November 18, 2022
A Special Town Meeting Postscript
By Gregory T. Federspiel
An impressive turn-out of voters filled the auditorium and the cafeteria at the Middle High School last Monday, November 14th for a Special Town Meeting. Over 560 residents showed up to debate articles ranging from supplemental budget requests to a series of zoning by-law amendments. This was about double the more typical town meeting attendance. A big thank you to all those who took the time to engage in what is considered one of the purist forms of direct democracy and a critical forum for managing the Town.
The evening certainly had its logistical challenges. The large number of people arriving right at the starting time caused a back-up registering voters. A late start was compounded by a faltering electronic voting system. The connection between the two meeting rooms that worked well during testing earlier in the day failed to stay connected between votes. The added delays this caused were not conducive to a smooth-running meeting and apologies to all for the extra waiting time this caused. The vendor will not be charging the Town for their services and will be troubleshooting what caused the problem (initial indications point to a compatibility issue with the software and the school network.) We need to do better, and efforts are underway to ensure we do.
None-the-less, the meeting was able to accomplish quite a bit. Town Moderator Alan Wilson and Assistant Moderator Jay Bothwick skillfully guided the large crowd through 8 articles, many of them dense in content. Supplemental funds were approved for the on-going defense of the Shingle Hill 40B decision as well as for the repair or purchase of an ambulance.
After amendments were debated and approved, voters gave a green light to a citizen’s petition article seeking a special act from the state legislators for a recall process for locally elected officials. The request for a special act will be sent to our State Senator and Representative to advance this through the legislative process that will start up at the beginning of the New Year.
Five important upgrades to the zoning bylaws were made. These five focused on reformatting and clarifying current language and included the adoption of a new combined zoning map (rather than six separate ones) and a new use table that makes it much easier to see what uses are allowed in what districts and under what permitting processes. An improved set of criteria for reviewing special permit applications was also adopted.
The new use table did not change what uses are allowed and how the uses are to be approved. For years the town has allowed either by-right or by special permit a range of non-residential uses in all residential districts – numerous municipal uses, professional offices, and medical centers, nursing homes, hospitals, day care centers and schools, etc. These potential uses remain in place.
Proposed changes related to non-conforming uses, accessory dwelling units, adult entertainment establishments, cluster developments and senior housing were all passed over at the meeting. This means there was no action taken on these proposals. The Planning Board will need to decide which of these proposals they would like to resubmit for consideration at a future Town Meeting.
Considerable differences of opinion exist regarding some of these additional proposals. Some worry about allowing an existing non-conforming use to be changed to a new non-conforming use even if it is less detrimental to the neighborhood as they feel non-conforming uses should diminish over time. Similarly, some feel that accessory dwelling units should always require a special permit. Concerns have also been expressed about allowing cluster developments on lots smaller than 5 acres and the possibility of granting a special permit for senior housing in any district in Town.
A majority of the Planning Board and the Select Board believe that these proposed changes will help diversity the housing stock. With the vast majority of housing in town being large, expensive single family homes (average home values exceed $1.1 million) most people agree there is a lack of housing options.
The question becomes how to promote housing diversity. Just saying no to these proposal will not solve the housing issues in town. Coming up with alternative proposals certainly could. I hope we can tap into the passion and energy that was on display leading up to and at Monday’s meeting to develop proposals that will meet voter approval. The Boards and I welcome your input to do just that.