Does the Design Review Board report matter?

In an earlier Facebook post, I commented about my reaction to the Applicants’ response to the Design Review Board (DRB) report, submitted in early 2018.

In short – the DRB was formed after the Town Center zoning district was defined, in order to ensure that the Planning Board (which considers building applications in all town districts) would have input from a Design perspective specifically in the context of the ‘Town Center’ zone… which was meant to be a mixed use area, you may recall.

The applicant, specifically James Fenton, expressed considerable frustration at the February Public Hearing (see here for video of the meeting) regarding this report, largely because he didn’t feel that their input was timely, because it went into considerable more detail than a meeting that was held in early 2017, and because he didn’t believe it mattered what the DRB wanted, since he’d rather let the buyers of the homes decide what their houses should look like.

There are *big* flaws in these objections, from what I can see. And I find it an incredibly ‘karmic’ reality for the Boxborough Town Center, LLC owners, since the DRB’s mandate comes directly from the same set of zoning bylaws that these applicants invoke to insist that they have the right to build this massive, high-density housing development in the first place.

To get specific, according to our bylaws:

Bylaw statement pp. 66-67: “Design Review in accordance with this section shall be required for: (1) new construction, exterior alteration, or expansion of buildings in the Town Center District ( except for pre-existing single-family dwellings as specified in Section 4302) where such new construction, alteration, or expansion is subject to site plan approval under Section 8000 or is subject to a special permit; and (2) new or modified signs in the Town Center District … The Design Review Board shall evaluate the proposed construction, alterations, or expansion based upon its published Design Guidelines, and shall submit its written findings and recommendations to the Planning Board or the Board of Appeals, as appropriate, and to the applicant.” furthermore:  Bylaw statement p. 64 “Where the Planning Board renders a decision contrary to the recommendations of the Design Review Board, the Planning Board shall state the reasons in writing.”

Thus, while the applicants did have a meeting with the DRB in 2017, the results of this meeting were never delivered in writing, in the form of a detailed report, to the Planning Board. I do not honestly know why this step took so long to happen. Over the past year I had several residents raise the question, and yet still the DRB didn’t meet. What I’ve heard is that the committee didn’t have enough members, and thus in late 2017 the BOS approved the addition of two members to the DRB. This full complement of members then met (i believe at least 4 times for a total of over 10-12 hours) to review the documents and prepare the written report that was submitted to the Planning Board.

This report covered all sorts of visual aspects of the proposal, and some excerpts from that report are pasted below, tho the final paragraph provides an excellent summary:

“The rear elevations for each of the building styles have also not been provided which makes it difficult to determine what view the abutters in the surrounding area would have of these dwellings. This rear view elevation should also be presented as a grouping of buildings to allow for an understanding of how these elevations for the entire proposed project will relate to the abutting properties. The grade changes from the front of the buildings to the rear are significant (up to 8 or 9 feet in some places) and often times create a transition from a two-story building in the front to a three-story building in the rear, which includes a walkout basement. A three-story building including a walkout basement will create a much different visual experience than a two story building.

“The buildings are entirely too close together for a rural residential setting, being all residential and no mixed use. Any harmonization with the environmental surroundings is ignored in the barrage of close housing. The lack of variation in setbacks creates a more mechanical cookie cutter placement with large structures crammed into a small area, similar to overwrought row houses without the charm.

“Boxborough’s general character is summed up in the phrase “scenic, historic, and rural character.” The grade changes, setbacks, rear elevations, and structures are overpowering and clearly not in harmony with the site and are intimidating to the abutters. Allowances were made in the Zoning Bylaw specifically to support a mixed-use Town Center at the location of the application. The current proposal eliminates any potential for a mixed-use project at this site. Further, the subject properties add no access and create a private compound separate from the town with no mixed-use development. While it is subjective as to whether there are design elements that are aesthetically pleasing, or good in the context of other sections of the town or region, the review criteria here is documented by the Design Guidelines. It appears that not only is the proposed project very inconsistent with those changes, more importantly the project significantly violates and is inconsistent with the attributes of the Design Guidelines.”

With all of that said, I am very interested to see how the Planning Board incorporates this feedback into their final decision. Again, according to the relevant Bylaws, if the PB opts to disagree / not follow the advice in this DRB guidance document, they are required to submit – in writing – an explanation for why their decision contradicts the DRB. 

I sincerely hope that the PB does not acquiesce to the Applicants’ desire to seemingly ‘have their cake, and eat it, too’.

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