Urban renewal zoning laws must balance form, function

Feb 24, 2023

This story has been updated for clarity.

The Redevelopment Authority wants Wareham Village to be walkable, family-friendly and full of affordable housing. The Redevelopment Authority also wants a downtown that can withstand rising sea levels, protect against flooding, encourage economic development and maintain the town’s historic beauty for generations to come. 

How do they plan to achieve this balancing act?

“The devil is in the details when it comes to the language,” said Dan Butler, chair of the Redevelopment Authority, at its meeting on Thursday, Feb. 23. 

At Thursday’s meeting, town officials continued to discuss new zoning laws which would prioritize both form and function.

The two don’t always go together smoothly.

Aesthetically appealing features, like pitched roofs, decrease the amount of height that developers can get out of mixed-use buildings. Less height means fewer apartments.

“I understand where it comes from,” said Planning Board member and architect Jane Gleason, “but I don’t think it gets you where you want to be. So you really have to think about where you want to be… You really have to stand back from the words you put on paper.”

The Redevelopment Authority has previously discussed increasing the maximum building height to 65 feet and allowing mixed-use zoning.

All proposed changes to the town Zoning By-Law must go through a public hearing by the Planning Board, after which the Select Board approves them to be voted on at Town Meeting.

“The Redvelopment Authority doesn’t have a role other than promoting the By-Law,” said Director of Planning and Community Development Ken Buckland. “What the Redevelopment Authority is doing is providing choices to Town Meeting about what’s appropriate for zoning downtown.” 

Nantucket may be “gorgeous,” Gleason said, but its strict zoning laws, decades in the making, are shocking to many. 

“It’s this whole litany of what you can and can’t do,” she said. 

She said that Nantucket represents the traditional village atmosphere — a dense, close-knit community of residences and businesses. She lamented how highways and strip malls devalued the village way of life.

“Our social construct has not valued downtowns and villages as much as it should [have],” she said.

Julie Moran, who is on the Finance Committee but spoke as a private citizen, called for the laws to have “stronger language.” 

“How do we make sure that 20 years from now,” she said, “30 years from now, when our children, their families are here, that we have sustainable buildings for them?”

Such a transformation of Wareham Village could take 10-15 years. 

“We have a long time left in this community,” said Select Board member Ronald Besse, who is 36 years old and has five children. “Whatever we do, we can’t be thinking about right now. We can’t be thinking about the members of the community today. We have to be thinking about my children, and their children, because they’re the ones that are going to benefit.”