Why hasn’t there been a rush to develop French King?
There are three major reasons why there has been a lack of commercial development along French King Highway in recent years, Planning and Development Director Eric Twarog explained Tuesday afternoon ahead of a public hearing on proposed zoning changes to the corridor.
At the public hearing before the Greenfield Planning Board, residents expressed their views on the three proposals before the board. The hearing included the two pieces that have been presented in tandem as part of a deal to swing votes for a new public library ahead of an April 30 state deadline for accepting a grant. Part of the proposal is to alter the zoning along the French King Highway overlay district to allow for the development of gas stations, drive-throughs, drive-ins and restaurants that offer takeout, which is currently restricted.
Regardless of this proposal, Twarog said three factors play into why development has been slow to nonexistent along that land. The first, and biggest reason, is the “big box trial,” he said. While a 135,000-square-foot big box store was approved by the Greenfield Planning Board in 2011, the case has been stuck in court over an appeal by neighbors — and led by Greenfield resident and national big box development foe Al Norman. The current zoning doesn’t restrict a commercial retail store from building anywhere along that corridor.
“The only thing that stops it is that developers are smart,” Twarog said. “They’re waiting to see what happens with the appeal.” A big box store would make that area more attractive to smaller stores. This leads to the second issue: sewer. There is not a sewer main along north of Stop & Shop. It can be very expensive to build out a sewer line, Twarog said, and based on old state laws, the cost of extending it is not shared by all the properties along the route. Instead, it’s footed by the first to seek the extension. Once the sewer line is extended, Twarog could imagine more commercial development along the area.
Lastly, the current Berkshire Gas Co. moratorium on new natural gas hookups is a factor, and this piece could be the most crucial if the proposed zoning changes were passed by the Greenfield City Council next week at its March 20 meeting. If a restaurant wants to open in Greenfield where there isn't an existing business with a gas hookup, then it would have to use sometimes more costly energy sources like propane or oil. “It’s a huge deal,” Twarog said. “It impacts all businesses.” Gas stations are unlikely to come in significant numbers, Twarog said. “We would not be inundated with gas stations,” Twarog said. “It’s much harder to develop a gas station in today’s world then it was in the past.”
Additionally, there are challenges with the parcels of land along the corridor. Twarog said environmental constraints like the 100-year floodplain and other wetlands restrictions and a steep slopes would mitigate against inexpensive development.
Besides more relaxed commercial use along the French King Highway corridor, another proposal calls for rezoning the area to industrial use, which it was before 1993. Twarog said he’s aware of businesses that have tried to come to Greenfield, particularly for industrial use, but have decided against because for lack of industrial park space. “We do need industrial space in Greenfield,” Twarog said. “There’s no doubt about it.” He noted it has been identified as a Franklin County issue in a study by the Regional Council of Governments. City councilors have discussed proposing a mixed-use zone along French King Highway, which may have universal appeal. But such a change now would substantially change the zoning proposal headed for the City Council and would delay the process to the point it would likely extend past the deadline for a new library — which is tied, politically, to this zoning change.
Twarog said he has been working on and off for the last two years with the Planning Board on reviewing the zoning use map citywide. He said they are ready for “wholesale changes” to all zoning districts except for residential. “Sometimes you can’t do what you want to do, but you have to react with what else is going around in the town,” Twarog said about the delays in the process to propose the use changes. He cited marijuana ordinances and debates over zoning in relation to the library. A major part of the zoning work he has been moving forward is to modernize the map so it fits more with the character of business today than the last time it was updated in 1989. “The days of industrial development that people are afraid of have changed,” Twarog said. “It can be done much cleaner now. Why not mix them and allow greater opportunity in greater areas of the city?” This means there could be mixed use zones, especially to accommodate the emerging culture of cooperative workspaces and a business that both creates and sell its products on a craft scale. “That’s why it’s most unfortunate that’s it being tied to the library and being rushed through,” Twarog said. “It is what is is, and decisions have to be made in a certain time frame.”
You can reach Joshua Solomon at:
413-772-0261, ext. 264