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Bedford considering major change to zoning process

BEDFORD — The Planning Board wants to hear residents' opinions about a proposed amendment that would allow the Town Council to approve all zoning changes throughout the year, rather than the decision being made by voters at the polls.

At the Jan. 13 public hearing, the board will hold a second hearing at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 27, to gain more public input. Although the board did not officially vote to remove the proposed zoning amendment from the March ballot, they want to hold off on changing the process for 2015 to give town officials more time to clarify the zoning and appeal process, and show how voter input would increase.

"I don't believe that either this board, myself included, or the Town Council, myself included there, have a complete understanding, a good working knowledge, of how this process will apply if it's approved," said Bill Dermody, the council's representative on the Planning Board, who is in favor of the approval change.

Under the current process, zoning amendments are discussed at two Planning Board public hearings and then placed on the ballot. The proposed change would give the council the authority to approve zoning amendments after three public hearings — one held by the Planning Board and two by the Town Council.

Resident Susan Tufts-Moore voiced her concerns at the Jan. 13 meeting, saying even though the intent of the proposed amendment is to expedite the zoning process, she's in favor of delaying the change because there is a lot at stake and "zoning decisions should be left in the hands of voters."

"I personally think that once a year is often enough," said Tufts-Moore. "The present system is more fair than the proposed system that would allow zoning rules within our town to change dramatically within a short amount of time."

Tufts-Moore said she is also concerned with giving approval rights to the Town Council because that may give some developers advantages over others, as some councilors could be influenced by developers.

"I feel that the town voters are competent enough to make zoning decisions, and I feel that they should still have that ability," she said.

Resident Kathy Shartser agreed, and said this year only two councilors are up for re-election, and voters wouldn't be able to important ask questions about the candidates' opinions on zoning.

"I think as voters when they are up for re-election, we should be asking those questions — How do you feel about rezoning? When do you feel it's appropriate to overrule the Planning Board or differ with the Planning Board?" Shartser said. "I feel you have to look at perhaps three years from now until most of the councilors would be up for re-election, or at least a majority, so that as voters we can start asking the councilors who are running for re-election this year how they feel about zoning. To tell you the truth, it is not a lot of time for the councilors themselves to be facing questions from voters."

She is also concerned about the notification process for proposed zoning amendments, and voters would have no legal options if they are not aware.

"I think that if you were to tell the average voter in Bedford that with this change, the Planning Board and the Town Council could rezone their land and they don't have to send you a letter, they'd be shocked. You don't have to notify property owners or abutters, typically you do, but you don't have to," Shartser said.

Planning Board member Harold Newberry recommended the appeal process be clarified and communicated effectively to residents. However, Planning Director Rick Sawyer said the charter already allows for appeals of Town Council ordinance changes by 5 percent of registered voters within 30 days.

The town is required to post hearings in newspapers and at town offices, but state law does not require towns to post it on their website. Sawyer they are not trying to recreate notification to property owners or abutters because it's too costly and time consuming.

"I'd be very cautious about getting into notifying every property owner or abutter because if you made a change, for instance to the residential/agricultural zoning district, you'd be sending out 7,000 abutter cards, $6.49 each currently," Sawyer said. "But, I certainly understand the need to make sure things are noticed. Frankly I think you're going to see much, much notification and public input with the new process just because there are three public hearings by different boards, so by default you're going to have more people involved and over a longer period of time than the two-week period that we currently do it under."

The Planning Board is urging residents to voice their opinion about the proposed zoning amendment at the Jan. 27 public hearing at BCTV Studios, 10 Meetinghouse Road.

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