WOBURN - Worried the zoning change will trigger waves of oversized apartment building conversions, the City Council will carefully vet an initiative aimed at facilitating the the reuse of North Woburn's Tidd Home.

During their most recent gathering in City Hall, a razor-thin council majority halted their colleagues' push to instantly sanction a newly proposed 15-unit cap on apartment building conversions pitched under the city's "conversion of historic buildings" ordinance.

Instead, the matter in a 5-to-4 vote was referred to the Ordinance Committee, which is being asked to determine whether the newest zoning amendment would enable hundreds of property owners to move ahead with proposals to convert one-and-two family structures into overly dense apartment buildings.

"I'm a little nervous about this," said Ward 1 Alderman Joanne Campbell. "I absolutely support preserving historic homes, but we need to move slowly before voting for this."

Citing recent correspondence from the Planning Board, which is advising the council to reject the latest zoning change, Ward 5 Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen, Ward 7's Lindsay Higgins, Alderman at-large Michael Concannon, and City Council President Michael Anderson all agreed the latest Tidd Home initiative required extra scrutiny.

Of concern are new claims from Planning Director Tina Cassidy that the zoning change, if authorized, could inadvertently encourage hundreds of historic property owners to redevelop their homes into apartments.

Presently, Woburn's historic building conversion regulations cap the density of proposed redevelopments to 20-units per acre. The current legislation would remove the reference to acreage and instead allowed special permit applicants to propose a maximum density of 15 units, regardless of the overall size of the subject property.

According to local attorney Jospeh Tarby, representing West Street resident John Flaherty, his client is requesting the latest zoning amendment — the second since the regulations were promulgated in January — due to the recent discovery that the Tidd Home parcel is far smaller than originally thought.

Flaherty, a local history buff who championed the costly overhaul of the Burdett Mansion in Central Square and the conversion of Washington Street's old St. Joseph's Church into condominiums, has been trying to save the historic Elm Street senior housing facility from the wrecking ball for more than a year now.

Under his general proposal, the sprawling 9,900 square foot Federal Era mansion would be converted into an apartment complex, a use change that will reportedly require no exterior changes to the 1809 structure.

Tarby recently explained that the parcel, though listed by the city's assessor's office as containing .73 acres of land, actually comprises about a half-acre. The discovery means that Flaherty, whose Tidd Home purchase spurred the creation of the adaptive reuse ordinances, is now effectively blocked from taking advantage of those new regulations.

"The 1880 deed had the typical description you'd find in [records] from back then with [references] to the wall by Jam by the wall of Joe," quipped Tarby, referring to the antiquated instrument relied upon by city officials to estimate the size of the Tidd Home parcel.

"Mr. Flaherty went out and had a survey completed and he discovered the actual square footage is 21,914 square feet or about .5 acres," the lawyer continued. "That would only allow for a conversion of seven of these rooms [in the Tidd Home based upon the current zoning ordinance]. Mr. Flaherty's proposal was always for 14 or 15 units. It's not like it was for five units and now we're trying to get it up to 15."

The full council plans to revisit the petition on July 16, when the aldermen will presumably have in-hand a recommendation from the Ordinance Committee.

Bad analysis

Since last summer, when the council passed the original version of the historic building conversion ordinance, Flaherty's plans to save the North Woburn mansion have enjoyed widespread support.

However, during a public hearing late last month, the Planning Board, acting on the advise of Cassidy, explained they could not support the latest zoning change due to fears about unintended citywide consequences.

Previously, the planning director and others had estimated that only 60-to-70 historic buildings across the city could qualify for special permits under the adaptive reuse initiative. However, in an early June memo to the council, the planning director confessed that previous analysis was likely based on erroneous data.

Specifically, local officials had relied upon assessor's department figures regarding structures with a net floor area of more than 4,000 square feet, when the approved ordinance in fact referenced gross floor area.

Cassidy has also discovered that the building department, which ultimately makes all determinations regarding the application of Woburn's zoning ordinances, calculates floor area differently than the assessor's office.

"As a result of both facts, the number of properties eligible under this ordinance is significantly greater than was…thought. Rather than dozens of properties being potentially eligible, hundreds are likely," she said.

Ward 7 Alderman Edward Tedesco, who has sponsored all of the adaptive reuse legislation in an attempt to aid Flaherty's redevelopment efforts, contends it's implausible that the owner of an undersized lot with a 4,000 square foot historic building would be able to jam 15 dwelling units into a proposed apartment conversion.

Even if that feat were possible, the North Woburn official argued that such petitioners would run into other obstacles, such as the historic building conversion ordinance's parking requirements.

"I have no issue with this change. It could in theory allow someone to put 15 units in a 4,000 square foot building. But they're limited by the square footage of the building and the ability to meet parking requirements," he said at the recent meeting.

Others agreed with Tedesco that the newest zoning amendment should be passed immediately.

Ward 2 Alderman Richard Gately, scoffing at the latest Planning Board findings and describing them as "scare tactics", suggested Flaherty has been waiting too long already to begin work on the preservation project.

"I'm not going along with the overall picture [being painted by the Planning Board]. I think we're getting into areas that will never happen. I don't see how [a list of 67 eligible historic properties] all of a sudden goes into the hundreds. That just sounds like scare tactics," he said.

Historic building conversions

Last summer, Tedesco unveiled the first version of the adaptive reuse ordinance on behalf of Flaherty, who had at that time just acquired the historic 20-plus room Tidd Home.

The original zoning ordinance, which was expanded to apply to any historic property in Woburn that's more than 100-years-old, created a process by which developers can renovate such structures into multi-unit housing — even if the subject property sits within a commercial area or a traditional single/two-family zoning district.

In order to qualify, the historic building must contain at least 4,000 square feet, and Woburn's Historical Commission needs to officially designate the structure as historically significant. Applicants, in exchange to agreeing to preserve the front facades of historic structures in perpetuity, can then apply for a special permit from the City Council.

According to Tarby, his client's conversion of the 1809 mansion from a non-profit senior living facility into a studio apartment complex with 15 units is an easy undertaking, as the house is already split into private living quarters.

A second redevelopment component entails the relocation of Woburn's Historical Society from the Burdett Mansion to the Tidd Home's former kitchen and office spaces.

Last March, the council okayed the first amendment to the adaptive reuse ordinance in order to accommodate Flaherty's plans for the non-profit Historical Society.

Under the modification, Flaherty and a small subset of other historical property owners in the city, whose buildings already contain pre-existing commercial uses, will be allowed to slate as much as 25 percent of a newly-proposed redevelopment as office space.

Under the special permit process, those seeking to take advantage of the new rules would technically have to downscale the size of the pre-existing commercial component, thereby reducing the scope of the non-conformity.

However, those same building owners, whose properties sit within traditional single-family neighborhoods, would also be allowed to convert the rest of the structure into apartments.

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