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Opinion: This Week, Tewksbury Voters Can Move the Town Forward

By Nicole Burgett-Yandow, Lorna Garey, Donna Gill and Julie Naughton

Residents moving here from cities may find themselves bemused by Town Meeting, where two people can, and have, decided zoning for the entire town. Fewer than 200 voters regularly approve multi-million-dollar budgets. And a single person can drive real change. A few years ago, what was expected to be a pro-forma acceptance of a new road was stopped cold because the construction was causing flooding in an adjacent neighborhood. One homeowner stood at Town Meeting and appealed to fellow residents, forcing the developer to fix the problem. 

When it comes to Town Meeting, the saying “every vote and voice counts” applies.

The Carnation’s unofficial motto is, “we listen to all the meetings so you don’t have to.” And while we don’t write up every finance committee session or site walk-through or zoning bylaw meeting, we do look and listen, and talk to elected officials, staff and residents. And this week, we agree that as a town, we have opportunities to make decisions that will pay off for years to come. 

Here are, in Team Carnation’s opinion, some solid articles worthy of support, in order of how they will be presented.

Article 4: FY 2023 Budget

In one section of the FY23 budget article, $1,799,997 is set aside to fund debt service for a combined DPW and School Maintenance Facility at the current site of the DPW on Whipple Road. The full proposal is scheduled to come before Town Meeting in October. 

Even though the long-planned project will not require an override and has been overwhelmingly supported in the past by Town Meeting, an update a few months ago that showed the projected cost of the facility rising significantly raised some eyebrows. Since then, town staff and Select Board members have worked to bring the cost back close to original estimates by reusing some of the existing structure and reducing the overall size.

Select Board vice chair James Mackey told the Carnation that reductions of more than $10 million have been made thus far, and that he and staff will continue to seek further cost-saving measures before the final proposal is presented to voters. In addition, Jayne Wellman says the facility could win a grant from National Grid based on reuse of the existing facility and improvements in energy efficiency.

The current DPW, built in 1962, is not up to code, to put it mildly. It lacks sprinklers and is not ADA compliant, is too small to accommodate school equipment and is unsafe for employees, including those who work there all day in administrative roles, says Town Manager Richard Montuori, who shared this presentation, below. 

Current proposed facility. View the full PowerPoint presentation below.

The Finance Committee, Planning Board and Select Board all voted unanimously to support Article 4. The Carnation has done a walk-through of the DPW and supports this responsible and forward-looking approach to updating the facility. We encourage Town Meeting to approve Article 4 as presented so staff and our elected representatives can continue to fine-tune the plan and present it in October for an up or down vote on its merits.

Tewksbury-Select-Board-Presentation-03-29-22Download

Articles 13, 14 and 15: CPA

These articles expend Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to purchase benches for the Town Common and upgrade the skateboard park and bleachers for Livingston St. 

Fun facts: Our current skateboard ramp is a hand-me-down from Andover. And you can see where Tewksbury has spent its CPA money ever since the town voted to adopt the Act in 2006 on the Community Preservation Coalition website. 

The Act allows communities to use CPA funds for open space protection, recreation, historic preservation and affordable housing, and we have received millions in grants as a result of approving expenditures. Towns need to spend or reserve at least 10% of their balances in each category annually. 

Tewksbury has a history of spending its CPA funds wisely, and we support these outlays as well.

Articles 20 and 21: Tax Exemptions 

These articles authorize the town to petition to increase the property tax exemption for eligible seniors from $150 to $500 and for eligible veterans from $400 to $600. And, importantly, it authorizes the Select Board to increase that amount by 5% annually, at the town’s discretion, without going through the convoluted process of asking the legislature for permission. It also does not require seniors to work in exchange for the exemption, making it accessible to all who need it.

We all know that property values are rising dramatically. According to Redfin, in March 2022, Tewksbury home prices were up 29% compared with 2021, with homes selling for a median price of $645,000. 

While the residential tax rate has actually fallen by .91 cents per thousand since 2014 (it was $20 in 1985!), when you’re on a fixed income and your home value is increasing by double-digits, that’s not much comfort.

tewksbury tax rates since 2014

It’s a great idea to provide means-tested relief for our veterans and seniors, who contribute so much to the fabric of our community, so that they may stay in town.

Articles 29 & 30: New Zoning Bylaw

Finally, the Carnation supports the revised new Zoning Bylaw, which will come up for a vote on Wednesday. 

At a final open meeting on Thursday, Todd Johnson, chair of the Select Board and the Bylaw Committee, pointed out that the group has spent the past six months gathering input from residents.

“This bylaw that we’re presenting to Town Meeting is the product of many, many, many meetings,” said Johnson. “We made a total of 14 changes that are substantive to the document in the process, and I believe all of those were items that have been a source of concern by members of the community.”

The new law isn’t perfect. But it’s a far sight better that the existing bylaw, and Planning Board chair Stephen Johnson cautioned that should the measure fail this time, the town will be stuck with a flawed and convoluted zoning code that “everyone hates” for the foreseeable future. 

“This is our second bite at the apple,” said Johnson. “We had to go through some special hoops for that to even happen. … It’s incredibly unlikely that there will be a third bite at this apple. I would almost call it impossible. It’s going to sit as it is for another two years if this fails again.”

The new bylaw isn’t written in stone. For example, the committee plans to bring a proposal to zone for retail marijuana sales to Town Meeting in October. And it doesn’t give any constituency — not town staff or elected officials, developers or residents of any particular section of town — everything they want. 

For example, one beef is that areas zoned for office research could have nursing homes and some retail uses. But let’s face it, traditional office work was changed by Covid, maybe forever. More of us are working from home all or part of the time, meaning there’s less need for cubical farms. So it’s reasonable to consider other uses for this land that don’t increase traffic significantly. 

We support passage of the new Zoning Bylaw and caution against a large number of amendments being offered on the floor of Town Meeting that could cause issues in the highly interconnected document.

“Please think of the bigger picture because the bigger picture affects the town as a whole,” said Stephen Johnson. 

The above is the opinion of the authors. The Tewksbury Carnation welcomes letters and discussions on this and other events of interest to the community.

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