WOBURN - Classifying the measure as beneficial to both local officials and area developers, the Planning Board last night embraced zoning legislation that would clarify the definition of "minor modifications" to previously authorized special permits.

During a gathering last night in City Hall's Council Chambers, the planners unanimously recommended passage of a zoning amendment that will elminate the legal ambiguity around the types of site plan changes that are eligible for a streamlined approval process.

Most importantly, the proposal labels post-approval special permit petitions that either change the mix of businesses or housing counts, negatively impact area traffic patterns and site parking requirements, or increase overall building heights and square footage as automatically ineligible for approval as a minor modification.

Pitched late last month by Ward 7's Lindsay Higgins, City Council President Michael Anderson, and Ward 5 Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen, the initiative is being introduced as members of the City Council have clashed regularly over whether certain categories of design and layout alterations for already-approved developments should be subjected to a new round of public hearings.

On Tuesday night, Planning Director Tina Cassidy stressed that even though the proposal is an attempt to resolve a common conflict between aldermen, the clarification should also benefit other government officials who have struggled over the legal interpretation in recent years.

"This would really make it easier for all the special permit granting authorities," said Cassidy, noting that the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals are sometimes designated at the issuing body.

Under existing rules, petitioners, whose projects have already garnered an initial special permit, can duck the requirement for convening a second round of public hearings, but only when seeking to make "minor" development changes.

In order to be deemed eligible for that abbreviated review, the council must first declare the proposed special permit changes as immaterial. Developers, especially those worried about construction or occupancy permit issuance delays, regularly ask local officials to designate site plan alterations as trivial in nature.

However, for at least a year now, some council members — notably Mercer-Bruen and Higgins — have rebuked their peers for what they view as loosening standards around what constitutes a minor change.

According to Cassidy, in previous attempts to resolve that larger debate, the council has occasionally deferred its judgement to Building Commissioner Thomas Quinn, who under some special permit decisions is allowed to okay minor site plan revisions. Along similar lines, the aldermen have in the past authorized its Special Permits Committee to make an initial determination as to the significance of proposed project changes.

"Right now, the city does the best it can. In the fairly recent past, the City Council has tried adding conditions to special permits that allows the building commissioner to approve minor changes. So we've been coming at the problem in a sidewalks direction with some measure of success," Cassidy explained.

"Even a change in landscaping could be considered major. It depends on the context," she later continued. "If the City Council spent 45 minutes at a public hearing talking about creating a buffer zone for a noxious use in a dense part of the city by residential [homes], a change to landscaping cold be very major. So it's project specific."

Both Planning Board Chairman David Edmonds and Cassidy welcomed the newest ordinance, because it categorizes the types of site plan amendments that fall under the definitions of "major" and "minor" changes.

According to Edmonds, who recalled a case years ago where a prominent developer tried to categorize as "minor" the addition of a roof deck with solar panels onto a major parking garage, the new ordinance will finally create objective criteria around the process.

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