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Should Montague Center allow smaller apts?

Hearing draws concerns from residents over changes proposal would bring to neighborhood

Recorder file photo
Developer Mark Zaccheo plans to build 22 upscale, energy-efficient apartments into the former Montague Center School and has committed to invest $2,850,000 into the building.

Recorder file photo Developer Mark Zaccheo plans to build 22 upscale, energy-efficient apartments into the former Montague Center School and has committed to invest $2,850,000 into the building.

MONTAGUE — A hearing to discuss a possible shrinking or elimination of the minimum apartment size requirement in town is drawing ample comment, specifically as it pertains to the fate of the former Montague Center School.

Abutters have appealed a Zoning Board of Appeals approval for two special permits and a variance for Mark Zaccheo of Greenfield to convert the former elementary school into 22 apartments.

The variance allows an exception to the 700-square-foot minimum in the town’s current zoning bylaws.

Tuesday night’s public hearing before the Planning Board sought input on the possibility of either removing the 700-square-foot minimum or making it subject to a special permit, a lesser standard, rather than a variance.

What causal relationship there might be between the decision to look into changing the zoning now was a topic frequently raised by residents, two of whom are parties to the lawsuit. Planning Board member Fred Bowman said the board cannot comment on ongoing litigation.

Town Planner Walter Ramsey and Inspector of Buildings David Jensen said the law has been a problem for some time and deserved attention.

“The last hearing on Montague Center School made it pretty explicitly clear that we have a problem with the way we handle this particular bylaw,” Jensen said.

Ramsey said there is growing demand for smaller dwellings and the Zoning Board has come to treat the variance as a special permit.

Since 2006, six applications have been made for the variance and they have twice been granted, twice denied and twice withdrawn, according to Ramsey.

“Whatever we think about the Montague Center School, I think it’s fair to say that the variance portion of that rule is not working for the town of Montague,” Jensen said. “We’ve seen that pressure, we’ve reacted to that pressure, and we haven’t made our laws accommodate that pressure yet.”

Elliot Tarry of Meadow Road said if the ZBA has treated the variance as a special permit that is an error and what allows the court challenge.

“The variance for 700 is our little community of Montague Center’s only protection ... against a huge development coming in, and we have exercised the protective right of this variance,” Tarry said.

Residents complained again that the proposed development will damage the character of the community, with an influx of renters, traffic, light, noise and decreased property values.

Diana Allen of Union Street asked the board to look at tailoring zoning to the individual villages, saying the proposed apartments would double the population in the neighborhood.

“We’re all here because we moved to the Montague Center because of the character of that town and we’re concerned about the changes that would happen if suddenly there’s a doubling in population with a completely different style of living than the individual homes that we have,” Allen said.

Planning Board member Bruce Young objected to the idea that renters are uninvested in their community.

Ramsey read a letter of support from Robin Sherman, executive director of the Franklin County Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority, to the effect that the minimum serves no legitimate public purpose and drives up the cost of housing.

Jensen said the purpose of the hearing was not to discuss a concrete proposal but to gather input prior to creating such a proposal, which would then require a public hearing of its own before going to town meeting.

Jensen proposed a special permit option be added to the minimum, to be left at 700 or reduced to 500 square feet. Jensen said the 700-square-foot minimum essentially rules out one-bedroom or studio apartments and he personally preferred the second option.

The town has paid to maintain the property since it relapsed to town control with the school district’s controversial decision to close the elementary in the spring of 2008.

Zaccheo’s was the only response to the town’s latest request for proposals to buy or lease the property. Two earlier attempts to sell the building, in 2010 and 2011, drew no offers.

The ZBA in October granted the variance to allow up to 10 apartments smaller than the minimum, with Zaccheo presenting plans for 22 apartments, eight of which would fall at or below the minimum.

The lawsuit filed by abutters in November challenging the variance and permits has not yet gone to trial.

The town lawyer has said Zaccheo would no longer need the variance if it were removed from the law, Ramsey said.

Roy Rosenblatt of Center Street said the town should reissue the request for proposals if the zoning law is to change.

The board closed the public hearing but continued the meeting to March 12, with written comment to be accepted until March 7.

The hearing drew 14, all of whom were Montague Center residents with the exception of Zaccheo, who repeated his argument that the smaller apartment sizes are necessary for rentable one-bedrooms.

Any change to the zoning bylaws would require a two-thirds majority vote at town meeting.

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