SHIRLEY -- The town's Economic Development Committee has withdrawn a pair of warrant articles proposing bylaw and zoning-map changes after they failed to gain support from the Planning Board at a recent public hearing.

One proposal sought to create an integrated planning overlay district (IPOD) on Lancaster Road, while the other proposed an identified priority development area (PDA). Together, the Economic Development Committee viewed them as a revenue-enhancing "gateway" from Route 2 into town.

Current bylaws allow residential or commercial/industrial development in areas specifically zoned for those purposes, respectively, but not both uses in the same area.

An overlay district area, however, could support any one or a combination of uses within existing zoning, EDC Chairwoman Jackie Esielionis said.

The proposal has been in the works for more than a year, with assistance from the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission under a District Local Technical Assistance program (DLTA) grant.

Charged with seeking out opportunities to increase the town's business footprint and tax base, the EDC zeroed in on Lancaster Road, where there are a number of commercial properties and a small industrial park.

"We were looking to attract similar businesses," Esielionis said.

Planning Board members weighed in after hearing a presentation by MRPC Regional Planner Chantell Fleck, who worked with the EDC to craft the bylaw and the two articles.

Based on a Lancaster bylaw in place for some time, the aim was to foster design flexibility, she said.

Developers seeking a special permit for mixed-use projects in the overlay district would instead file for an integrated permit, which is "more complex" than site-plan review, she said.

For example, "by right" uses would still exist but plans must meet certain criteria, Fleck said, such as a minimum two-acre parcel for commercial facilities. Residential units within a commercial project (mixed use) would be limited to a set percentage of total floor area and nonresidential projects must include 20 percent open space, Fleck said.

And the Planning Board gets the last word.

"They can say no," she said.

"Why not just re-zone the area commercial?" Planning Board Chairman Jonathan Greeno asked. "Here's my concern: We're all citizen planners," not professionals in the field and no match for "smart" engineers working for developers.

Faced with an unfamiliar process and "confusing" nuances they don't have the resources to research, he feared loopholes "you could drive a truck through," Greeno said, adding it's happened before.

In his view, there are only two reasons for an overlay district: to protect a public water supply or for conservation.

Esielionis said the EDC proposed an overlay district rather than simple re-zoning because it would offer "more flexibility" to property owners as well as developers.

But Planning Board member Sue Snyder challenged the notion that it would spark business growth.

"We had a mixed-use overlay district before that was never used and was removed from zoning," she said. "We don't need any more houses. We need businesses."

She asked the MRPC planner how the Lancaster IPOD bylaw was working out. Fleck replied that it drew some developer interest but no projects yet.

Snyder said straightforward zoning is best.

"What we need is more commercial zoning," she said.

But Esielionis cited a Catch-22 that hinders development downtown, zoned commercial.

"There are obstacles," she said, specifically mentioning a bylaw that mandates a long waiting period before razing buildings 75 years old or more.

Most buildings downtown are at least that old, historic or not, and Eselionis said that a commercial project would require multiple teardowns due to small lot sizes.

Apple Orchard Estate

The overlay district map included "a big chunk of Apple Orchard Estates," an upscale residential subdivision off Lancaster Road. Greeno asked why. 

That area isn't yet developed, Esiolinis replied, and the EDC felt there would be "less impact" on town services and schools if it were used for something other than single-family residences.

Originally permitted as a phased-in residential development of 110 single-family homes, the Apple Orchard project had problems from the start, including toxic soil removal, drainage difficulties and sticky issues between developer Steve Goodman and homeowners and between Goodman and the town.

Now, substantially short of full buildout, the project has apparently taken a new twist.

Despite stalls in the early phases and a protracted hiatus during the economic slowdown, the project seemed to be back on track when it was halted again, with about 68 of the 110 houses up and sold.

Although Greeno said no new permit application has come before the Planning Board, Esielionis acknowledged a plan was in the works to construct apartment buildings with affordable units and a senior assisted-living facility on the development's vacant lots, not single-family homes.

That did not sit well with Apple Orchard homeowners, according to representatives who came to the meeting.

Sketching their neighborhood as mostly professionals whose children attend local schools and who are involved in the community, the group said homeowners don't oppose commercial development on Lancaster Road. But if creating an overlay district allows Goodman to construct anything other than single-family homes in Apple Orchard Estates, they are "100 percent against it," they said, citing a recent homeowner's association vote.

Homeowners said they purchased their homes, priced between $300,000 and $400,000, based on the prospects of an all-residential enclave of 110 single-family homes, where streets are named for varieties of New England apples. Commercial enterprises were not to be allowed.

Now comes a proposal to do something else and they vigorously oppose it.

Greeno said that if and when the developer files a new permit application, a posted public hearing will be held and Apple Orchard residents will be notified by mail. In the meantime, he suggested tracking Planning Board agendas via the town website and attending meetings when the matter comes up.

Greeno applauded the EDC effort and its intent. But he and other board members strongly opposed the overlay district idea, prompting Fleck to ask if a straight-up, "mixed-use" zoning proposal would be more to their liking.

Esielionis offered to withdraw the article with an eye to a do-over for the fall.

Greeno was leery of mixed-use zoning, too. But he said the Planning Board is open to proposals the EDC and MRPC come up with and asked that they keep the board posted on their progress.