Preserving our small-town character
By Gregory T. Federspiel
Many of us cherish the small-town character of Manchester. Neighbors know each other. Our narrow streets lined with homes that date back over 100 years exude old New England charm. Students can easily walk or bike to school and parents can do the same to catch the commuter rail into Boston. Buildings are at a pedestrian scale with most being just 2 stories. We have an abundance of open space and conserved lands. There are no traffic lights. Basic needs can be met in our local shops.
Preserving these qualities and more is a high priority as was documented in the surveys that were collected as part of the Master Plan process. This same plan also documented the desire of residents to create more diverse housing stock and to create a larger commercial tax base to help raise needed funds for a growing list of infrastructure needs. Are these conflicting priorities? I do not believe that they need to be if we proceed thoughtfully and creatively.
One thoughtful change being advanced is to allow through a special permitting process the development of research labs in the Limited Commercial District (LCD) that lies to the east of School Street. This area already is home to various uses (the Manchester Athletic Club, medical offices, a large old gravel pit/quarry, etc.) The Planning Board is advancing amendments to the LCD in this section only and will be asking voters to approve the amendments at the Annual Town Meeting on April 25th. If approved, the change will allow an application to be submitted for a proposed research lab at the site of the old quarry. The potential new tax revenue from the new building is substantial, upwards of $750,000 or more annually. Given the current state of the land involved, the strong environmental standards a new project would have to meet and the fiscal benefits, this change seems to be a positive one that does not threaten town character.
There are other forces at work, many not of our choosing. The ZBA continues to undertake the Comprehensive Permit process for the proposed 40B project off Upper School Street. The location is problematic for a large residential development given its steep and rocky terrain, its sensitive environmental attributes, and its distance from the Village. We are vulnerable to 40B projects because we have not been able to advance enough smaller scale affordable housing projects that would be better located within the Village area. The desire to do so has grown, particularly in the face of this 40B project but not timely enough to stop the project from seeking a permit. While the ZBA will render a decision on the proposal sometime this summer the project likely will be subject to years of appeals.
Prior to the 40B being thrust upon us the PB had started to consider whether utilizing the provisions of Chapter 40R, a state law aimed at promoting mixed-use developments with a strong housing element, would be an appropriate tool for amending portions of the LCD. After examining the pros and cons of the law and in light of the 40B project coming along, the Planning Board decided not to pursue this option for the LCD, focusing instead on possible expanded commercial uses only. The exploration of the 40R option provided helpful insights even though in the end it was not a good fit for the LCD.
The revision to Chapter 40A that the State adopted last year is another change that has been forced upon us. Section 3A was added seeking to advance multi-unit housing near transit stations. The law itself is a relatively short paragraph. The draft guidelines that the state developed is another story and has caused considerable alarm amongst many communities, us included. The goal of creating more diverse housing choices within walking distance of transit stations is laudable and is consistent with our own Master Plan goal related to housing and village vibrancy. But if the State attaches too many “strings” to the final set of guidelines that prevents us from tailoring the law to our unique character and local dynamic then we will have to reject the provisions. Given the volume of comments the State has received about the draft guidelines I am hopeful that more flexible rules will be forthcoming. We will have to wait and see. As things stand now, we have until the end of 2024 to enact new zoning (town meeting vote) if we choose to be in compliance with the new law.
40B, 40R, 40A, LCD, the changes being caused by climate change -- lots at play here each presenting unique challenges as we work to adapt to the forces that confront us as a community. Preserving what we love about Manchester remains a priority. But change happens – it is inevitable -- and can be for the worse if we do not act to properly guide the change. What is crucial is that we work to steer the changes and the forces behind them in a way that builds on the attributes we love. To accomplish this, we need to be clear in our aspirations, hear the many voices of residents and find the common ground that I believe exists for in the end we all care deeply about the Town.