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With Hilltop for sale, Saugus takes a new look at Route 1 zoning

The giant cactus sign has gone dark and the plastic cows have left their grassy pen on Route 1 in Saugus.

Hilltop Steakhouse — which sits on 13.3 acres of prime commercial land — was put up for sale shortly after the restaurant closed last October after 52 years of sizzling sirloins.

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The Dartmouth Co. of Boston is marketing the iconic property, which is assessed by the town at $8.2 million. Peter Considine, a broker for the company, did not return a call seeking comment.

The parking lot is chained off, and ‘‘no trespassing’’ signs are taped to the windows of the 70,000-square-foot restaurant. Its once-lush lawn along Route 1 south is brown and overgrown.

A Saugus lawyer representing High Country Investor Inc., the Colorado-based property owner, said the former ranch-style restaurant has yet to corral a buyer.

“It’s had a lot of interest from a variety of sources,” said Peter A. Rossetti Jr., a former selectman who now sits on the town’s economic development committee. “But none of them really would fit in with what the town might like.”

The answer to what Saugus envisions replacing the Hilltop could come after the town conducts a review of policies related to development along Route 1.

‘Developers looking todo morethan one major use are out of luck. There is no mixed use allowed.’

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The town received a $7,500 grant from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to analyze zoning and land use along the state highway, traversed by an estimated 100,000 vehicles per day.

“We’ll be working with the town, and based on public input, determine what they feel the zoning now accomplishes and what they think needs to change,” said Cynthia Wall, a senior planner at MAPC.

Current zoning allows for restaurants, retailers, hotels, and other commercial uses. The maximum height for a building is 40 feet and can be no more than three stories tall, according to town bylaws.

But mixed-use zoning — which would allow multiple uses, such as residential and retail on a single parcel — is currently not allowed, said Robert Luongo, the town’s economic development officer.

“Our zoning now allows for a lot of things, but only one principal use a lot,” Luongo said. “So developers looking to do more than one major use are out of luck. There is no mixed use allowed.”

Luongo said the zoning review is not driven by the Hilltop property hitting the market.

He noted that other major properties, such as the former Weylu’s restaurant on Route 1 north, which was sold for $4 million last year, are also up for redevelopment.

“This is something that we knew needed to be looked at,” Luongo said. “Now is a good time to do that.”

The review, which isset to start soon and last for several months, will look at the nuts-and-bolts of zoning along Route 1.

Lot sizes, building heights, signage, lighting, and other requirements will be examined, Luongo said. “It’s going to be a thorough look at our zoning, and its going to be a very inclusionary process.”

A public forum held June 16 drew about 30 people to Town Hall to talk about Route 1 and its future development.

“We want the land owners and businesses along Route 1, along with our residents, involved,” Luongo said. We hope to come up with zoning that meets everyone’s goals.”

The Hilltop property is an example of zoning challenges on Route 1.

The property falls into two zones. The parking lot and restaurant building are located on 11.3 acres zoned for business use. Two acres in the back of the parcel that are currently vacant are zoned for residential use, forming a buffer of trees between the business and homes along Forest Street, which runs behind the property.

“That split zoning is creating something of a problem for developers,” Luongo said.

Rossetti agreed the current zoning could use a makeover.

“Some of the zoning on Route 1 is a little bit antiquated,” he said. “The setbacks and height restrictions probably need to be looked at.”

The five-story Eastern Bank building on Route 1 south is the tallest building on the Saugus portion of the highway, he said.

It was built in 1982, according to town property records. The building required a special permit, because it exceeded height limits allowed for Route 1, Rossetti said.

“The height limitations in the zoning are a limitation,” he said. “Any new developer coming along probably would want to have some kind of higher height.”

The former restaurant, where dining rooms were named for Sioux City and other western outposts, will likely have to be torn down, Rossetti said. “It’s a very old building, and its not very energy-efficient. My guess is it would require substantial reconstruction for any new use.”

The famous 68-foot neon cactus sign would not be allowed under current zoning. A standing sign may not be higher than 20 feet, according to zoning restrictions.

Rossetti doesn’t believe the cactus — inscribed with the bold signature of Hilltop founder Frank Giuffrida — will fade into the sunset. (The fiberglass cows were sold at auction and now graze in new pastures, such as the MarketStreet Lynnfield shopping center.)

“I don’t believe the sign will come down,” Rossetti said. “I think whoever acquires the property will be someone who wants to [keep] that.”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at katherine.mccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.
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