Fitchburg’s new grandfathering rules seek to spark investment in vacant homes

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Fitchburg is looking to spur investment by private developers and would-be homeowners in abandoned and vacant homes across the city by introducing new rules that allow the properties to maintain their “grandfathered” status with regard to zoning and streamline the redevelopment process for those properties.
Facing a tax roll with roughly 3.7 percent of its properties registered as “abandoned/vacant,” and Zoning Board of Appeals meetings filled with variance requests that would stretch deep into the night, Mayor Stephen DiNatale put together a team of city officials that developed the two-tiered zoning amendment that was approved by the City Council on Sept. 5.
For single-family and two-family homes, if residential is allowed as-of-right or by special permit in that district and any nonconformity related to parking is not increased as determined by the building commissioner, the property is grandfathered and does not need a zoning variance to be redeveloped.
“In those cases, we’ve made it real easy to redevelop those properties if they sat vacant,” said Community Development Executive Director Tom Skwierawski.
For three-family and larger buildings, if residential is allowed in the district, parking requirements are reasonably met, and the developer is putting more than 50 percent of the property’s value into the rehabilitation, the building commissioner can allow the property to bypass any need for a variance from the ZBA.
If the commissioner feels there’s any ambiguity as to whether a property should be grandfathered in, it would be sent to a new city committee that includes officials from the Community Development office, Board of Health and others, which would make the determination, instead of having the request backlogged in the ZBA.
Skwierawski said Building Commissioner Mark Barbadoro brought the idea for the standalone committee to speed up redevelopment from his previous position in Oak Bluffs.
DiNatale said the new rules address the public safety issue of abandoned and vacant homes while also creating an environment that’s more welcome to investment in an undervalued market.
Another hurdle was a state statute, adopted by Fitchburg and many other cities and towns, that allows the adoption of local zoning ordinances or bylaws that regulate properties that have not been used for two years.
However, adopting that statute – Chapter 40A, Section 6 – also means those properties lose certain grandfathered zoning rights, according to City Solicitor Vincent Pusateri.
“This two-year vacancy regulation was very problematic and a hinderance to our promoting increased development,” DiNatale said. “We’ve made it a lot more amenable to those people coming in that they will get to ‘yes,’ and we will get to ‘yes’ with them.”
The mayor said that he wants to draw attention to the amenities available in Fitchburg, which has a commuter rail stop with express trains that arrive at Boston’s North Station a little over an hour after departure.
“You can put yourself into a property in Fitchburg that would be less costly to you paying that mortgage than it would be to rent if you were living in Somerville, Cambridge or those areas,” he said.