Athol’s Vitality Committee delays decision on support for variances

By GREG VINE

For The Athol Daily News

Published: 03-01-2023 4:22 PM

ATHOL – The Downtown Vitality Committee has, for now, held back explicit support for a number of zoning variances sought by developer Bill Krikorian for a proposed five story, 48-unit housing development on the site of a long-closed municipal parking garage.

Krikorian was seeking a letter of support from the committee which could be presented to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). Members, however, decided to revisit the issue at their meeting in March.

Athol Planning and Development Director Eric Smith said Krikorian is petitioning the town’s ZBA for approval of a total of four variances. Two relate to the construction of two housing units on the first floor of the building. Zoning bylaws require that the first floor of any building constructed downtown consist of retail space. Smith said Krikorian proposes to include two storefronts, which would meet the requirements, but also wants to place two residential units behind the businesses that would occupy the front of the building.

Other variances sought by Krikorian include being allowed to construct a five-story building, despite a limit of four stories and a height restriction imposed by zoning regulations. He also wants permission to construct studio or efficiency apartments of 400 square feet, while bylaws require that they be no smaller than 600 square feet.

Seventy-five percent of the units in Krikorian’s development would be classified as affordable housing, while 25 percent would go at the market rate.

Smith said other issues that need to be ironed out include vehicle traffic during construction, offsite storage of construction materials and an overall plan for parking once the project is complete. Krikorian does plan to use the lower section of the existing parking deck for parking, while also providing tenant parking on the property he purchased from Economic Development and Industrial Corporation.

“Aside from the details to be ironed out later, I don’t see why we wouldn’t support this,” said DVC member Shelly Kelley.

Committee member Diane DiPietro said the only reason they might not want to support this is because the management company is an unknown, and some are better than others.

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“We assume he’s going to do the best he can possibly do, but there’s no way of knowing that,” DiPietro said. “That would be my only concern. We don’t want this development to become a Potterville. That’s the only concern I know of.”

Smith noted that Krikorian and his son own a horse farm in Royalston and visits the area on a regular basis.

“I don’t feel that confident in what the function of the Zoning Board of Appeals is and how they view this as a zoning board, as opposed to their personal opinions,” said DVC Chair Mary Holtorf. “Zoning boards of appeal are kind of a different animal in the way they work. There are just certain things that they’re supposed to look at.”

Holtorf then polled the committee on whether members wanted to draft a letter of support “or a letter of comment.” Smith said a housing study noted the need for more housing downtown, a contention the committee has in the past agreed with.

Smith noted that letters of support for the transformation of the former Bigelow and Riverbend schools into mixed-income and senior housing proved an important factor in the ZBA’s decision to approve variances needed for that project.

“So, showing town support can be important,” Smith said,

While appearing to be generally supportive of Krikorian’s request, the committee ultimately decided to put off the issue of a letter of support until its next meeting on March 21. The Zoning Board of Appeals is currently scheduled to meet the following night, March 22, when—it is currently anticipated—it will take up Krikorian’s variance applications.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.

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