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Johnson: ‘Impossible to Do What We Do Without the Staff’

Q&A with Planning Board Chair Stephen Johnson

This is the first in a series of Q&As with Tewksbury elected officials. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Planning Board Chair Stephen Johnson is an attorney with Donovan Hatem LLP specializing in professional liability, insurance defense and coverage, and business and construction litigation. Johnson has served on the Tewksbury Planning Board since 2011 and as chair for six years.

Ali Lightfield: Are there any big opportunities from a Planning Board perspective that we can look forward to in 2023?

Stephen Johnson: Well, it’s always hard to predict because it’s really dependent on what’s brought in by me, or a particular petitioner. Sometimes we have a heads up because there might be something that’s been brought in for a preliminary discussion. But more often than not, it’s more of a “take it as it comes” sort of proposition.

Circumstances, financial or whatever, will sometimes delay something that you thought was going to be coming up soon. Now it’s six months or a year before they’re going to bring it in. So, at least some of the things that have some people’s attention, like the potential 40B, is truly out of our hands. I’m not aware of any specific big projects that are coming up, at least not at this point.

Note: The Ames Pond 40B proposal he is referring to has been withdrawn. Learn more.

AL: So no new laws that you’re keeping an eye out for now? 

SJ: Well, we always keep an eye out because there’s always discussions of reforms, 40B and that kind of stuff, but most of those reforms haven’t gotten too far. They did have the recent one that affects the MBTA and adjacent communities. It’s not too much of a problem for us, other than potentially dealing with projects that could come up once it’s determined what that zone might be, but it’s more for our community development department.

There’s always efforts to make affordable housing easier to build. If those changes would have happened, then yeah, we’d probably find ourselves with some additional projects as a result of the change that, as of now, wouldn’t be an option.

But it’s really a state legislature issue first, before it can trickle down to us.

AL: With all that, are there any concerns for the future?

SJ: I’ll be clear again that I speak for myself, not on behalf of the Planning Board, but having been on there for a while, you know, it’s always a balancing act between development and the town’s vision of itself. Sort of that push and pull. At least from my point of view, if you sit you sit still and don’t make efforts to grow, to evolve, and you just say no to everything because you think that means that your town will stay the same forever — I think, in those cases, it’s the situation that some of the other cities and towns have, which is that they kind of die if they’re not moving forward.

But at the same time, you don’t want to destroy what you want the community to be just for the sake of development or change. Sometimes a project will be discussed and one of the considerations we’ve always had to make is, What’s the alternative to what’s in front of us? Meaning if we say no to what’s in front of us, what else might happen?

“What’s in the best interest of the town is the No. 1 consideration every time. That’s, at least, how I try to do it. I think the other members try to do the same thing.”

Especially in the last few years, in some cases, you’re dealing with rather large pieces of property. People will sometimes look at the projects that do get approved and say, “Well, how could you do that?” Well, we did it because one of the things we were weighing it against, you might have hated, so what would have come instead? A lot more than this.

I think in this new 10-year window [until the 2020 census] we may find ourselves in a little bit better position because I understand there are at least a couple of projects that could push us over our 10% rather early in the cycle, which gives us leverage — we’re not subject to, you know, a forced 40B project during that decade. It gives you back a little bit more of your power to say, “We don’t think that that’s going to fit.”

You don’t have that sword hanging over your head.

AL: When you say “a couple of new projects,” could you give us any insight into what that may be?

SJ: The Ames Pond one that people are already aware of. And I believe there’s another one in the works up on 133. That one would be a LIP program, which they refer to as the “friendly 40B,” where the town is a little more supportive of the project. And so it goes on sort of a different path.

And if that one were to go through, just for example, if the numbers are right — the predicted numbers because we still haven’t gotten the numbers from the state — that would probably push us over our 10% number.

That’s not necessarily the goal, just to have 10%. The goal is that the town has the power to not have those forced 40Bs hanging over our head.

AL: So, what is the vision of the Planning Board for Tewksbury in 2023?

