Zoning changes proposed for commercial, residential projects in Athol

Recorder Staff/Domenic Poli  Athol Town Hall.

Recorder Staff/Domenic Poli Athol Town Hall.

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 09-19-2023 5:00 PM

ATHOL – A series of proposed changes to the town’s zoning bylaws would allow developments similar to Fitchburg developer Bill Krikorian’s 43-unit project for downtown to proceed with fewer variances.

Approximately 14 months ago, Bill Krikorian approached Athol officials with a proposal to construct a building which would accommodate 48 units of mostly affordable housing. The plan has since been modified to 43 units and Krikorian has had to secure the approval of the Zoning Board of Appeals for several variances allowing him to move ahead.

Those variances were ultimately approved, but now the Planning Department is proposing changes to the zoning bylaws. One of the proposed changes would provide more flexibility regarding the requirement for commercial space on the first floor of a multistory downtown building. Under current regulations, the first floor must be dedicated solely to commercial space. The proposed new wording allows “residential use of…first floor locations lacking public exposure to the street frontage in a building used for commercial purposes.”

Because Krikorian had proposed the construction of two residential units at the rear of the first floor of his development, with two commercial spaces streetside, it was necessary for him to seek the variance granted by the ZBA.

“What Krikorian said, was to make the project economically feasible, he’s still going to have some commercial storefronts on the first floor, but he wants to have a hallway with two apartments in the back,” Planning and Development Director Eric Smith recently told the Downtown Vitality Committee. “The new language would basically be more flexible.”

Another suggested change would reduce the size requirement for downtown housing units.

Krikorian had proposed construction of several 500-square-foot units. Under existing bylaws, Smith noted, “If you own a single-family house and you want to make that into apartments, you can do 500-square-foot units. But if you’re doing a development in our downtown area, there’s a 600-square-foot requirement. (Krikorian) wanted to do 500 square feet, but that variance was denied. To me, why can’t downtown also be 500 square feet? This change would make it 500 square feet for everybody.”

The final proposed zoning change would do away with the existing limit on the number of stories allowed in a downtown development.

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Smith explained, “Fifty feet is the height limit for downtown, but it’s the only district in town that has a footnote that basically says buildings will not exceed four stories. Remember, he wants to build a five-story building, so he needed another variance for that. Well, if a builder can design a building with more than four stories, why should he have to go over that separate hurdle? Why not make it 50 feet in height – that’s the limit – and if he can build five stories, let him as long as it doesn’t change the character of the downtown.”

The ZBA did ultimately vote to give Krikorian the variance to construct five stories, while also giving him permission to make his building 54 feet in height.

All three zoning changes have been endorsed by the Board of Planning and Community Development. A public hearing on these changes will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 7:10 p.m. in Room #21 at Town Hall. It will be up to voters at the Oct. 16 fall Town Meeting whether to approve the amended bylaws.

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