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Downtown Zoning Revision Move One Step Closer

City Councilors approve changes that now go to Planning Board.

It spanned four years and two community development directors, kept councilors occupied at countless late night meetings and has been a source of contention for residents and business owners alike, but the seemingly endless debate over a citywide rezoning effort has finally made its way through the City Council.

Councilors unanimously approved a revised zoning ordinance with little discussion at their regularly scheduled meeting Thursday, a rather unceremonious end to what has been a long and often heated process. The matter will now be sent to the city's Planning Board for review.

The decision seemed inevitable last week when a Committee of the Whole approved the zoning map via unanimous vote,  but the zoning map has been in the council's hands for approval before and has never made it this far.

"It has been a long time, about four years I think, but we got it done," said Ward 5 Councilor David Gamache. "It is good to get it finalized and to clean up the zoning. Now we can pinpoint certain developments that we want to bring into the city and expand on."

The city's zoning has not been changed since 1978 and much of the effort in revising the plan was aimed at making things simpler and more streamlined both for business and property owners as well as councilors and city employees who sit on the boards making decisions on development. While specific changes are still pending review from the Planning Board, it appears the downtown area will now be zoned with business growth in mind as opposed to mixed-use residential. Much of the Main Street area will be zoned as business central, while the residential areas surrounding the street will be a multiple family residential area with some business use.

A full map of the revised zoning will be made available this week in the office of City Clerk Tim Spanos as well as the Community Development Office and should soon appear on the city's  Web site. Councilors also asked that a copy of the proposed map be made available to residents at the Peabody Institute Library. A public hearing on the matter where residents can speak for or against the proposal to the Planning Board is preliminarily scheduled for March 17.

Community Development Director Karen Sawyer said the aim was to dig the city out of the past and allow for growth and planning that can set it up for success in the coming years.

"The idea was to revise a plan that hasn't been updated since 1978, to bring it in to this century, or bring the document up to date," she said. "We needed to make it more user friendly and make it easier to do business with the city. It needed to be easier to understand."

While much of the focus was on the downtown area, Gamache pointed out that the Route 1 corridor, which is already experiencing growth, could get even more of a facelift with the new zoning. Business proposals are already in line for the north side of the highway with such vacant eyesores as the former Carriage House Motel finally in line for development, and he hopes to help bring new businesses to vacant areas on the south bound side, too.

"I'm looking forward to bringing some more revitalization to the south bound side of Route 1," he said. "I think this will help us pinpoint exactly the kind of developments that we want. We don't want to bring in any haphazard developments. The north side is almost done, if we can just get the south bound side moving in the right direction then... well, it's been 20 years. That's why I got started in all of this."

While the ordinance will still need touching up from the Planning Board before it goes in to effect, Sawyer said she has a good feeling that the councilors and Community Development Department have accomplished their goals.

"We tried to make things conform with one another more easily," she said. "You can't always achieve that everywhere, but it is always a goal."

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