A zoning bylaw was debated and dissected on May 18 when the Marion Planning Board met for the first time in six weeks.
The remote-access meeting was set up to approve a proposed change in the multi-residential housing bylaw No. 230-5.3, decreasing maximum density allowed via the number of units per acre from 12 to eight.
“Some of the work we’re doing with (Southeastern Regional Planning & Economic Development District right now and analyzing the cluster bylaw and looking more closely at open space and cluster bylaw being changed here … I have some real concerns with the language,” said Chairperson Will Saltonstall. “I think it might be prudent to step back on this and study it a little further this summer and bring it back in the fall in a more organized fashion.
“In my heart, I think eight units per acre is the right number, but my concerns are more in how we define lot coverage and open space. I feel like a more comprehensive approach to this could be merited.”
Board member Eileen Marum agreed with Saltonstall. “It would be best to get a little more information, have a couple of more meetings with SRPEDD and bring this back in the fall so that we all have an opportunity to spend a little more time with it and review it in depth,” she said.
What Saltonstall is pitching is a more in-depth look at the number and perhaps a dynamic application thereof. It’s a potential departure from a one-size-fits-all approach.
In the days leading up to the May 18 meeting, board member Chris Collings discussed the matter with Saltonstall. Collings took a walk down the bottom part of Main Street into the older part of the village where the homes are close to the street and close together and asked himself what an acre of density would look like.
“That sounded an awful lot like four (homes) across the course of 300 feet,” said Collings. “Eight units per acre is conceptually, in the broadest sense, most similar to what you would experience if you were to go down Main Street. … while 12 was clearly far more dense than that, … six or four seemed probably on the thin side. That’s how I put it forward to Will.”
Saltonstall said it varies depending on where one measures including up and down Main Street. “I think the bylaw has to be a little more sophisticated than four or eight or 12,” he said.
The Planning Board has discussed the concept of density bonuses with SRPEDD and its relevance toward contractors looking to build affordable housing behind the senior center.
“There may be times where 12 units per acre is advantageous for certain spots in town; there are other places where standard residential zoning, six or eight may be a better number. But I think we can do a better and more-sophisticated job of defining that, and that’s where I’m just not comfortable where they are. I’m hesitant to put this out there and then come back in the fall with another version of it,” said Saltonstall. “I think our risk in this discussion is two projects: the (Sherman) Briggs project primarily but also setting the tone for the (Henry) DeJesus project.”
The DeJesus project, said Saltonstall, is on a later timeline and not necessarily impacted by the board’s decision, but Briggs’ project is. The longtime Marion developer has taken heat for filing a higher-density project of three buildings with 42 units instead of the 28 units he originally proposed, but Saltonstall said it’s not Briggs’ intention to build 42 units.
“He wants to build a more-thoughtful 28 units. He’s been very clear that he did that application just to so-called grandfather against this potential issue coming forward,” said Saltonstall. “My personal feeling is that it’s his intent that he’s going in the right direction with this project.
“I’ve encouraged him to continue to develop this project, to take into account the comments the board made in the past, and to bring the project forward in a comprehensive manner, and he’s led me to believe that’s going to happen more in the lines of the 28 units, not the three buildings with 42 units. You can say that are risks in not putting this forward is hedging against that project, but I just don’t think this (proposal) is there.”
Another piece of language in the bylaw that Saltonstall said warrants further scrutiny is the third sentence changing all parking areas to impervious surfaces. “It’s actually too restrictive in my opinion. As we know more, it may be advantageous to pull back on that and wait,” he said.
Vice Chairperson Andrew Daniel noted that the bylaw deducts sidewalks, driveways and roads from a lot’s square footage. “I’m curious are we taking two steps forward and two steps back because you’re deducting that from your overall space,” he said. “Maybe our goal of changing it from the 12 to the eight isn’t going to have quite the impact or the benefit as we thought it would with those surfaces being excluded from the footage.”
Saltonstall insisted that, while he doesn’t consider it prudent to make a bylaw change now, he doesn’t want to push it off another year. Rather, he said, the summer is when the Planning Board should come up with a bylaw that can function the right way in various situations.
“Rush to judgment is a bad idea, let’s take a pause, let’s hit the brakes,” suggested Collings.
Town Planner Gil Hilario told the board that the warrant for the June 22 town meeting is closed. “I’m more supportive (of the bylaw change) than the board was. Perhaps you could pass some things and pass over others at town meeting. … For example, in my opinion I think the most important element in the bylaw is the density – so the 12 to 8 – and the buyout, and those things might be critical to pass and, then at spring town meeting, while perhaps passing over (article) 3, which seems to be the most contentious right now, but that’s just my thoughts. I think we can pause the entire bylaw until the fall. I don’t think it would make much difference either way.”
The board unanimously approved passing over the matter at June 22 town meeting with the intention of drafting a better bylaw this summer. The board did approve the article (230.8-1) regarding flood-plain district, thereby allowing Marion residents to purchase flood insurance in FY21. The board also discussed a bylaw change that would create a category of moderate-income housing. Selectman John Waterman suggested a three- to five-person task force to pursue the matter.
Affordable housing was discussed, and board member Norm Hills said that, if no action is taken to create affordable housing, Marion will eventually fall below the state-required 10 percent. “Another option is maybe we can do something to prevent some of that from rolling off,” he suggested.
“If we don’t keep up, we’re going to lose our percentage very quickly,” said Hilario.
Marion is streamlining its application and payment processes and, at the same time, making such submissions reviewable by computer. Saltonstall credited Hilario for his work in garnering grants for the town and on helping push forward the town’s efficiency via technology.
The next meeting of the Planning Board is scheduled for June 1 with public hearings scheduled for June 15.
Marion Planning Board
By Mick Colageo