If You Zone It, They Could Come

In order to spur new development in a place not widely known for its commercial activity, the City Council of Leominster is considering rezoning sections of the city.  The goal is to add flexibility to its land use controls in order to attract new businesses into Leominster while encouraging existing companies to expand.

This is not the first local government to realize that growing its tax base starts with rethinking how it zones and permits development.  Two other recent examples illustrate the importance of this self-appraisal process.

For many years, the town of Westwood had an anti-development reputation.  While virtually all of the land along the 128 Technology Highway bustled with new development activity, countless properties along University Ave in Westwood sat vacant or underutilized. This area, starting at the commuter rail station and continuing throughout a large industrial park – with direct access to the highway, was frozen in the 1960’s.

Recognizing that the town had to make significant changes to attract economic development, Westwood officials invited businesses, developers, consultants, and site selectors to tell them what changes were needed.  As a result of this process, the town’s economic development committee went to Town Meeting and changed Westwood’s zoning by-laws.  Soon after, a massive area of the park was purchased and one of the region’s largest mixed use developments was approved.  Unfortunately, the Grand Recession put the project on hold for the time being.  However, there is no doubt this will be one of the first projects to move forward once the recovery is in full swing.

The other municipality to undertake this self-critique was Lexington.  Its Board of Selectmen started a visioning process that brought in a wide range of experts to see what it would take to encourage further economic development in a town with limited growth areas.  As a result of the town’s new commitment to attracting businesses, Lexington passed a remarkable “up-zoning” at Town Meeting, which more than doubled the commercial density in the Hartwell Avenue area, allowing for a potential 2.9 million square feet of development.

With municipal budgets being slashed, more communities are realizing that they need to compete for new business growth, but they are ill prepared to attract development due to archaic zoning and permitting regulations.  While towns may not be able to guarantee new growth if they follow Lexington and Westwood, if they do not bring predictability, timeliness, and clarity to their permitting, most businesses will be looking elsewhere.

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