HAVERHILL — The city plans in the next 15 years to lure in big companies with jobs for local people, while encouraging construction of neighborhood "village centers'' — mixes of homes and stores with a walkable design for residents.

As that growth happens, Haverhill also plans to preserve the rural character of its outskirts by maintaining a two-acre minimum lot size for new homes.

Haverhill has adopted those goals in a new Master Plan — a blueprint for the community's business and residential landscape. The City Council has approved the plan, which includes zoning to control development for the next 15 years.

Mayor James Fiorentini and City Council called for the creation of a new master plan, called Vision Haverhill 2035. It was created by a consulting firm, Utile of Boston, with input from hundreds of people, including city officials and members of the public.

Haverhill’s current master plan is more than 20 years old, the mayor said.

The new master plan required City Council approval of zoning changes before they could go into effect. This week, the council supported all zoning changes recommended in the plan, except for a recommendation that would have reduced buildable lot sizes from two acres to one acre in residential rural (RR) zones as a way to create more housing in rural neighborhoods.

The mayor said he signed off on the zoning changes Thursday, making them official.

Boosting business, neighborhoods

One of the zoning changes approved by the council is designed to lure businesses to Haverhill and help existing companies expand by letting them construct taller buildings in business parks. Expanding the number of businesses in Haverhill and their size is aimed at creating jobs and bringing more property tax money to the city, officials said.

Fiorentini said allowing the creation of new commercial and industrial space in business parks is one of the most important zoning changes approved by the council.

"By changing density requirements, it will allow new growth," he said about the concept of creating more space for businesses by allowing several stories to be added to existing buildings.

Other zoning changes in the new Master Plan have a goal of encouraging developers to build "village centers'' — groups of housing units clustered together with retail shops and other businesses. That concept is designed to create neighborhoods which allow residents to walk short distances to shopping areas, city officials said.

The council approved new zones that would allow for creation of up to eight “village centers,” which Fiorentini said he hopes will make Haverhill more of a pedestrian-friendly "walkable city."

"The idea is to restore the concept of small areas where people can walk to a store or restaurant just as people did in the 1950s," he said.


Mayor: Public needs housing choices

While Haverhill has seen housing growth downtown, where developers have built hundreds of units in abandoned shoe factories, housing growth elsewhere in the city has greatly showed, Fiorentini said. That has limited people's choices of where they can live in the city and also drives up housing costs, he said.

He said zoning restrictions implemented in the year 2000 to limit growth in Haverhill have been largely responsible for the lack of new housing, the high cost of residential real estate and growing rental prices. After those zoning restrictions went into effect in 20 years ago, building permits for single-family homes plummeted by 85 percent, from more than 231 in 1998 and 169 in 1999 to just 31 so far this year, he said.

“Every community around us, including Lawrence, Andover, North Andover, Merrimac and Groveland, are more receptive to new housing than we are,” the mayor said. “Our rising middle class has no place to move to, and no place to buy a single-family home.

"Rents in Haverhill are skyrocketing,” he said. “There is almost no 55-and-over housing and people who have lived here all their lives have to move to other communities when they retire. We cannot survive and prosper as a no-growth community."

Preserving rural outskirts

Fiorentini's proposal to the council called for restrictions to be loosened in areas of the city that are zoned rural residential, allowing houses to be built on one acre. The council voted to retain the current two-acre minimum. Councilors postponed discussion of an alternate plan that would allow clusters of single-family homes, by special permit, on parcels that are four acres or larger.

Fiorentini had hoped for a change in rural residential zones from the current two acres back to one-acre zoning where those zones had been up until the year 2000. He said the outskirts of the city are kept from almost any growth by restrictive two-acre zoning that makes it nearly impossible to build single-family homes for working families, for middle-class families and for retirees who want to continue living in Haverhill.

The proposal to reduce the size of residential building lots from two acres to one ran into opposition from residents living on the city's outskirts and from several councilors.

William Pillsbury, economic development and planning director for the city, said a compromise proposal that will would allow cluster housing in very limited rural residential areas. 

"If you had a 10-acre parcel, under conventional zoning you could have up to five lots, but under the compromise you'd be able to have up to eight lots," he said, noting the proposal would include a number of protections including a 50-foot setback around the entire perimeter of the property.

Councilor Joseph Bevilaqua said he was opposed to any changes to rural residential zoning as Haverhill's rural area are what makes the city unique and an attraction.

"Once that land is developed it's gone forever," Bevilacqua said. "The best thing to do with the RR district is to leave it the way it is."

Rocks Village resident Christine Kwitchoff said she likes the Master Plan's recommendations to increase the city's housing stock while protecting the balance between "town and country." 

She said the master plan does not identify any areas of targeted growth in residential rural zones.

"Yet a zoning change is suggested for these areas," she said, adding that the city's Planning Board came up with a compromise plan at an Oct. 29 meeting that would maintain the current two-acre minimum in RR zones in exchange for allowing cluster housing on four acres or above. "I am asking to hit the pause button right now.''


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