WOBURN - Aiming to remedy legal liabilities associated with the old regulations, the City Council last night approved sweeping changes to the city's mitigation ordinance.
During a regular meeting in City Hall last night, the aldermen unanimously and without comment enacted a broad zoning amendment that will end Woburn's long-held 3 percent standard, which had allowed developers to avoid extensive project reviews by making lump-sum contributions to the city.
Though the overhaul still allows special permit applicants to pay the city to implement proposed traffic improvements and other mitigation measures, developers can no longer skirt requirements that require the preparation of detailed project impact reports.
The revised ordinance strongly encourages applicants to utilize its own contractors to perform offsite mitigation work.
Developers may still ask the city to bypass that requirement by contributing money to the special account, but rather than retaining an automatic right to do so, petitioners must obtain the city's permission through a two-thirds vote of the council.
Under the old 3 percent methodology, local builders were considered as automatically complying with the mitigation ordinance if they agreed to deposit funding — equivalent to three percent of proposed development's construction costs — in a special "traffic safety and infrastructure account".
Those not agreeing to that lump-sum settlement were required to furnish comprehensive traffic and infrastructure reports, which analyzed a development's likely impacts to the larger neighborhood and listed ways those residual effects would be mitigated.
Sponsored by City Council President Michael Anderson, Ward 7 Alderman Lindsay Higgins, Ward 5 Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen, and Ward 2 Alderman Richard Gately, the zoning ordinance change was introduced late last spring after Woburn lost a land court case involving a townhouse project off of Locust Street.
In effect for nearly 20-years now, Woburn's mitigation ordinance was enacted in order to codify the obligations of special permit applicants to their neighbors and the community as a whole, when new private developments are proposed.
Last summer, Waltham-based Duffy Properties' challenged the city's application of the 3 percent standard in regards to its proposed redevelopment of the old Verizon trucking terminal site on the West Side by the Joyce Middle School.
In an ensuing Land Court decision, a judge this spring ordered the reduction of Duffy Properties required mitigation payment from $300,000 to $50,000.
The Land Court ruling was based upon the judge's conclusion that Woburn inappropriately applied the 3 percent standard, which only comes into play when a developer looks to skirt an extended project impact review, when determining the scope of the developer's mitigation obligations.
In the years prior to the Locust Street case, some local officials had criticized the city's common practice of automatically assuming developers were on the hook for implementing mitigation work that cost the equivalent of the 3 percent calculation.
Those detractors classified the methodology as inherently unfair, because petitioners were only responsible for offsetting actual neighborhood impacts. They contended the mitigation work to make those improvements often cost less than what was being required.
Another significant change under the revised ordinance requires City Hall managers to more closely monitor expenditures coming from the traffic and infrastructure account.
Specifically, in recent years, various aldermen have complained about appropriating mitigation money for work that is unrelated to the funding's original purpose. City officials have also questioned why certain infrastructure improvements, funded by developers years earlier, had not yet been completed.
To put a halt to those alleged abuses, the proposed reforms mandate that future deposits must be directly linked to specific mitigation measures, which must be implemented within two years.
If that two-year deadline expires, the council, after convening a public hearing, may vote to expend that clock out for another two years. Should that money still not be expended after four years, it will automatically return to the business or individual who originally made the payment.
Several other new components to the zoning ordinance are as follows:
• Petitioners must now post surety or a performance bond to guarantee that a development is constructed to the specifications of special permits;
• A requirement that within 30-days of a special permit application being filed, City Engineer Jay Corey's office must issue a written determination as to whether the mitigation ordinance applies to a proposed development;
• An expansion of traffic impact study criteria, which shall now include vehicle trip counts that are no longer than a year old, an analysis of recent area accident reports, and a forward-looking traffic projection that is based upon vehicular circulation for the year in which the development will be occupied;
• and a new requirement for the filing of a fiscal impact analysis, which examines a project's direct impacts upon the community's provision of public safety, educational, environmental protection, and recreational services.