SJ: The vision is always to try to balance growth with keeping the vision of the town in mind, making smart decisions for what we’d like Tewksbury to be, but at the same time making sure that we don’t become a community of “No.”

We do have some changes on the horizon, or at least potential changes in terms of membership. News is already out there that Mr. Fowler, who’s finishing up his 40th year on the board, will be leaving. That’s an awful lot of institutional knowledge to lose. Whomever replaces Mr. Fowler will have a lot to live up to in terms of what they bring.

Then there’s another seat that we currently have someone filling that has to come up to have the last two years finished out. So we could have as many as two new members out of five, just out of this next election cycle alone. That’s difficult. There’s a very steep learning curve, being on the Planning Board, and it can be difficult.

Note: Member Jonathan Ciampa has pulled papers for the full three-year term. Interested in running? Learn how.

Having a lot of new members at one time can be a challenge, making sure that you’re able to do what the board entails and that you’re looking out for the best interests of the town. But, you know, we’ll see how it turns out in April, and we’ll go from there.

AL: You mentioned those two open seats on the Planning Board. What kind of qualities are you looking for in a new member?

SJ: Well, just from my perspective, what’s a little bit unique is that we have a pretty specific area that we deal with. With the Select Board, there’s a lot more involved. It’s not a requirement, but if you have some background that’s transferable, that’s nice to have.

We’ve had members who work in a department that is, at least sort of, connectable to what the Planning Board does, from another town, who happened to live in Tewksbury. That set of skills was sort of nice to have. We’ve had others who were contractors. We have, including myself, attorneys who have different forms of real estate experience. Any of those would be helpful, but, like I said, it’s not a requirement. I just think it makes that steep learning curve I was talking about a little bit easier to navigate when you come to it with some familiarity with what the board is presented with.

I mean, you get big packages to go through, and sometimes you don’t have a ton of time to go through them before the meeting. The more you know, the easier that’s going to be. And sometimes the meetings themselves can get somewhat technical.

A lot of people are unhappy with things we’re doing or looking at. So, you have to have a tough skin, because people’s emotions can be running high when they come in for a meeting.

Be prepared to put in the work. If that’s what you’re interested in, then absolutely, put your name in the hat. We’ll be happy to have you. But if you’re looking for a softer landing in terms of helping out in town, then we might not be your place.

But if you’re ready for that work, then we certainly have some interesting things that we deal with, things that can have a meaningful effect on the town. The decisions we make can affect neighborhoods, they can affect economics. Something that may go in one area, somebody may not love it, but it’s overall positive for the whole town. It’s a tough decision sometimes because the phone calls you’re getting are all coming from that one section of town saying, “Not here!”

But, you know, we’ve got to think, What’s in the best interest of all of Tewksbury? It’s important to listen to everyone and make sure their voices are heard. It can’t just be a squeaky wheel kind of thing, where if you complain the most, you get your way and everybody else may lose. You’ve got to listen to everybody, and then weigh it all and make the best decision you can. What’s in the best interest of the town is the No. 1 consideration every time. That’s, at least, how I try to do it. I think the other members try to do the same thing.

AL: It’s a lot of thinking. “Planning,”even. 

SJ: Well, it would be impossible to do what we do without the town staff [who have] conversations on the plans as they’re coming in and discussions about what can I do, what I can’t do, what does work and what do they need.

You see us every two weeks in the meetings, but if you need a daily discussion topic, whatever it is, you gotta go to the staff. They’re doing a lot of the groundwork. It makes it a lot easier for us to do what we do because they provide us with what’s required, but also help us understand what the requirements are, what limitations are, what we can and can’t do. That’s important. Without that we’d be five people sitting up there, staring blankly at the audience — that wouldn’t be good for anybody.

AL: Does the Planning Board have any initiatives focused on promoting local small businesses? 

SJ: There’s no official program. We’ve done things like waiving filing fees on signs to make it a little easier for places to update their signs. That’s more of an aesthetics thing, to help the town look better. There are efforts to make the process work smoother.

