Residential Density Limits Heading Down

            Two important matters were addressed on February 16 by the Marion Planning Board, and neither was a public hearing, but in order to get an article reducing the allowable density in the Multi-Family District from 12 units per acre to six, there will be a minimum of two public hearings.

            The matter was discussed after the Bylaw Codification Committee worked on a potential draft warrant article intended to enact a change. It won’t be that simple on paper once the Planning Board tweaks and arrives at a bylaw it thinks can serve Marion for years to come.

            The Bylaw Codification Committee is working with SRPEDD on an alternative bylaw to thoughtfully preserve open space and allow density bonuses that accomplish particular objectives such as preservation of historic buildings or senior housing or low-to-moderate-income housing.

            “What we’re really trying to do is create a master density with bonuses…. It’s a really challenging question,” said Planning Board Chairman Will Saltonstall. “I don’t think we want to make it too restrictive, but 12 units (per acre) is very dense and, if we don’t do it the right way, it can really strangle the Marion landscape.”

            An updated bylaw would take into account the nature of the development, required parking, and required stormwater treatment.

            According to Saltonstall, Marion does not have any undeveloped multi-family lots at the present time. In order to receive the designation and apply the change, one has to come before Town Meeting and apply to have the zoning change made, Saltonstall explained.

            As for developer Sherman Briggs’ property off of Spring Street, the Planning Board has received a proposal and will soon begin evaluating, “but these proposed changes would not apply as that application has already been made,” said Saltonstall.

            Another exception is 40B (affordable) housing. The proposal currently on the table is subject to state regulations that would presumably allow significantly higher density than what the Planning Board is looking to bring to Town Meeting for voter approval.

            Member Norm Hills, the chair of the Bylaw Codification Committee, said, “The only real change, technical change, is from 12 to six dwellings (per acre).” The rest of the changes in the bylaw are to meant to clarify what Saltonstall said had been “really confusing.”

            Planning Board members, along with Selectman John Waterman and Open Space Acquisition Commission Chairman John Rockwell, pointed to various examples in Marion for density comparisons. Waterman pointed out that the Herring Cove, the proposed 40B development on Route 6, plans 120 units on 17 acres. That translates to approximately seven units per acre. Saltonstall noted that with 25.7 acres covered by Herring Cove, there are “things that affect this calculation, uplands, wetlands…. This is definitely driving part of this discussion.”

            Town Planner Gil Hilario reminded the meeting that Marion is very small, so any project can make a larger impact.

            Randy Parker joined the meeting, and with Waterman already on and Hills being a Planning Board member, the entire Board of Selectmen attended the discussion.

            Hills said a whole package of bylaw changes would necessarily be brought to the Planning Board. Saltonstall said there is a placeholder on the Town Meeting warrant for the article. “I’d like to see us advance the issue,” he said.

            Member Andrew Daniel motioned that the Planning Board proceed with the bylaw change from 12 to six units per acre. Chris Collings seconded, and the members all voted their approval. Saltonstall said the board would discuss it further, but the board’s intention has been established.

            Hilario said it would take two public hearings before it can go to the selectmen for their approval on the Town Meeting warrant.

            The Planning Board is beginning a process of amassing a new list of potential consulting engineering firms. The board had last done so in 2015.

            Hills said the 2015 list of 20 potential firms was whittled down to 12 that received requests for proposal (RFP) and only got four responses. The evaluation, said Hills, found all four firms to be acceptable, and the board sent them a letter indicating they would be used on a rotating basis. “Somehow, we got out of the rotation recently, I’m not sure how,” said Hills.

            The merits of rotation were debated, as Daniel argued it can be dysfunctional to avoid familiar firms that regularly appear before the Planning Board to represent applicants in cases heard by the board. Collings suggested that requirement might necessitate paying out higher fees and expanding the search out of the local area.

            Saltonstall estimated that an applicant pays a board-hired consultant between $2,000 and $4,000 on an average size project.

            “We choose only the appropriate responses. If an engineering firm is too high, too expensive, we’re not going to choose them,” said Hilario.

            Member Eileen Marum argued that the board should hire the best engineering firm it can. “The cheapest can lead to costly mistakes. We need a firm that’s proactive and responsive and answers our questions in a clear and consistent matter,” she said.

            Saltonstall suggested that the board make sure those firms that might be interested be on the RFP list. Daniel pointed out that Schneider, Davignon, and Leone Inc. is not on the former list.

            Hilario asked the members to look at the list. “We did our best to get the most prominent local firms,” he said.

            Hills said the policy of avoiding familiar firms has had no negative repercussions to this point. He added the suggestion that the board set a limit on how often the process is rebooted, and the board voted to update the list every two years.

            The continued public hearing for Tabor Academy’s proposed Campus Center on the site of the present Hayden Library at 85 Spring Street was again continued to March 1 at 7:30 pm. “We found out that we need a special permit for parking, so it makes sense to do it together on March 1 rather than separate it,” explained Hilario.

            Joe Rocha corrected a statement he had made in the last Planning Board meeting, clarifying that the sale of gas-powered vehicles is scheduled to cease in 2035.

            The next meeting of the Marion Planning Board is scheduled for Monday, March 1, at 7:00 pm.

Marion Planning Board

By Mick Colageo

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