Thursday, May 4, 2006

City Council should not rezone Orchard Hill Park

The Sentinel and Enterprise has an update on the petition to rezone Orchard Hill Park from industrial to commercial, which will be on the agenda at tonight's City Council meeting of the legislative affairs sub-committee:

[Developer Gregg] Lisciotti wants to rezone roughly 46 acres of the 119-acre Orchard Hill Park development as commercial from industrial.

The land is already the site of Kohl's, Bed Bath & Beyond, Dick's Sporting Goods, Target and a Chili's restaurant.

Lisciotti is already allowed to use roughly 40 of the 119 acres at Orchard Hill Park for commercial development under the city's mixed-use development ordinance.

The ordinance allows for one-third of an industrial development to be used for commercial or retail development.

Lisciotti wants to rezone those 40 acres -- plus roughly six more where the restaurants and his building already sit -- as commercial.

Under the current mixed-use zoning, Lisciotti has to go to the Planning Board for approval every time one tenant moves out of a building, and another wants to move in.

If his petition is approved, that will then leave him with what is essentially a separate 73 to 74-acre parcel, which will still be zoned industrial.

He can then use one third of that, roughly 24 to 25 acres, for commercial development if he wants, under the mixed-use ordinance.

I'm against the idea of mixed-use zoning anyway, as I think it discourages industrial growth by turning industrial-zoned land into great places for big-box mall developments (and yes, I realize that was the intent), but the ordinance passed years ago and that genie won't be going back into the bottle.

But to then rezone a development after it has been built, allowing more of the original parcel to be developed, seems to me to be a clear violation of the spirit of the law. If the intent of the law was to allow 50% of a mixed-use parcel to be dedicated to malls instead of 30%, it would have been passed that way in the first place.

I can appreciate Lisciotti's argument that it will be incovenient for him or a future owner of the development to come back to the planning board every time a tenant leaves and is replaced by a new business. But that check on development was a key part of the ordinance. Essentially, the law is saying that if a developer wants an exception to build a commercial development on industrial land, the developer will need to meet some restrictive criteria in order to qualify. Allowing the town to approve or reject the specific tenants of a development was one of the criteria that Leominster decided was reasonable at the time the ordinance was passed.

If the City Council approves the petition, it will be signaling to the people of Leominster that it does not value the city's ordinances when it comes to commercial development, and that it is willing to work with developers to circumvent them.

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