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Proposed Zoning Bylaw Will Come Forward at May 2022 Town Meeting — If Planning Board Buys In

Last week the Zoning Bylaw Committee met at Town Hall to reorganize, hold a debrief on the defeat of the proposed new zoning bylaw at Town Meeting earlier this year and come up with an outreach strategy for 2022.

Residents may recall that the extremely complex and interdependent bylaw article failed by a narrow margin in May despite five years of effort — and a significant investment by the town in outreach, staff time and consulting fees. While many sections of the bylaw reflect revisions mandated by federal and state guidelines, statutes and legal decisions and precedents, the committee made choices that raised the ire of some residents. 

At a sparsely attended Town Meeting, 89 attendees voted in the affirmative versus 47 objecting, but because a two-thirds majority was required, 91 “yes” votes were needed for the article to pass.

The ZBC was constituted by the Board of Selectmen in 2016 and, with town staff and consultants, has been working on the proposed update of the town’s zoning bylaws since that time. The committee currently comprises planning board members Stephen Johnson and Robert Fowler, selectmen Todd Johnson and James Mackey and citizen members Richard Cuoco and Erin Wortman. 

There is one vacancy; interested residents may apply here.

Because this was the ZBC’s first meeting with new selectmen and planning board members, the first item on the agenda was a reorganization. Todd Johnson was unanimously elected as chair, with Fowler named vice-chair. Mackey was elected clerk.

The committee spent a good deal of time discussing what caused the article to fail at Town Meeting. 

“Let’s address the 25,000-pound gorilla in the room,” said Cucuo. “It was about one specific issue.” 

Cuoco was referring to a change that would allow multifamily housing and other uses, including senior care, in areas zoned for offices and/or research and development (ORD). Given the COVID-driven exodus of workers from office parks and the glut of commercial space already available in town, the change was sold as making the best use of available land.

The Ames Pond site currently proposed for 40B fell into that ORD category, and this element of the new bylaw was widely criticized on social media in advance of the meeting. Online commenters also cited mistrust of the process and perceived “loopholes” in the proposal for builders in the community.

From the committee’s perspective, members cited inadequate marketing of the proposal, saying there were plenty of resident meetings to gather input but few efforts to sell the benefits of the update to the wider community. That led to back-and-forth on Town Meeting floor that the committee insists would better happen before the article goes to a vote.

“It’s not the outreach,” said Stephen Johnson. “It’s the sale.” Johnson further asked why no sitting member of the Board of Selectmen took to Town Meeting floor to encourage passage of the proposed bylaw. 

In fact, selectman Jayne Wellman did stand in support of the article, as did former selectman and ZBC committee member Mark Kratman, who worked on the proposal and spoke eloquently in favor of passage. 

The committee realizes it needs to get the word out so that residents provide comments and attend public meetings beforehand. To that end, the committee has put out a call for input on the draft zoning bylaw, which can be found on the committee’s page.

Residents may also view a series of videos produced by assistant town manager Steve Sadwick here.

Specifically, the ZBC is soliciting input on the Final Zoning Draft and Final Update to Proposed Zoning Map 2021. Interested residents are asked to submit comments or questions via email to zoning@tewksbury-ma.gov before Oct. 20. The committee will then schedule meetings at which the public can ask questions and raise concerns.

Not all members were in favor of putting the proposal in front of the town again.

“As far as I’m concerned, it lost,” said Cuoco. “I’m indifferent to it going forward. It’s too big.” He suggested that the article be broken up into sections that may be voted on individually. 

Chair Todd Johnson rejected the idea of going back to the drawing board and segmenting the proposed bylaw, saying there’s no appetite for another multi-year process. He suggested that the committee focus on the specific areas that caused the measure to fail and pointed out that Tewksbury residents regularly approve complex articles.

“Every year we put a $120 million budget in front of Town Meeting,” said Todd Johnson. “That passes in five minutes. If this article doesn’t pass, we have not done our job as a committee.”  

He made a list of a half-dozen areas on which to focus, including the office/research line item and the amendments that were offered on Town Meeting floor. Affordable housing will be discussed, as will a limit on the authority of the Planning Board to accept fee-in-lieu of affordable units, seen by some as a selling point for the article at Town Meeting.

The Carnation will dig into these areas as they come up for discussion.

There are a three new wrinkles this time around:

1. The article cannot come back as a straight warrant article. MGL c. 40A Section 5 requires a favorable recommendation from the planning board should the article come back within two years after a defeat. Thus, the bylaw proposal must be approved by a majority of planning board members to be inserted in the warrant, something Stephen Johnson suggested may be a sticking point if he and his colleagues perceive the bylaw is putting further constraints on the board’s autonomy.

In fact, he posited that the ZBC was originally constituted by selectmen expressly to limit the power of the Planning Board. 

2. There is a question of whether the Planning Board could pull its support on Town Meeting floor if amendments that the board objects to are offered and accepted by voters. Legally, the Planning Board and other town boards are in session as soon as Town Meeting opens, and any board may or may not endorse any amended version.

“That’s the disaster of this thing,” said Stephen Johnson. “To have it be picked apart at Town Meeting.”

Assistant town manager Steve Sadwick is charged with seeking an opinion from town counsel on what would happen if the article were changed after being endorsed by the Planning Board but before being voted on at Town Meeting. 

Wortman, who is herself a town planner in Stoneham, asked what the threshold is to trigger the Planning Board pulling support of the document. She didn’t get a clear answer, despite providing some “what if” examples.

3. The new Massachusetts Housing Choice law recently signed by Governor Charlie Baker could result in a future article proposing a bylaw change allowing for multifamily development in areas not zoned for that being approved by a simple majority of voters, thus making moot fights over excluding MFD from any area. 

Housing Choice lowers the required vote from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority for adopting or amending any zoning ordinances or bylaws affecting certain projects, including by-right multifamily housing or mixed-use development that includes residential in an eligible location; by-right accessory dwelling units, whether within a home or in a detached structure on the same lot; and Chapter 40R “smart growth” zoning districts or starter home zoning districts. 

In fact, because Tewksbury is among 175 “MBTA communities,” it is required to have zoning for multifamily development.

The warrant for May 2022 Town Meeting opens in Q1, so the committee is aiming to have a proposal to put forward at the beginning of February.

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