Citizen Petition Calling for Buffers Between Developments and Residential Zones Submitted to Council

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A photo of the petition sent to the City Council on April 27.

Another citizens’ petition has been submitted to the City Council seeking to change zoning rules. This one seeks to reduce the impact of developments on abutting residential districts.

The petition calls for “discretionary” transitions for new developments next to residential zones, which could include considerations for height, setbacks, and screening, among other things. It was signed by 439 people and submitted to the City Clerk on April 27.

Along with the petition, a letter was sent to City Council President Mark Sideris from resident Joan Gumbleton, who was one of the organizers of the petition effort. Part of the letter reads:

“As you are undoubtedly aware, Watertown is now among our state’s ten most population-dense municipalities yet is still known for its distinctive small-town character. Unfortunately, the recent patchwork of special zoning districts stitched alongside long-standing neighborhoods lacks sufficient transitions. While these districts have been incredibly successful in encouraging new investments in our city, the development along their borders is rapidly encroaching upon our neighborhoods and threatens that character. Left unchecked, this may destroy the integrity and cohesiveness of our communities through real irreversible impacts on residents’ quality of life.”

The letter continues: “This petition is not an attempt to stop such development; Watertown has many under-utilized properties and citizens appear eager to see them revitalized. Instead, it is a sincere plea to our city’s elected leaders, appointed bodies, and hired staff to utilize the tools at their disposal, including those granted by these amendments, to better weave future developments into the fabric of our city and ensure that such projects are genuinely sympathetic to the abutting neighborhoods.”

The petition will be considered by the City Council at the May 9 meeting, and will likely be referred to the Planning Board for its recommendation, and finally a joint meeting with the Council and Planning Board would be held to make the final decision.

The text of the petition starts:

“The goal of this petition is to protect existing residential neighborhoods from the intrusive impacts of outsized and incompatible development on the borders of adjacent districts. We thus respectfully request that the City Council initiate a zoning amendment requiring the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), and other approving bodies to impose additional restrictions when approving development on lots along the edge of a nonresidential district that abuts a residential district.”

The City of Watertown’s Zoning Map, Residential areas are shown in yellows and oranges.

The petition requests amendments to the Zoning Ordinance to make it so parcels adjacent to residential districts “may be subject to increased regulations, restrictions, requirements, and conditions as may be necessary to ensure an appropriate transition between the abutting districts.”

It seeks to “limit the impact of said development on, and protect the integrity, character, and quality of life within, the neighborhoods of the bordered or overlapped Residence district.”

The restrictions and conditions called for by the petition “may include, but are not limited to height, dimensions, orientation, setbacks, buffers, open space, facade, screening, and usage.”

For most projects, the Zoning Board of appeals makes the final decision on the project. In some areas, such as the Pleasant Street Corridor District and the Regional Mixed Use District (on the east end of Arsenal Street) the Planning Board makes the final decision. The body making the decision is known as the special permit granting authority (SPGA), and the petition asks for the language “designated Special Permit Granting Authority (SPGA)” to be added to the Special permit section of the Zoning Ordinance.

In the Council referred to the Planning Board a citizens petition requesting the size of building in the Central Business District, which includes most of Watertown Square and part of Main Street. They did not debate the merits of the petition and the City Attorney said they were required by statute to refer the proposal to the Planning Board.

10 thoughts on “Citizen Petition Calling for Buffers Between Developments and Residential Zones Submitted to Council

  1. What is petition specifically requesting ? Is this just allowing the Planning / Zoning boards the ability to impose additional rules and regulations on zones that boarder residential neighborhoods ? And they have the ability to apply or not apply these restrictions subjectively and at their own discretion ?

    I see the petition asks for “additional restrictions” and lists a few things like height, setbacks, etc.. but does actually list what the current values are and what the new ones will be. (At least the activists behind the last “zoning by petition” put forth a new number they wanted.

    This just seems to open up room for more back room deals to get rules either applied or waived on a project by project basis along this border areas.

    If you are petitioning for more government regulation at least list out the specifics you want instead of just a blanket catch all “discretionary” regulation that no one can actually understand when and what will be impacted.

    Also, can someone update the image on this article to actually highlight what border areas would be impacted ? Its not clear the amount of area this petition would even have an impact on. Is this just because people don’t like the development going up next to the Central Rock gym ?

    • Good question about the areas that it would be impacted. The yellows and oranges are the residential, the greys are industrial, the purples are the Pleasant Street Corridor, the brown is the Regional Mixed Use (RMUD). Red Watertown Square and pink is revitalization overlay. They way I interpreted it is the transition would be where the yellows meet the other colors.

    • I believe this petition addresses the need for better resource management where the commercial and industrial zones intersect the existing residential zones. There are many less-than-adequate transitions or setbacks around town, so I find it difficult to frame this as a reaction to any one project. I don’t think it’s against _any_ development per se but instead hopes to encourage the city’s staff and boards to focus on crafting better transitions between neighborhoods and large-scale construction on their borders.

