December 11 2019

Board of Health to Write and Vote on Biosafety Regulations in Response to Proposed Zoning Bylaw Change

By: Rich Hosford

The Board of Health is going to draft and vote on biotech safety regulations after a potential loophole is zoning bylaw language had them fearing a life sciences business could open in town without their approval. 


As reported on BNEWS, Board Chairman Ed Weiner raised concerns after learning that the Planning Board was working on a warrant article to change the High-Rise Industrial (IH) zoning by reducing some height and buffer area requirements. This would mean that three additional properties could be zoned as IH in addition to the three currently in town. 


The issue, Weiner said, is that a zoning bylaw change passed by Town Meeting in January allows life science and biotech companies to occupy IH districts “by right.” This was not an issue when the three current IH sites, the Burlington Marriott, the Hilton Garden Inn and the Oracle parking garage, were the only ones in town because there is little to no chance any of them would be converted to a biotech lab. However, the three sites that could become IH under this zoning bylaw change, 3 Van de Graaff Drive, 60 Blanchard Road and the Summit Property, could be home to biotech. 


The issue that Weiner raised is that if a biotech company applies for one of these areas it would be required to go before the Board of Health because it would mark a change of use but, under the current zoning law, subsequent businesses in the same site might not be subject to such oversight. 


“If the first biotech company moved out or went out of business, another biotech, one we may not want in town, could move in without Board of Health approval because the site was already approved for a change in use,” he told his fellow board members during a meeting last month. 


He argued that the subsequent companies that could locate in the district by right could have a higher Biosafety Level, meaning it uses more potentially dangerous materials, than the one initially approved by the board. There are four levels though town bylaws prevent any company at Level 4 from coming into town. Biosafety Level 3 laboratories include research on some dangerous things like West Nile Virus and Yellow Fever. 


Burlington Health Director Susan Lumenello said this week that the Board of Health initially reached out to the Planning Department to work out a solution to this issue. As reported by BNEWS, Planning Director Kristin Kassner said in November they were already working on proposed bylaw language to address the concerns of the Board of Health and ensure that any biotech business looking to locate in Burlington would need approval by that board. 


However, Lumenello said that while talking to Town Counsel they would advised to create biosafety regulations independently rather than changing the zoning bylaw language.  


The plan now, as explained by Weiner and Lumenello this week, is to draft biosafety regulations in a subcommittee and bring it to the board on January 14 for a possible vote. This would ensure the regulations are in place before Town Meeting potentially approves the change in the zoning requirements for IH during the session that starts on January 27. 


Even if the regulations are not approved before a Town Meeting vote, Lumenello said that Town Counsel said that Board of Health regulations are “grandfathered.” This means that even if the zoning language were changed in January, a company applied in February and the regulations weren’t approved until March the company would have to meet the requirements of the regulations before opening.


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