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Select Board Tables MBTA District Selection, Approves Victualler License for Hilton

Town Center district removed from consideration, retail cannabis host agreements approved

The Select Board met last night with all members present, along with a full hall of Emerald Court residents concerned about MBTA Communities zoning. Vice-chair James Mackey made a motion to take agenda item four, the zoning presentation, out of order; remove from consideration Town Center, which contains Emerald Court; then return to the agenda. That motion did not receive a second. 

After unanimously approving a change of manager for Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, the board discussed matters of interest.

Member Patrick Holland commended Robert Hayes for a well-run new residents event, saying Hayes “did an incredible job, and there was an incredible turnout” at the Senior Center Monday night, while Mark Kratman provided an update on a possible new LRTA bus service running the length of Rt. 38 and perhaps additional new routes.

Jayne Wellman updated the board on NMCOG strategic planning and said she will be a panelist on a sustainability panel in December. Wellman also noted that a grant received by the Tewksbury DEI Advisory Committee and administered by the Tewksbury Police Department paid for recent programming attended by Rep. Vanna Howard. 

Mackey called out an upcoming veterans breakfast on Nov. 8 at the Senior Center, said he would be at the State House shortly for a panel on municipal cybersecurity, an area he’s focused on as a Select Board member, and announced new funding for the town. 

“We’re getting ready to close on a $150,000 grant for cybersecurity from Dragos that’s been in the pipe for about two years now,” said Mackey. He expects that to close in about two weeks. Dragos specializes in protecting critical infrastructure, and the funding provided to the town will help protect our power, water and other systems.

Chair Todd Johnson reminded residents about the Fall Fun Day event happening on Friday afternoon. 

The board then unanimously approved a license transfer from Tamar Alqasir of Tewksbury Auto Services/Barga Auto Group to Haytham Tak Tak. The garage at 1258 Main St. will now be Tak Tak Auto Group and offer repair services, inspections and used-car sales.

The new Hilton Garden Inn at 4 Highwood Drive is close to opening. The nearly 150,000 square foot hotel will feature a number of much needed meeting spaces as well as a pool and entertainment. Manager Jim Tauto and attorney Elizabeth Pisano appeared for the common victualler application, with return visits expected for entertainment and other licenses.

Tauto said they expect to open in about three weeks and are hiring. The restaurant will be “very much open to the public.” There will be a full breakfast as well as dinner, and the lobby has been completely redone. The license was unanimously approved.

📺 The full meeting is now available on Tewksbury TV 📺

For the main event, Community/Economic Development Planner Alexandra Lowder briefed the board on MBTA Communities Zoning progress.

“What’s important to understand is this is a state mandate,” said Johnson. “It’s not something we made up here at this table.”

He added that it was great to see so many residents in the room, reminded them that the board also lives in town and reiterated that the goal is to come up with a recommendation for Town Meeting. 

“In all the time I’ve been here, with my prior colleagues as well as my current colleagues, we’ve never taken the position that we can’t follow the law,” said Johnson, an attorney. “Our job is to do just that. Our job is to determine what is best for Tewksbury, and how to stay in compliance with the state law.”

He went on to say that doesn’t mean residents can’t advocate for change. Johnson also praised Town Manager Richard Montuori and his team for their efforts before giving the floor to Lowder. 

For those unfamiliar with the law, the state maintains an informative website, and Lowder’s presentation is available here. 

Some key points: There is no timeline on building, nor is there a mandate to build. If Tewksbury designates a highly developed area, the town can be in compliance with the law yet have little or no additional construction because it would be cost prohibitive to purchase and demolish existing buildings and create new housing — especially given that the town can mandate that a percentage of those new units be affordable.

Before Lowder could expand on the district options, Holland made a motion to remove Town Center from consideration. That was seconded by Mackey and passed unanimously, to applause from the audience.

Lowder outlined the districts, noted pros and cons and said that the same presentation will be given to the Planning Board on Oct. 30. The timeline is tight to submit one or two proposed zones to the state for vetting — which could be a lengthy process — before coming to Town Meeting for final approval.

“Having something to submit to the state in November is going to be really crucial to having something that is viable for May Town Meeting,” said Lowder. Mackey asked what would happen if neither district was approved by EOHLC. Lowder clarified that the town would have time to make corrections.