      Most large projects are already required to include amenities, such as open/greenspace, screening, and buffers. However, If you trace the borders of the nonresidential districts and look at projects abutting residential areas (whether completed, under construction, approved-but-not-yet-started, or in the design phase), you’ll find such open space walled off from the neighborhood by new buildings – despite Special Permit criteria calling for it to be public.    

      If you also look at the number of underutilized properties along those borders and imagine more of the same, the scope of the problem comes into view. Note that properties not along this border (for example, Russos and much of Pleasant, much of the Arsenal, etc…) don’t directly abut residential districts and aren’t relevant to the proposed amendments.

      Were the open/green space reoriented to the residential-facing side of the building (thus increasing the setback at that edge), the resulting neighborhood-development interface would become more permeable while also insulating the community. There may be other ways to achieve a similar result: building orientation, facade length, height…  The petition isn’t vague – it offers several tools to build impactful transitions. As such concerns are site-specific, leaving such decisions to the discretion of the professionals appointed to the city’s boards (in consultation with our city’s departments) seems a better choice than attempting to mandate a one-size-fits-none solution.

  2. It is important that people realize that no one is trying to stop developments. This petition does not mandate new restrictions on properties, but it does give the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals additional discretion to craft more thoughtful transitions. The people in the residential areas abutting any new developments need to feel that these boards are listening to them and that the board members can use their expertise and judgement to seriously look at the impacts on neighbors’ quality of life and thoughtfully make decisions that may make the projects more acceptable.

    This petition is now on the agenda for the Council Meeting next Tuesday, May 9, at 7 p.m. As developments near residential areas are happening or could happen in many areas of our city, this is an important issue for Watertown residents to pay attention to, comment on at the meetings and contact city leaders with your thoughts. It’s now or never.

  3. I believe that this petition, which was supported by citizens all over Watertown, recognizes that we need our businesses, but PS: we need our people and families too. If we lose sight of our people and neighborhoods, what’s left of us? You might as well just zone us all industrial, and Watertown will become that unpleasant industrial park that you drive through to get home…some place else.

  4. I am a homeowner and taxpayer in Watertown, and I do NOT agree with this vague petition. What problem, exactly, is it designed to solve and how would it would solve that problem? Future Planning Boards and Zoning Boards will have “discretion” ?

    It is simply ridiculous to suggest that this petition would save Watertown from being “all industrial” or “an industrial park.” The new biotech buildings are not “industrial.” They’re research labs using small volumes of materials, not manufacturing facilities using large volumes of materials. Also, many people work in those buildings in an office environment and never enter those labs.

    Watertown is NOT a “small town” and I don’t want it to return to the 1950’s. I honestly don’t see the problem with a tastefully designed office/lab building being located near houses, even if it looks “large” to some. “People and families” can flourish in that environment too. Live and let live.

    • Corporations might be people under the law, but they’re hardly alive. “Live and let live” isn’t a cogent strategy to balance the wants of corporations against their impact on Watertown’s families and neighborhoods. No one is trying to return us to a regressive 1950’s suburbia. Well-designed environments are timeless and enhance the quality of life; poorly-built ones detract and grow to be a nuisance.

      Despite being one of the most population-dense cities in the state, Watertown is actually among the smallest by area. This contributes to its distinct character. Given our small size, each development is thus more impactful to our community than a similar project would be in a larger city. The goal should thus be to integrate new developments such that they complement rather than overshadow our diverse neighborhoods. Effective transitions between adjacent disparate zones are vital to this effort. This is too important to simply “let the chips fall where they may.”

      When someone mentions Watertown’s charm, I get excited by that delicate balance of preservation and growth producing a vibrant blend of modern and historic, with adequate space to allow for those meaningful, inclusive interactions that build community and instill a sense of belonging. It’s that sense of belonging – including pride as a stakeholder in the city’s success – that defines a desirable hometown.

      • The mandate of the Planning Board is to set rules and guidelines for builders/developers to follow. These rules should be spelled out explicitly with little room for misinterpretation or grey area. What this petition is trying to accomplish is create grey area for which the planning board can selectively enforce at their own discretion. This is not an effective way for our local government to operate. Officials should not be able to selectively enforce additional restrictions on a whim because they don’t like a particular aspect of a project.

        • To clarify, the City Council has the final decision on changes to the Zoning Ordinance. The Planning Board must have a public hearing and then sends a recommendation to the Council.

  5. This is the kind of progress I can get behind, unfortunately my feeling is that it comes 10 years too late. Watertown is rapidly becoming a less appealing place to call home due to the encroachment and spread of way too many biolabs, tech centers and luxury residential buildings. Had our concerns been recognized and addressed sooner, we might not be in the stressful situation we’re currently facing.

    If the powers that be fail to take action on this, the next step should be putting the question before the voters and place it as a ballot question for 2024.

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