Former planning chair sees merit in library-zoning deal

  • From Clark Street north is the French King overlay district in Greenfield.  Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 3/11/2019 11:00:52 PM

GREENFIELD — The highly anticipated public hearing on proposed zoning changes to the French King Highway — on which approval for a new public library likely hinges — will be today at 6 p.m. in Greenfield High School.

Missing from the meeting will be the former city Planning Board chairwoman of 14 years and mayoral candidate Roxann Wedegartner, who has a prior commitment. In advance, she has submitted to the board and the City Council her thoughts on the zoning proposals that call for a relaxation of laws to foster commercial growth.

The changes have been proposed as a part of a deal between At-Large City Councilors Isaac Mass and Rudy Renaud, the council president, in a last-ditch effort to swap backing for zoning changes for support of a new public library.

“I don’t envy your job in coming to a workable solution that results in our having a state-of-the art library,” Wedegartner, a supporter of the $19.5 million public library, said in her statement to the Planning Board and City Council. “Sadly, politics often leaves us with a ‘bad choice’ or a ‘lesser of evils’ choice in order to get a good thing done.”

Wedegartner, who is currently running against City Councilors Brickett Allis and Sheila Gilmour for the mayoral seat that is up for a vote in November, said she has concerns about the proposal, but generally supports the changes in exchange for a new library.

The zoning changes are being expedited to accommodate the City Council’s April 30 deadline for accepting a state grant for the library project. Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners needs an answer from the city to guarantee the $9.4 million. Taxpayers and private donors would cover the remaining $10.1 million. The council expects to vote on the zoning changes and the library at its March 20 meeting.

If the Planning Board makes substantive changes Tuesday night to the current proposal, it will likely require another public hearing. Public hearings take at least two weeks to arrange because of requirements to post sufficient notice to residents. An April meeting of the entire City Council might be hard to arrange because of various vacation schedules, especially around the school break and spring holidays.

While Wedegartner likes At-Large Councilor Ashli Stempel’s separate proposal to rezone the French King Highway industrial from commercial, the former planning board chairwoman sees it as a different conversation.

“I ask that you consider not making this change at this time,” Wedegartner said.

She said considering switching the use of the land back to industrial from its restricted commercial use should not be “muddled by these other changes.”

Mass, who opposes industrial zoning, has said such a change would kill his library-zoning deal with Renaud.

Large-scale review

Wedegartner did question a part of Mass’s proposal that would change rules that govern large-scale commercial developments like big box stores.

The zoning changes to major development review call for making the Greenfield Zoning Board of Appeals the sole grantor of special permits as opposed to both the zoning and planning boards.

The former planning board chairwoman cites state law, which typically supersedes local law, that says planning boards are the exclusive permit granting authority.

If the Planning Board were to listen to Wedegartner’s recommendation and propose this alteration to the current proposal, it could count as a “substantive change,” which would reset the public hearing process and potentially delay the deal.

That’s a piece of the puzzle that is still up for debate, although Greenfield Director of Planning and Development Eric Twarog recently said, when speaking generally about zoning, that anything that might be challenged as a “substantive change” typically leads to an additional public hearing, just as an extra layer of protection against legal challenges.

Wedegartner also questioned the idea of changing major development review, at all.

“It has worked for years,” she said. “So that begs the questions: Why change it?”

Wedegartner helped to develop some of the current laws around the French King Highway overlay district.

She said major development review delays tha potentially lead to fewer businesses coming to town, “are more often than not caused by the developer, not the scrutiny of the review board, regardless of who it is.”

Wedegartner was chairwoman of the planning board when it reviewed and approved plans for a big box store on French King Highway on the Mackin land. That project has been held up in court for years as neighbors led by nationally known big box opponent Al Norman appealed the decision. That case eight years later reaches a trial later this month.

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

413-772-0261, ext. 264

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