Montuori recommended that Main St. A and Main St. B be submitted to the state for preliminary approval.

Main Street A is an 84-acre site along Main St. from Shawsheen St. to Heath Brook Plaza, where Pushcart is. It contains Oakdale Plaza and the Village at Tewksbury community. Main Street B runs from Stonebury Crossing and 1660 Main St. to St. Williams and Orchard St. It contains about 180 acres.

Wellman thanked Lowder for her work and responsiveness to the community before asking about North A as an option, citing its proximity to the highway, less impact on Main St. traffic and the North Fire Station that the town maintains to serve that area. She also asked Lowder what conforming housing might look like.

“The sky’s really the limit here,” said Lowder, saying the town can come up with design guidelines to shape what any development would look like. 

Kratman questioned at length whether the legislature sought the town’s opinion on the law. 

“I understand that this is a state mandate,” he said. “But I want to be very clear on this, has our delegation reached out to anybody in the town, in our community or anybody asking for our input on this, if this is something that we want prior to voting on it?”

He passed around legislation recently filed by Rep. Lombardo of Billerica that would exempt towns over the 10% affordable level — which Tewksbury is not — from the MBTA zoning law.

Lowder first presented the MBTA Communities law to the Select Board in 2022, so elected board members and residents have had almost a full year to follow up with the delegation. In addition, Kratman is far from the first local official to rail against the two-year-old law. Towns including Holden and Middleborough have pushed back, and AG Andrea Campbell responded forcefully with an advisory stating that “the Law requires that MBTA Communities ‘shall have’ a compliant zoning district and does not provide any mechanism by which a town or city may opt out of this requirement.”

Holland added that he is concerned that the administration will open up state land for housing under the $4.1 billion bond bill recently floated by the Healey administration to increase the state’s affordable housing stock.

“Good law, bad law, we’re doing what we’re supposed to do as the administration,“ said Montuori. “I want to make it clear that we’re setting the town up for compliance with the law.” 

Johnson stated that he would offer a motion to authorize him to invite the delegation to a future meeting to get their insights on the bond bill mentioned by Holland, citing the potential for it to collide with the MBTA obligation. But he stopped short of endorsing any notion of ignoring the law.

“We don’t live in a country where we can do whatever we want,” said Johnson. “We’re a law-abiding country, and we need to follow what the statutes tell us to do. That doesn’t mean, as I said in the beginning, that we just have to roll over and accept it. But in the meantime, we have to take the right steps to protect our community.”

In terms of the delegation, Wellman cautioned against adopting an adversarial tone.

“The MBTA legislation passed with four dissenting votes — four,” said Wellman, meaning the likelihood of repeal or material change is remote.

“I think it’s important that the board does an invitation to our delegation with grace,” she said. “They are our partners, they do return quite a bit of money back to this community and they are working on our behalf.”

The board voted to table discussion on which districts to recommend pending input from the Planning Board, which will hear Lowder’s presentation on Oct. 30.

Next, the board accepted $150 in donations to the Senior Center in memory of Marjorie Moulaison and Phrogie Kerr.

With that, the board moved on to codify Host Community Agreements for the two marijuana retailers that were granted licenses in July, Pure Tewksbury/Smyth and Lazy River. Both HCAs were approved 4 – 0 with Mackey abstaining.

DPW director and the town’s tree warden Kevin Hardiman addressed the board on the proposed removal of trees on Fiske St., related to the sidewalk installation. A black cherry that was being choked by bitterroot was removed, while an oak tree was saved. A resident objected to the removal of a red maple. An arborist engaged by the town inspected the trees and said the maple is not healthy. Hardiman offered to plant two replacement trees as well as some shrubs. That was acceptable to the board and the residents.

Finally, Johnson said he would invite the delegation to the board’s Nov. 14 meeting and also use that time to continue the affordable housing discussion with the Housing Authority and the Planning Board. Mackey agreed but suggested a more structured agenda for that meeting, while Wellman recommended inviting the School Committee, given that the schools are always a factor in housing discussions.

After approving that plan as well as tentative 2024 Select Board meeting dates and submittal deadlines, the board adjourned. 

The next meeting will be Nov. 14.

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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