Outreach and Education Case Study

Town of Athol Zoning Revisions for Smart Growth

The Town of Athol is a rural community located on the New Hampshire border in Central Massachusetts. Athol was once a promising town full of industrial and cultural growth until the 1950's when the route 2a bypass limited access to the town, and larger highways (e.g., I-495, I-90) drove businesses and the population to other parts of the State. Therefore, the Town wished to utilize Smart Growth Techniques to revitalize its business district, bolster the town's economy, create attractive places that will attract residents and visitors, and also to prepare for anticipated increased growth pressures due to the widening of the 495 development "beltway".

In 2006, the town received a Smart Growth Technical Assistance Grant to conduct a comprehensive review of the existing Zoning Bylaw to identify areas where smart growth techniques could be incorporated.  Prior to this effort, the Zoning Bylaw had only received significant revisions once in over 40 years!  The Zoning Bylaw Review Committee (ZBRC) comprised of citizens, members of the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Building Inspector, and a representative from the Fire Department, was charged with leading this effort.

At the outset of this project, ZBRC understood the need for continuous outreach in the community throughout the development of the Zoning Bylaw changes.  Outreach was conducted through a series of “official” venues as well as through the use of a Town-wide survey.  The ZBRC and the town’s consultant met with local officials individually and discussed land use issues informally throughout the project with various stakeholders.

Summary of Outreach Efforts Performed under the Town of Athol Smart Growth Technical Assistance Grant.

Outreach

Description

Regular ZBRC Committee Meetings

Every 2nd and 4th Thursday of each month for the duration of the project.

Town Wide Survey

4,000 surveys distributed

Public Forum

May 17, 2006

Public Television

Regular broadcast of the public forum and select ZBRC meetings

Meetings with local officials

Town Manager, Town Planner, Fire Chief, Police Chief, Department of Public Works, Board of Health

Planning Board Hearings

August 7 and September 11, 2006

Coverage in local newspaper

Ongoing throughout the project

General discussions via phone and e-mail

Ongoing throughout the project

The town-wide survey was distributed to 4,000 residents and/or households.  The response rate was just under 10%.  In general, the survey revealed a disparate set of priorities within the community and suggested a tension between what are often perceived to be competing values, such as economic development in contrast with environmental protection.  The ZBRC focused heavily on the tension between these two policy goals and attempted to demonstrate a balance between them wherever possible in the zoning language. 

A presentation was given at the public forum that provided attendees with an overview of the project, Athol’s current economy and settlement pattern, regional growth patterns and its potential effects on the Town and its environmental resources, and the proposed strategies to combat these issues, while encourage smart growth to bolster the Town’s economy.  Strategies offered to address these issues were the identification of redevelopment opportunities, environmental constraints, and regulatory hurdles.  Important regulatory changes that the town was considering were also presented including the adoption of a new Open Space Residential Design and Accessory Dwelling Units bylaws, guidance for village center redevelopment, and specific zoning bylaw changes (e.g., amendment to the Regulation of Use Table and Intensity of Use Schedule, and revisions to the Groundwater Protection District Overlay). 

The proposed bylaw changes were divided into nine separate Articles and presented at a Town Meeting with approximately 130 attendees.  Each of the nine articles was passed with minor amendments.  The three provisions that produced the most discussion included the changes to the Groundwater Protection District, the proposed bylaw for Accessory Dwelling Units, and a provision to limit the weight of vehicles associated with Home Office use (part of the bylaw audit).  Overall, concerns among Town Meeting attendees were few and limited in scope.  The lack of confusion and/or opposition on Town Meeting floor relative to these bylaws, some very technical in nature, is a testament to the amount and quality of outreach performed by ZBRC.