EASTON — Easton will overhaul its zoning code for the first time since 2006. Town planners have finished the initial update and have submitted the proposed new guidelines to the Easton Town Council for review. The council will vote on it in the coming weeks.
Some kinks in the updated code still have to be worked out, and resident and organizational concerns have to be addressed. But the changes could help the town control future growth, which is predicted to continue to rise post-pandemic as people flock out of the cities and to more rural, open areas, planner said.
The new code changes a slew of factors, from minor details to larger zoning regulations. The four biggest changes proposed are: creating three separate planned unit development (PUD) types, adding more housing types, updating sign regulations, and redefining industrial and commercial areas.
Lynn Thomas, town planner and one of the primary authors of the new zoning code, said Easton is also updating its comprehensive plan this year, which prompted the zoning code overhaul.
Thomas pointed to the creation of three new PUD types — infill, general and redevelopment — as a major change that pivots away from a “one size fits all” standard, and a way to better facilitate new development and controlled growth.
Previously, “there was only one set of standards to follow with one set of criteria for things like maximum density and any other development standards,” he said. “The proposal now is to treat that somewhat differently and have different standards.”
Infill development refers to the conversion of vacant lots in already developed urban areas, while redevelopment considers building on existing sites that are currently multifamily residential, commercial, industrial or institutional. Everything else would be considered general.
Paul Weber, planning commission chairman, said the new criteria, paired with new housing type definitions that include middle to low-income housing options like triplexes, fourplexes and courtyard buildings, will “increase the density of housing, which would hopefully lead us to more affordable, workforce housing.”
“This thought that there were other housing types, other than just single-family housing and duplexes,” he said, spurred an initiative to create a better “mix of housing.”
Affordable housing has long been a major concern in Easton, which fewer than 10 houses available for purchase under $200,000, according to the town’s committee for affordable housing.
“Keep in mind, this overriding principle we were trying to push as we reconsidered all these various chapters, was we want to drive density to lower the cost,” Weber said.
The changes could also be attractive to developers, by helping them save money. Development of a 2,500 square-foot house would cost roughly $700,000 — for a home that would be far under that price in the real estate market. But taking that same lot and putting four units on it would increase profitability.
The new infill and redevelopment categories can be encouraging for developers, too.
“It attacks the problem in two ways: one, the simple supply and demand. We’re increasing the supply,” said Thomas. “Secondly, the location of where this will apply is where there’s already infrastructure in place, so you don’t have to extend or create infrastructure.”
One part of the zoning code was tweaked at the request of Ryan Showalter, a local real estate attorney. He changed a sentence requiring commercial and mixed-use developers to create a development that is “oriented to benefit the residents of the neighborhood” to the new phrase of “oriented to benefit the residents of the community and the town.”
That change raises questions, said Lynn Mielke of the Easton Club.
“Certainly there is a difference — very, very subtle — between a neighborhood and a community,” she said. “But that can be significant. If, for instance, the town were to say, ‘Well, it services the community, not the neighborhood itself,’ it has the tendency to override the neighborhood.”
Showalter argued in comments to the town that “large PUDs are unlikely to have sufficient numbers of residents to really support an economically viable commercial use that is ‘oriented to benefit the residents.’”
“This standard virtually eliminates the possibility of vertically mixed PUDs,” he said. “For example, it would be difficult to argue that first floor offices are oriented to benefit the residents of the PUD, but vertical mixing and integration of uses can enhance the vitality of a community.”
Thomas said planning officials “agreed with the observation/suggestion that a commercial component of a potential mixed-use project is unlikely to have long term success if it has to rely on the residents of said project.”
Other changes also have come under scrutiny. The proposed sign rules would regulate window signs and limit temporary signs as well as any sign placed on private property. Under the new rules, most homeowners in Easton could have just one sign outside their home, and they could only have it up for 60 days, two times a year.
The move has drawn criticism from some in the community — especially as the Talbot Boys conversation continues, with the blue and yellow signs still frequent in town.
“A lot of people have been upset,” said Joe Minarick, the president of the East-End Neighborhood Association. “The feeling is that these are First Amendment issues. People are expressing political feelings, typically ... and that it should not be restricted for that short period of time. There are definitely people who object to that.”
Thomas said the new restrictions were drafted more than two years ago, and were based on the 2016 Supreme Court case Reed v. Gilbert. Justices ruled that it was illegal for local governments to regulate signage based on the content of the sign.
In the old code, signs based on “political elections and activities” had minor restrictions on them, and that language was taken out in the new zoning ordinance to reduce content-based regulation.
Thomas did not comment on the new regulations restricting the number of days a sign can be up.
Minarick also called for tighter decision-making for historic district developments, which was echoed by Jim Carr, an Easton resident. Carr, who lives in the historic district, specifically raised concerns about the town’s volunteer Historic District Commission, which he said has enforced rules arbitrarily.
The new zoning code clarifies the powers of the commission in greater detail, but Carr has had issues with the seven-member volunteer board, which denied his attempt to install vinyl windows but hasn’t enforced regulations on other nearby homes that have trashed historic property or enacted what he said were more significant violations.
“The town empowers the commission to be a regulatory board in their own sense, even though they’re volunteers,” Carr said.
Regarding the commission, Thomas said “not a lot is proposed to be changed and to the extent changes are proposed, they are simply intended to clarify what the commission does (and does not) have authority over.”
Carr said he is working with the town to potentially revise the powers of the commission.
The ordinance also changes industrial districts to one of two definitions: either business commercial or industrial, a minor tweak for more specific zoning based on a potential incoming business.
Finally, the code adds the definition of “commercial business district” for some commercial properties close to downtown Easton on U.S. Route 50, “in recognition that such parcels are more like downtown in their development characteristics than commercial areas.”