November 20 2019

Proposed Change Raises Concerns on Oversight of Biotech by Board of Health Members

By: Rich Hosford

A proposed Town Meeting warrant article that would change the conditions of a type of zoning to make the town friendlier for biotech companies has raised some concerns among members of the Board of Health. A fix, however, is already in the works.


Board Chairman Ed Weiner said in a board meeting and in an interview with BNEWS that while he is very supportive of biotech and life sciences he wants to ensure that town experts have oversight over every such business coming into town. He says the proposed zoning change has a “small loophole” that might impinge on oversight by the Board of Health. 


Basically, the proposal reduces some height and buffer area requirements for certain sites to be zoned as High-Rise Industrial (IH). A zoning bylaw change passed by Town Meeting in January allows life science and biotech companies to occupy IH districts “by right.” Currently there are three IH districts but they are occupied by large, long-standing entities (Burlington Marriott, Hilton Garden Inn and Oracle) not likely to close or have a change of use anytime soon.   


However, under the new, lower requirements for IH designation, three other sites would be able to be rezoned to that. These are 3 Van de Graaff Drive, 60 Blanchard Road and the Summit Property. 


The issue that Weiner raised, first at a November 7 joint meeting of the Planning Board, Land Use and the Zoning Bylaw Review Committee, and then at a November 7 Board of Health meeting, 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. 


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. 


Weiner said he wants to support the industry but does not want this situation to become a potential hazard. 


“We are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “I want and support biotech in this community but I believe the Board of Health should have some type of review of what is going on there. What I don’t want is that ‘by right’ to have a company who is Level 3 to come into this town without overview by the Board of Health.”


Though Dr. Weiner’s concerns are valid they might be short lived. 


For starters, both Planning Board Chair Barbara L’Heureux and member Joe Impemba made it very clear that they would take no action that would undermine the oversight of the Board of Health. 


“I assure you this board greatly values the input of the Board of Health and we have no intention of allowing biotech without a review from the Board of Health,” L’Heureux said. “We would not proceed without you.”


“One of the reasons I was willing to go along with the zoning bylaw change is because I knew you’d be here,” Impemba said. “I was only set at ease knowing the competence of the Board of Health.”


Secondly, Planning Director Kristin Kassner told BNEWS on Wednesday evening that her department had language for a proposed change to the relevant zoning bylaw that would ensure all life science, including biotech, companies would need Board of Health approval before opening in Burlington. This would apply to a biotech company occupying the site of another biotech company.


This zoning change will be presented to Town Meeting as well as the initial proposal concerning the IH designation.


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