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10 Takeaways From the June 26 Planning Board Meeting

A shorthanded board saw a number of continuances

The Planning Board met last night without members Vinny Fratalia and Jim Duffy. 

In her report, Town Planner Alex Lowder reported that at the board’s July 17 meeting, Tree House Brewing Company will amend its site plan review application for 1879 Main St. to include a special permit filing for the remote parking lot use. Lowder also pointed out that the main tap room is now open.

“Some folks have probably already noticed additional activity there, and golf is forthcoming,” she said.

Lowder also noted that the Select Board held initial public hearings for retail marijuana licenses on June 12, 13 and 20. All hearings were continued to the Select Board’s July 18 meeting, where further deliberation and public comment will be heard. More detail is here, and residents wishing to submit comments should either attend the July 18 meeting or send written comments to the Select Board. Here is that contact info.

She highlighted the new Town Hall, Annex and Senior Center hours that took effect yesterday. The main changes are a later, 6 p.m., close on Tuesday and a 12:30 p.m. close on Fridays. DPW hours have changed to 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Hours for Fire, Police and the Library remain unchanged. Learn more.

Lowder then formally presented a summary of the town’s 2023-2027 Housing Production Plan draft, which the Planning Board received at the June 12 meeting. 

The town’s current plan expired in 2021. Lowder outlined the year-long process of community involvement that went into the new strategy, including a survey to solicit input and two workshops where residents could ask questions.

“The bottom line is Tewksbury has an affordability crisis,” said Lowder. Thirty percent of Tewksbury households are “housing cost burdened,” spending more than 30% of their annual incomes on housing, while 12% are severely cost burdened, paying more than half their incomes for shelter. Meanwhile, Tewksbury conservatively needs 126 new units in its subsidized housing inventory to maintain its 10% affordable status — 1,214 units are expected to be required. 

One issue is that Tewksbury’s median home price went up faster than the state average, and more expensive homes are being built. The town, which is 80% owner occupied, also has a shortage of rental units and is close to the most expensive place to rent in the region, just $4 per month behind Westford. 

Many of the cost-burdened households have at least one person aged 62 or over.

Lowder laid out 15 goals that should lead to more affordable homes. They include producing an average of 25 affordable units each year that qualify for the Subsidized Housing Inventory and monitoring existing income-restricted units to maintain these units as affordable as well as creating more diverse types and sizes of ownership units, including smaller single-family homes, duplexes, and townhouses at affordable prices that could serve as “starter homes.”

How will we get there?

Lowder clarified that an increased inventory of homes would lead to reduced prices and said the town is always on the lookout for opportunities to make housing more obtainable. 

Member Jonathan Ciampa pointed out that Tewksbury residents get a lot for their money and noted that median prices can be an imprecise measurement in a state like Massachusetts, where home prices vary widely based on geography.

“Our prices are high because we’re in a good location,” said Ciampa. “We’re priced for what the community offers.”

Chair Stephen Johnson pointed out that residents seem to want to reach 10% affordable only to stop 40B projects and complain about more-dense developments.

“We require an acre of land to build a single family home,” said Johnson. “We don’t have the middle options.” That’s a problem for young people who grew up in town as well as older residents who may wish to downsize. 

Johnson also brought up the pending MBTA Communities Act, which will come into better focus in the coming months.

“A big challenge for reaching even a fraction of these goals is to have folks reconcile and reckon with what they think Tewksbury should look like versus what it can be,” said Lowder. “My intention is to make sure that we are doing several touch points with the community and with the boards throughout the process, and hopefully we get to some successful zoning articles at Town Meeting.”

The Planning Board unanimously endorsed the plan. Next stop: The Select Board tonight, then eventually DHCD. 

Agenda items continued to July 17 include a family suite special permit for 174 French St., a sign special permit for 1438 Main St., the 1600 Shawsheen St. Holt & Bugbee site plan reviews and special and land disturbance permit hearings, and the site plan review for a proposed dispensary at 1695 Shawsheen St.

Jim Hanley of Civil Design Consultants appeared for an approval not required (ANR) plan for 1167, 1177 and 1187 Main St., site of MacLellan Oil. The lots total three acres, and the owners are seeking to combine and split them in two, creating a one acre lot with 122 feet of frontage and a second two acre lot with 336 feet of frontage.

One existing woodframe home, minus a later addition, will be moved and used as office space, and the other buildings will be razed. The request was approved unanimously. 

