlying working landscape," according to the statement.
If approved by the select board Tuesday night, the revision of the zoning and sign ordinance will take effect in three weeks. Residents can review the draft of the proposed overhaul at the town offices in the meantime.