At the planning board last night there was a hearing held on the annual town meeting (ATM) warrant article that I suggested and wrote, which had been approved by the full board of selectmen, that effectively undid the 2012 annual town meeting vote that changed our zoning bylaws to permit assisted living facilities in the RS district (residential with 20,000 sq. ft. lots) by special permit. My proposed warrant article was an inelegant, mechanical rollback to the prior dated zoning language. In an impressive bit of drafting and leadership in front of a room full of 50 intensely interested citizens, Wright Dickinson, skillfully revised the language of the proposed warrant article on the fly in a way that both dramatically improved it as a zoning article, and satisfied those who had come to the hearing.
The zoning article in question was a change at the 2012 annual town meeting that made assisted living facilities permitted in the RS zoning district by a special permit issued by the Zoning Board of Appeals, and which LCB is currently using to site its proposed facility. The procedural problem at the 2012 ATM was that the description of the zoning article that was published in the ATM booklet mailed out to residents prior to the town meeting did not clearly describe that particular change. To actually understand the full import of the zoning change, one had to consult documents only available in the town clerk’s office.
Since I believed that the 2012 ATM process had failed the residents by not being either explained or transparent enough, I suggested and tried to craft a zoning article for the upcoming annual town meeting that would allow the residents to indicate anew whether they are in favor of the 2012 zoning change or not. Town counsel told me that we could not undo, ab initio, the vote from 2012 so I thought the next best thing was to give people the opportunity to vote to change the zoning back to what it had been prior to 2012. However, much of the 2012 zoning change was an attempt to improve and modernize the old fashioned language in the zoning bylaw, and that was where Wright Dickinson was so successful in getting agreement from those gathered to the modernization language and only retaining the proposed warrant article’s reversion to assisted living in a RS the district as a “NO” instead of as a “SP” (special permit). He also got agreement to assisted living being permitted in the B and IE districts where it had previously been prohibited.
The ultimate result of the hearing was a much improved warrant article for the town meeting, and, equally importantly, a group of residents in attendance who were mostly duly impressed with the forthrightness, diligence, and intelligent response of their volunteer planning board members to their concerns. there will be follow up on whether to prohibit assisted living in the RU district, and several more details relating to the zoning issues.
Interestingly, after the hearing on the proposed warrant article, the bulk of those in the room went home, leaving just a half dozen of us to listen to the planning board discuss possible solutions to the issue of the excessively dense development in the downtown RU district, where many of the older homes have been turned into much larger 2-family houses or houses behind houses 2-family homes on the deep lots.
The planning board agreed to continue to look into several possible solutions, including:
• Restricting the district to single-family homes
• reconsidering anew the floor area ratio in the district
• having a greater floor area ratio for two-family homes in the district
• changing setbacks
• crafting a definition of a 2-family house
• considering implementation of design review
• considering creation of a historic district
It was a truly successful evening for the planning board, who got to finally go home at about 10:30 PM.