Two of the town’s eight retail cannabis applicants returned seeking the site plan approvals that are a prerequisite to being awarded a license.

Hanley, Patrick Nichols of Bella Luna and Kirsten Braun of Chappell Engineering Associates appeared for a site plan review for Bella Luna, a cannabis location proposed for the former Tri-Wire site at 890 East St. 

Hanley noted one change to the existing plan, proposing a 14-foot-wide loading area, and noted that there will be new shrubs added to screen the site.

Braun provided a summary of the traffic study her company performed. 

“We can expect about 19 to 29 additional peak hour trips to be generated by the site,” she said. “The largest traffic volume increase we’re going to see is on East St., just east of the site, with 11 to 17 additional vehicles during peak hours, which really only represents one additional vehicle every three and a half to five and a half minutes or so.”

She noted that the actual dispensary will use only 650 square feet of retail space. The trip counts were conducted while school was in session. 

“We reviewed parking demand data as well as the Tewksbury zoning bylaws, and the provided parking on site is adequate to accommodate demand,” said Braun, noting she expects no spillbacks on local streets. Unlike other studies, she did take the train tracks into consideration, as well as the abundance of dispensaries in Massachusetts — 308 to date.

“When it comes to dispensaries, they’re opening up all over the place,” she said. “They have much less novelty than they had when Northampton opened and it was just sort of chaos. It’s more of a convenience thing now, people will swing through on their way home or wherever they’re headed.” 

Hanley said there will be a fee in lieu paid rather than constructing sidewalks. 

Given that there were only three members present, Johnson offered the proponents the option to defer a vote to the next meeting. Member Nick Lizotte expressed interest in a peer review of the traffic study. The hearing was continued to July 17. 

Resident Dean Graffeo, cannabis consultant Rebecca Adams and architect Rick Morse appeared next on behalf of Carbonear, which proposes to lease and combine the lots at 2186 & 2196 Main St., next to Jim Boudreau’s Automotive and bordered by March Rd. 

At the last meeting, the lack of a traffic study was a sticking point given the extremely heavy traffic on the stretch of Rt. 38 between the South St. and Shawsheen St. intersections. Lizotte also previously expressed concern about stormwater and the proximity of the entrance to DeCarolis Drive. Morse said the requirement is 50 feet, and there are 53 feet.

Adams unveiled plan changes that include additional plantings “to create a more inviting space for the local community.” She also clarified that trash pickup will be during normal business hours, and that there will not be lighting shining into the adjoining residential neighborhood. 

Morse showed a tree buffer at the rear of the lot, where 26 parking spaces and a bike rack are proposed. However, there was no traffic study presented. Morse said that the study is in process and will be presented at the next meeting. 

Members noted a number of items still in flux. Ciampa requested clarification on the elevation variation between Main St. and the rear of the property and asked for dimensional sections; he also called out the renderings showing mature trees.

Johnson called out the lack of windows. 

“I don’t want it to look like that,” said Johnson. “I want to have something that breaks up that big wall.” He suggested faux barn windows as well as reconsidering plantings.

Resident Diane Deminie of 8 March Rd. noted that since two lots were combined, the site now wraps around her residential lot. Deminie also pointed out that that the lot is not level and said that no one has spoken to her, despite being the closest abutter.

She also called out the heavy traffic on that stretch of Rt. 38, a problem that was also addressed by Select Board member Mark Kratman at a previous Planning Board meeting.

“The traffic is hard,” she said. “I work two jobs, and I need to be able to get in and out. And right now at times it’s tough.” 

The site plan review was continued to July 17. As noted, a third proposed cannabis location, at 1695 Shawsheen St., was also continued to July 17. 

There was no correspondence nor additional business, but Ciampa did circle back with a report from the Elementary School Building Committee, noting that fixes are in the works for the HVAC, gym floor and other fit-up items.

“Sometimes you just don’t know until you test drive it for a little while,” he said. “But it seems like all of the parties involved, whether it’s a warranty issue or a vendor issue, seems like they’re all responding in good faith. And they all understand the importance of trying to get all of these resolved by mid August so that we are ready to go.”

See a summary of that ESBC meeting here. 

The next — apparently lengthy — Planning Board meeting will be July 17, followed by the Select Board on July 18.

Lorna is a U.S. Army veteran and 25-year resident of Tewksbury who has written for organizations ranging from the DIA to InformationWeek to a free weekly in New London that sent her to interview the pastry chef at Foxwoods.

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