Application review process in Belmont eases trip to planning and zoning boards

BELMONT — An effort to make the planning process easier for those who come before the town's Planning Board seems to be working.

Responding to selectmen's concerns that many applicants do not understand what is expected of them, the town has created a Application Review Committee. The committee was set up under the guidance of Building Inspector Steve Paquin.

Like similar review committees in nearby communities, Belmont's ARC meets monthly, and anyone considering a project that has to go before the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Adjustments has an opportunity to discuss their idea with department heads before the formal application.

Town Planner Candace Daigle said nobody from the Planning Board attends the ARC meetings, so a board's decisions aren't influenced by discussions with the committee. The meetings are open to the public and are typically held during the daytime when department heads are all available.

Daigle said the ARC gives applicants some background as to what information must be included in an application to the Planning Board as well as some very valuable feedback from department heads who must review applications for compliance issues.

She said there is no charge to come before the committee.

One of the projects that was discussed in a recent ARC meeting was Ramsey Al-Shawafi's plans to renovate  the former Belmont Village Store.

Initially Al-Shawafi ran into obstacles with the planning process and in February he came to selectmen to vent his frustration.

As well as removing an ell behind the store and then re-siding the outside of the building, Al-Shawafi also wanted to put three apartments in the upper two floors — one for himself, one for an employee, and one for what he hoped would be a long-term tenant.

He told selectmen that he was concerned because he was told he couldn't do what he wanted to do because of a parking shortage. He was also upset because he didn't want to spend $15,000 designing a site plan and a boundary-line survey just to be rejected by the Zoning Board of Adjustments.

"What (the town employees) don't understand," said Selectman Jon Pike, who as a businessman said he empathizes with Al-Shawafi, "is that he needs to spend $10,000 to $20,000 just to get a plan."

"If he does this survey can we make this happen?" Pike asked, noting that the town had just spent a great deal of money and effort making the village district look good and he didn't want the town to get in the way of a businessman who was trying to improve one of its properties.

Selectman Ruth Mooney said in her opinion the town should be working with people who are willing to improve their properties.

Town Administrator Jeanne Beaudin told the board that Al-Shawafi was scheduled for a meeting with the ARC and that his concerns would be addressed.

Minutes from March 6 ARC meeting indicate that the project is subject to state building and fire codes with the biggest obstacle being three apartments as opposed to two because while two apartments are regulated by state residential code, three or more apartments are regulated under the commercial multi-family code that adds multiple requirements.

Parking for three rental units was a concern for the Police Department.

Minutes said Al-Shawafi was told that the department heads and the Planning Department would continue to work with him to help him bring his project to fruition. He asked if he could make two apartments upstairs and use the second and third floors for each apartment, and was told he could.

At Tuesday night's selectman's meeting, Selectman Ron Cormier said he attended a recent ARC meeting and liked what he saw.

Daigle said Al-Shawafi was moving forward on his project with the help of the town of Belmont. She said he is doing some internal improvements now for which he doesn't need any permits.