WOBURN - Now eligible for housing density waivers, the proposed redevelopment of North Woburn's Tidd Home can now move forward under a revised historical property preservation ordinance.
During their most recent meeting in City Hall, the City Council unanimously sanctioned a zoning amendment that empowers city officials to exempt special permit applicants from a 20-unit per acre cap contained within Woburn's "conversion of historical buildings" regulations.
The legislation, though reportedly applying to roughly 42 landowners, was introduced in May by West Street resident John Flaherty, who is attempting to spare the 1809 Tidd Home off of Elm Street from the wrecking ball.
Flaherty, represented by local attorney Joseph Tarby, has now appeared before the council three times in regards to the historical preservation regulations, which were originally enacted at his behest in the fall of 2018.
The most recent zoning ordinance change was sought after the Tidd Home owner discovered the 20-plus room mansion sits upon a fall smaller lot than originally thought. As a result, Flaherty's proposed redevelopment of the 1809 estate into 14 studio apartments was put in jeopardy, as he was unable to meet the 20-unit per acre coverage standard.
To sidestep that roadblock, Tarby proposed legislation that would allow eligible historical buildings, which sit upon undersized lots with less than one-acre, to be converted into as many as 15 dwelling units.
The council, worried that new standard was too broad, subsequently modified Tarby's language by inserting language that would allow the council to grant petitioners a waiver from the original 20-unit per acre density threshold.
Earlier this month, aldermen on the Ordinance Committee forwarded the zoning legislation back to the full council for action. However, as part of that vote, the subgroup also recommended City Solicitor Ellen Callahan-Doucette weigh-in on how to properly control the waiver process.
Of concern was the possibility that hundreds of historical home owners could move ahead with proposals to convert single-family dwellings into apartment buildings, should it become too easy for petitioners to obtain exemptions from the 20-unit per acre cap.
In a memo submitted to the council earlier this month, Callahan-Doucette attached two standards to the proposal, including a requirement that all dwelling units within an apartment conversion be at least 600 square feet. She also advised the council to mandate all petitioners' compliance with the underlying zoning ordinance's parking requirements, which call for two parking spaces to be provided for each dwelling unit.
"Where the ordinance permits the adaptive reuse of an existing historically significant structure, the number of units should be based upon the square footage of the structure with perhaps, a minimum square footage for each unit. In this way, the number of units is not left entirely to discretion, but is based upon an established standard," the city solicitor wrote.
Enacted in the fall of 2018, the historical buildings preservation ordinance applies to any structure that's more than 100-years-old and contains more than 4,000 square feet.
In order for a petitioner to be deemed eligible for an apartment conversion, Woburn's Historical Commission must declare the structure as historically significant and worth saving. Applicants, in exchange for agreeing to preserve the front facades of those structures in perpetuity, can then apply to the City Council for a special permit.
After that version of the ordinance was okayed by the council, Flaherty returned to the city officials for another zoning change that would enable him to relocate Woburn's Historical Society into the Tidd Home's former office and kitchen space. In order to facilitate that new redevelopment component, the council in March okayed a zoning amendment that permits historical property owners, whose buildings contained pre-existing commercial uses as of Dec. 4, 2018, to slate as much of 25 percent of a redevelopment as office space.
Technically, those looking to take advantage of the commercial reuse clause would have to downscale the size of the pre-existing office use, thereby reducing the scope of the zoning non-conformity. Though that loss would presumably result in the loss of office lease revenues, building owners would be allowed to recoup that money by converting the rest of the structure into apartments.
In crafting rules around the waiver process, the council hopes to prevent unintended consequences from arising out of the latest modification to the "conversation of historical buildings" ordinance.
Specifically, in correspondence to the council in May, Planning Director Tina Cassidy warned that by removing language that tied the number of allowed apartments to overall lot size, the city may inadvertently encourage hundreds of homeowners to take advantage of the zoning intiative.
Of particular concern was the effect of the zoning change in single-family or R1 districts, especially in older sections of the city where scores of homeowners may be able to transform small houses into apartment buildings.
Cassidy, in her advisory to the council last spring, had suggested the zoning amendment as originally written could make more than 500 additional properties eligible for apartment conversions.
Though describing his office's historical records as somewhat unreliable, Chief Assessor Andrew Creen subsequently estimated at least 250 single-family homes and 320 two-family structures could meet the technical criteria of the city's existing historical preservation rules. The City Hall department head did caution the council that his office's analysis did not include the square footage of attics spaces and basements, as well as accessory buildings like garages. Under the ordinance, those spaces or do count towards the 4,000 square foot calculation.
During the recent council meeting, Ward 7 Alderman Edward Tedesco argued that Callahan-Doucette's revisions had resolved concerns about the applicability of the preservation ordinance becoming too broad.
Referring to correspondence and other data from the Historical Commission, the North Woburn official contended only 42 properties — instead of the 570 structures mentioned by Cassidy — would be able to meet the qualifications of the conversion of historical buildings rules.
"S it wasn't the hundred that was shown to us in the Planning Board memo," he remarked. "This is more restrictive and will prevent the type of issues brought up at our committee meetings."
According to Ward 1 Alderman Joanne Campbell, she still believes the special zoning regulations are broader in scope than the council originally intended. However, because the proposed legislation did add new restrictions, she was ready to endorse the revised legislation.
"I don't think the numbers are right. I still think we're talking about hundreds of properties," said Campbell. "But I do think this helps us. It's more restrictive."
"I'm just not sure this ordinance in general is good for this city and residents of Woburn. We need to look at how to make this tighter," she later commented.