But it’s as projects come in, I think, where we try to impact those kinds of things. Whether it’s Starbucks, or you have the new bakery, some of the new restaurants-slash-test-kitchen kind of things. I think that when we were looking at those, the consideration is, “You can stay in Tewksbury and spend your money, instead of having to go someplace else,” because these businesses exist here. They exist here.

And maybe during the hearings for those properties, sometimes we do a little extra work to try to find a way to get to “yes,” because there may be limitations that we need to work around to find a way for those businesses to be able to operate and succeed, hopefully, in town. And that’s a tip, I think, for all board members — you want to work your hardest to see if you can make it work.

I mean, if you can’t, you can’t, when somebody’s making an ask that’s just beyond what’s reasonable. But I think efforts to get to “yes” when you can is the best approach.

AL: It’s a growing town. Tewksbury has seen an increase in housing units over the past few years. So, for young students who may want to come back to town after they graduate, what do you see as the future of affordability in Tewksbury?

SJ: I think that’s probably the one thing that touches a lot of the different boards, whether it’s us or the Select Board or whoever, because it is so important.

A lot of people think of the affordable units that get you out of 40B. But that’s really a baseline number to try and get to, because it keeps you able to enforce your zoning laws. But even more than that, it’s important to make efforts that take into consideration how to make the town affordable, not just for young people, but also for seniors who maybe no longer need or want a whole house. They don’t want to leave town, and they’d like to find an affordable, smaller option.

One thing I’ve always thought was important — we just haven’t been able to get there yet — is finding a way to come up with smaller zoning. You know, we adhere to a one-acre, 150-foot frontage requirement for single homes. Just for a visual, an acre is the size of a football field without the end zones. And 150 feet of frontage is one sideline to the other sideline of a football field. That’s a huge piece of property, and to require every house to have that, you require a developer to build a $750,000 home in order to recoup their investment — not affordable to most.

“Sometimes that ‘starter home’ kind of affordability is what you’re looking for, and it’s getting harder to find.”

But if that same developer could have a lot that’s half that size, or a third of that size and still put a house on it, you’d still have plenty of space. But now that house doesn’t have to sell for $750,000.

That wouldn’t be appropriate everywhere in town, but there are certainly places where it could be. Look at what I like to call “Super South” Tewksbury, that area towards the lake in Wilmington. You can reach out and grab a cup of sugar from your neighbor, the houses are so close together down there. Technically any new development requires that one-acre zoning. Can you imagine what a one-acre house in the middle of all that looks like? It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Several communities around us have small, light zoning options. I think this would be nice to consider. I think it makes sense also from an affordability standpoint, because most people don’t need that much space. Most people don’t want that much space. That’s a lot of land to deal with. And in a lot of cases it’s simply because it’s what’s required, not necessarily because it’s what’s wanted.

“Affordable” doesn’t always have to mean an apartment. You could probably find a one bedroom or two bedroom at a low price, and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But sometimes that “starter home” kind of affordability is what you’re looking for, and it’s getting harder to find.

It’s not really the Planning Board’s job, but it is one thing that I think could be worth looking at as we go forward.

AL: This is something kind of along those lines. What challenges has the Planning Board been facing, if any?

SJ: Well, as you pointed out, we’ve had a lot of growth in terms of housing that’s coming into town. But what you also notice is how quickly that housing is snapped up. In a lot of these cases, it’s already spoken for before it’s done being built. People want to live in Tewksbury. And when places become available, people want them. I don’t see that as a bad thing. I know that sometimes you’ll hear folks say that it’s too much. There’s too many people.

I sort of go back to my original comment, which is: Well, if people didn’t want to come here, that would be bad for us. If we were a town that people went away from, instead of wanting to come to, that would be a very dangerous trend. I think the fact that we appear to be a desirable place to live is a positive.

“Focus too much on what’s right in front of you, you don’t see what’s coming — and not seeing what’s coming is a very dangerous thing.”

On the flip side, yeah, we need to figure out better and smarter ways to make sure that we have infrastructure improvements that can help accommodate those changes. But if people want to build housing and people want the housing, it seems like the kind of thing you’d want to at least keep considering.

