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Zoning change gives builders more choices

Amesbury is using a new tool to bring vitality to an underused area at the juncture of three major roadways about a mile south of downtown.

On May 23, the Municipal Council unanimously approved Mayor Thatcher W. Kezer's proposal that the city adopt a smart-growth zoning district encompassing the 55-acre site at the intersection of routes 110 and 150 and Interstate 495.

City officials said the initiative, which requires final state approval, will help realize a goal of the city's 2004 master plan to draw a mix of housing and small businesses to the site.

"We want to encourage economic growth in this area because it's underutilized," said town planner Nipun Jain. "It's been zoned as an office park, but for more than 20 years, it's not seen any development."

Consistent with the master plan, the zoning calls for development compatible with the scale and size of the surrounding residential neighborhood, Jain said.

Through a three-year-old law, Chapter 40R, the state encourages the creation of smart-growth zones, where streamlined permitting is intended to attract dense residential or mixed-use developments near transit stations and in town centers, commercial districts, or other areas considered suitable under the law. In Amesbury, instead of having to seek a special permit, developers who build under Chapter 40R would only need site plan approval from the Planning Board.

Amesbury is one of only 16 Massachusetts communities that have received at least preliminary approval from the state to establish smart-growth zones, according to Phil Hailer, spokesman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Others in the area include Chelsea, Haverhill, and Lynnfield. Amesbury received preliminary approval early last month.

In keeping with Chapter 40R, Amesbury's new district is an "overlay zone," which means it allows for additional uses on top of the office parks that the existing zoning allows. Mixed-use development -- with retail or offices downstairs and housing upstairs -- would be required on parts of the Amesbury site, and housing on other parts. Twenty percent of the units in all housing projects must be affordable under federal income guidelines.

Creating the smart-growth zone entitles Amesbury to state funds, including a one time incentive estimated at $350,000, and potentially an additional $900,000 in bonus payments over time, based on $3,000 for each housing unit permitted above what would be allowed under regular zoning.

Noting the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission has forecast Amesbury to be one of the hottest growth communities in the valley, Kezer said, "The Chapter 40R option provides us the tools to manage the growth, and helps us with the financial resources to deal with the impacts. So I was pleased that all facets of the town involved in this process worked cooperatively to get this done."

A development already is planned for a 22-acre section of the site. Boston North Properties LLC in April received a comprehensive permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals to construct a 240-unit apartment complex under the state's affordable - housing law, Chapter 40B.

The permitting process for that project began before the city initiated the smart-growth zoning proposal. But Boston North Properties endorsed the zoning initiative and worked closely with the city to ensure the size and design of its project mirrored what the new zoning would require, according to Jain and the developer's lawyer, Vincent Manzi. The project's units would count toward the state bonus dollars the town receives for adopting a smart-growth district.

"It really was a nice match," Manzi said of his client's project and the city's zoning initiative. "They actually kind of paralleled each other as we went through the process."

Manzi said Boston North Properties intends to develop an additional 12 acres it owns along Route 110 under smart-growth rules. Plans call for retail on the ground floor and housing above.

"I think it makes a lot of sense for the town and for this particular site in general," Manzi said of the new zone. "It's right off the highway. It's within walking distance of the downtown. And it meets many of the criteria, and the intent, of the 40R statute."

As a result of the 240 units from the apartment complex, Amesbury has achieved the benchmark of having at least 10 percent of its housing stock affordable. Communities that meet that threshold have the ability to refuse unwanted Chapter 40B projects. Jain said the state last week certified Amesbury's affordable housing at 11.1 percent.

In addition to the 240 units already permitted, 60 to 80 housing units could be developed under smart-growth rules. "That will not really have a major impact on that corridor as far as traffic and infrastructure," Jain said.

The future commercial development would be focused on small businesses, including a restaurant, a laundromat, small stores, a small bank, artist studios, and professional offices, Jain said. There is potential for development of other portions of the targeted site, which includes a non commercial apple orchard and a vacant former tool and dye company.