Housing proposal at Lynnfield’s Bali Hai site

Two Lynnfield natives' bid to transform one of the region's longest continuously-operating restaurants into a three-story apartment complex hinges upon the very history that drew many through its doors.

On Tuesday night, just after this week's edition of the Middlesex East went to press, Lynnfield's Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) was scheduled to deliberate over a proposal to build a 32-unit apartment building on the approximate 1.4-acre Bali Hai restaurant site off of Route 128.

Though not disclosing how much they will pay for the family-owned business, which has been serving up Polynesian and Chinese cuisine since the 1950s, Lynnfield natives David and Matthew Palumbo are under agreement to purchase the parcel for the luxury apartment redevelopment.

The Lynnfield assessor's office values the existing 7,805 square foot restaurant and the land it sits upon at $1.577 million, but just three years ago, Bali Hai's ownership group briefly tried to sell the land for as much as $2.5 million.

The Palumbo brothers, who are connected to the property management and building industry through their father Sal Palumbo, have estimated their joint venture — if okayed as proposed by the ZBA — will nearly quadruple to $6.4 million the valuation of the 160 Moulton Street parcel.

The complex, to contain 24 two-bedroom units and 8 one-bedroom apartments, will be rented to tenants at monthly rates that range between $2,400 and $3,000. According to a development impact analysis prepared by Fougere Planning and Development on behalf of the petitioner, annual tax revenues will jump from just shy of $27,000 to $88,000 as a result of the project, which will result in no more than nine school-aged children enrolling in the local school system.

The property, which is situated close to nexus of Route 128 and Route 1 by Walnut and Salem Streets, sits within a Residence A (RA) or single-family zoning district.

A long history

Dating back to the 1950's, the Bali Hai restaurant, though having a loyal customer base, has not been popular amongst neighborhood abutters, whom have complained about traffic and noise coming from the establishment over the years.

The existing 270-plus seat restaurant, which was last updated in the 1970s, has struggled for a number of years to attract visitors from the abutting highway. The downturn was reportedly exacerbated by the erection of sound barriers along Route 128 in Lynnfield, where the screening blocked motorists' view of a vintage 1960's-era pylon sign advertising the business.

According to local attorney Ted Regnante, representing the petitioners, the redevelopment will address many of those neighborhood concerns and result in updates to the property's antiquated septic system.

"In its existing use, the Bali Hai property is incongruous in a neighborhood that is otherwise dedicated primarily to residential uses," Regnate argued in a July 10 memo to the Lynnfield ZBA. "The replacement of a commercial use with a residential [one] would allow a property that is presently an eyesore to be vastly improved by building an apartment [facility] that will be designed to more closely match the residential character of the neighborhood.'

"In addition, the proposed apartment building will generate less traffic…and noise (caused by the general operation of the business as well as frequent alcohol-related disturbances at the property in recent years)," the lawyer added.

Since the petition was introduced, a number of neighbors have attended recent Planning Board meetings on the apartment development, which abutters say does not fit within the character of the surrounding single-family area. The planners, serving in an advisory capacity to the ZBA on the petition, earlier this week advised against an approval of the project.

Some town officials, including managers within the Department of Public Works, have also questioned the developer's traffic claims, as an analysis submitted as part of the ZBA package is based upon the assumption that the Bali Hai is operating at full capacity.

"The site consists of a restaurant that is not currently operating at full capacity. Comparisons were made of the projected traffic generated if the restaurant was operating at full potential, versus a site that was redeveloped into multifamily housing," Town Engineer Charles Richter noted in a memo this week to the ZBA.

"Both of these scenarios showed significantly more traffic than the present site exhibits, with the morning and peak hour generating 5 and 6 car trips, respectively," the engineer continued.

The traffic claims are somewhat important, as the petition is hinged upon the site's status as a preexisting, non-conforming property and business use.

Also known as grandfather protections, pre-existing, non-conforming properties are buildings and lots which were constructed and occupied before local officials adopted zoning bylaws that rendered either the dimensions of a parcel or the current uses upon it illegal.

The legal distinction is extremely important in the present case, because it extends the landowners some exemptions from having to comply with existing zoning rules.

Under normal circumstances, the apartment project would not be allowed — absent a zoning change — because multi-family uses are prohibited in the underlying RA district.

However, Regnante has insisted the conversion is allowable in this instance, because Lynnfield's zoning bylaws allow a conversion of one non-conforming use to another, so long as the new development is less detrimental to the neighborhood.

"Under state and local law, a pre-existing, non-conforming use — such as the present use of the property for the operation of a restaurant…in the Residential A zoning district — may be changed to another nonconforming use under certain circumstances," Regnante argued in a July memo to the zoning board.

According to the applicant, the Moulton Street parcel was the site of the Suntaug Lake Inn building beginning in 1903, more than 25 years before town officials adopted its first set of zoning code regulations.

In 1956, the inn was converted into the Bali Hai restaurant, which operated until it was destroyed by a fire a few decades later. However, the restaurant owners quickly reopened for business in the early 1970s, after the existing 7,805 square foot Bali Hai building was erected.

"In sum, the entirety of the property has been continuously used for commercial purposes (first as a hotel/restaurant, later as a restaurant) since prior to the institution of zoning controls in Lynnfield. Such commercial uses have never been permitted under local zoning regulations at any time. As such the present use of the property constitutes a pre-existing, non-conforming use," Regante argued in the initial ZBA submittal.

Since that legal argument was submitted on behalf of the petitioner, Town Counsel Thomas Mullen, asked to weigh in on the matter by the Planning Board agreed with Regnante's general assessment.

However, the town attorney opined the zoning board does not have to approve the conversion to a residential use, as the town officials have broad discretion in determining what constitutes a less detrimental nonconforming use.

"Since our Zoning Bylaw explicitly allows the ZBA to approve such a change by special permit, the board may [vote in favor of], but need not approve requested changes from one nonconforming use to another," Town Counsel Thomas Mullen advised the Planning Board in a memo this week.

"I recommend that your board feel free to define the relevant 'neighborhood' in any reasonable way the board may deem appropriate, taking into account the size and character of structures and lots, the extent of traffic on the streets, and the extent to which the areas deemed part of the neighborhood are physically contiguous," he added.

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