It doesn’t mean everything has to be built. Move forward, again, as smart as you can, but at the same time continue to move forward.

Some things get lost in the calculus. I know that when the town gets its credit report that determines our credit rating, which determines what it costs us to borrow money for things like new fire stations, new elementary schools, things like that, one of the things that’s been pointed to in those reports is some of the development that’s going on in town and the continued availability of potential housing and growth. We have one of the highest credit ratings of any city or town, which means when we do these projects, we pay less for them.

It’s hard to see that sometimes, when someone says, “Okay, well, your taxes are gonna go up $25 to pay for the new fire station,” for example. Well, it could have gone up $30. Every dollar counts. And it adds up. Maybe the reason you’re able to get a new fire station and a new elementary school is because of that rating. So it’s all interconnected.

If you’re one of those towns that’s sort of dying, you probably don’t have that rating, and when you borrow money, it’s going to cost you as much as possible, especially with interest rates going up right now.

For me, it’s always trying to see the bigger picture, because if you don’t, and you focus too much on what’s right in front of you, you don’t see what’s coming — and not seeing what’s coming is a very dangerous thing.

AL: The New Center School for grades 2-4 has opened, and The North St. and Trahan Reuse Committee made a proposal to the Select Board on how the spaces could be used. Do you agree with their recommendation for the reuse of each property, or what is your opinion?

SJ: Well, it’s not so much a matter of agreement or disagreement. It’s more a matter of, You don’t know all the options, or what could be available, until this sort of thing is brought up.

For me, what I’d rather see is to take the recommendations, yes. But keep an open mind. Things may be outside the box that you weren’t considering. Don’t narrow and restrict your possibilities — try to keep them as open as possible. Because everybody, generically, would love to have just open space. And that’s fine. It’s not that that’s an invalid position. It’s very valid. You want open space as much as you can where it’s appropriate. But whether or not that is or isn’t the right approach all depends.

Perhaps at the North Street, you want to get a new K-2 school. Okay, that makes complete sense. I can also see some sort of community thing, whether it’s one of those multi-sport kind of buildings that then sort of feeds into where the soccer field is, or something like that. Also possible, I believe.

And then the Trahan, it’s a little bit different, a little bit tighter spot, but some ideas of, whether it be senior housing with some component of open space or rec space or that kind of stuff, that all makes sense, too.

But I think more than anything, just keep an open mind. If presented with something that you didn’t think of, don’t just dismiss it out of hand because it wasn’t on your list of initial wants.

AL: Is there anything else you’d like to say for the readers?

SJ: I know sometimes we get into those discussions — you know, message boards, which I do everything possible to never look at. Take everything you see there with a grain of salt. Come to one of our meetings, watch it on the local access, see what really happens and what we’re really talking about.

Because very often you’re dealing with maybe 50% of what’s really going on, and then 25% of that has an agenda. So, maybe see what we do, come down. Anyone who ever comes down and has something to say, as long as it’s within the parameters, is allowed to discuss that in one of our meetings. No one’s ever prevented coming to one of our meetings and speaking.

I think it’s important to come see what we do, rather than just say you don’t like what we do, because not everything makes it into the reviews, and everything doesn’t make it into the condensed sort of reports. There’s a lot more that tends to go on. Try to get the whole picture before you pass judgment, if you can. It’s not easy, and meetings are certainly not the most exciting thing sometimes. But I think everybody on the Board, as far as I’m concerned, works and tries to do the best for the town, first and foremost. I hope people understand that we’re trying to do that each and every time that we deal with something. 

Ali Lightfield is a sophomore at George Washington majoring in political communications. She is a political correspondent intern for the Tewksbury Carnation.

3 Comments

  1. Donna Gill Donna Gill January 17, 2023

    Welcome Ali Lightfield, great in depth article, excellent questions.

  2. […] litigation, Johnson has served on the Planning Board since 2011 and as chair for six years. We recently interviewed him for our 2023 In Preview […]

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