In 2017, a group of volunteer citizens was formed to prepare a new and updated Master Plan for the Town of Manchester. The Plan is essentially a document that summarizes the aspirations of the community to serve as a guide for town government. It describes both positive attributes and concerns that the community should consider and recommendations for addressing these concerns.
It was adopted unanimously by the Planning Board in 2020. It can be found on the Town of Manchester website. The introduction to the plan includes the following statement:
“This Master Plan is the result of a lengthy community engagement process that included residents, Town Departments and staff, Boards and Committees, business interests, community organizations and subject matter experts. While there was robust and enthusiastic participation, the engagement process itself revealed additional challenges in process and communication, leading to the commitment that the Master Plan be a tool that changes how the Town conducts business.”
The Master Plan is not a perfect document. It certainly does not represent the views of all of the town’s residents. However, it does provide valuable data documenting many of the town’s features as well some shortfalls. It raises specific problems which need to be addressed if the town is to continue to accommodate the needs and desires of the people who live or work here. Some may question its accuracy and relevancy. It is, however, a guide that represents a wide range of perspectives.
The following are the general goals outlined in the Master Plan related to land use and development:
- To preserve the unique character of Manchester-by-the-Sea and protect our natural resources;
- To support more housing choices for varying income levels and to allow community members to ‘age in place’; and
- To attract and retain diverse businesses in town.
The plan by itself is just a document. The key to its effectiveness is how it is implemented. Some of the recommendations require executive actions that town government can take on its own. These include replacing and repairing infrastructure including water and sewer lines, streets and sidewalks, and improvements to public spaces and facilities. These actions require the town to obtain the funding, undertake the design work, and manage construction. Much has been completed. Some is ongoing. More has to be done.
Other recommendations encourage independent boards and committees to recognize the core principles of the Master Plan and consider the recommendations of the Plan in their decision-making.
A key piece to implementing many aspects of the Plan is Manchester’s Zoning Bylaw, and the Master Plan devotes much of its content discussing how a recodified set of zoning regulations would serve the town’s best interests. The Plan further includes the clear objectives of creating the opportunity for increased tax revenue from limited commercial development and for greater diversity of housing options. To quote the language of the Plan:
Because change is more difficult than maintaining the status quo, we first present two priority recommendations of change that support the Master Plan’s primary goals.
- 1. Increasing Town revenue through planned development within the Limited Commercial District and through incremental growth Downtown; and
- 2. Supporting a diversity of housing options throughout town.
This statement was the inspiration and the basis for the Planning Board’s decision to proceed with updating and strengthening the old zoning bylaw. In addition to reorganizing and reformatting to make the Bylaw easier to understand and administer, it meant revising the Bylaw to allow the opportunity for development in the LCD and to present to the town with options for allowing a broader range of housing types to accommodate Manchester’s evolving needs. Modifying zoning regulations has required a long and sometimes contentious process. Most of the changes are recommended by a legal consultant with a reputation for assisting scores of municipalities to modernize their zoning regulations.
The initial stages of this process have been approved at recent town meetings. Last November, the basic structure and renumbering of the sections of the zoning bylaw were approved. Last spring, regulations for development in the LCD were adjusted to allow for the potential construction of laboratories and scientific uses.
The next phase of modifications to zoning regulations is to be considered at the special town meeting in November. These include improvements to the language of the current bylaw to clarify the rules and administrative processes. They also present three proposals to permit a greater diversity of housing options.
The specific proposals include allowing senior housing facilities by special permit, allowing for clustered housing on lots smaller than 5 acres also by special permit, and removing the barriers to the creation of in law apartments (or accessory dwelling units) within existing single-family homes. Some have expressed concerns that these proposals allow for development by-right. But that is not the case. With the exception of a provision allowing by-right up to 20 small accessory dwelling units that meet certain conditions, all of these new bylaws require that a special permit be granted by either the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The Planning Board will be hosting a number of events in the weeks before the Special Town Meeting. These events will allow residents to ask questions and express their views on these changes. An in-person workshop is scheduled for October 12 at 7:00 PM. The location of the workshop will be announced on the town website, which includes specific information about the proposed zoning changes. Copies of the current and new zoning Bylaws will be available at Town Hall and at the Town Library.