As deadlines approach, MBTA Task Force moves forward


Time was foremost on the minds of the Manchester-By-The-Sea MBTA Zoning Task Force members at its meeting on Feb. 8.

New Town Planner Marc Resnick set up a long-range schedule for the Task Force, starting with joint meetings with the Planning Board in April, and sending the Task Force’s completed proposal to the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities by May 18. That is about a month earlier than was proposed at the Task Force’s last meeting.

The EOHLC has 90 calendar days to approve or reject the plan. This schedule would allow the plan to go to public hearings with the Planning Board and Select Board in September and October and go to a special Town Meeting in early November.

When asked if the Task Force has time to look at other options, Resnick responded, “You don’t have that luxury anymore.”

Task Force member Richard Smith said he was concerned that they would be no further along after the next meeting.  “I'm still worried that we end the next meeting and still have two options that we want to check,” said Smith.  “I would like to think that we could have a decision pretty much in our minds when (Consultant Emily Innes) does could back.”

Innes presented the Task Force with several workable plans, although the side effects were often not what the Task Force was looking for.

The zoning plan that the Task Force is looking to approve, needs to meet the following criteria:

  •      Rezone at least 37 acres;
  •      those acres must average at least 15 units of multi-family housing per acre;
  •      allow for at least 559 units in the rezoned area;
  •      include at least 40 percent of the 37 acres (or 14.8 acres) be within a half mile of the MBTA commuter rail station on Summer Street.

The Task Force has said it prefers to try not to exceed any of the criteria by any more than they have to.

One option (Option 7) that Innes provided would be to rezone only the general district downtown and the Manchester Athletic Club and medical building in the Limited Commercial District. The problem with this plan is that it rezones 97.7 acres and allows for 1,351 units in the LCD, both far exceeding the needed numbers.

One possible option (Option 2) that some members said was their favorite option was to include Lower Pine Street (1-B), Morse/Saw Mill (1-C) and Powder House/Elm Street (1-D) for a total of 19.2 acres inside the station area, and the 23 acres at MAC and medical center.

Under this option, only the lower section of 1-B would be needed, and some strong limitations could be placed on the area within the LCD. But a zoning change would be needed for the 1-D area, where the density is quite low. 

Task Force member Sandy Bodmer-Turner suggested that Innes come up with numbers for a section of downtown, including parts of Summer, Beach, and Union streets.

Innes will return to the Task Force with the modeled numbers for this new area and the changes to Option 2 at the Task Force’s next meeting on Feb. 29.

Planning Board member Christine Delisio, who was attending via Zoom, asked why the Task Force was not considering large areas, such as sections of the Essex County Club, as the area to be rezoned outside of the station area.

Task Force Chairman Chris Olney said that the golf club would have to be willing to divide its land into smaller lots, including one of about 23 acres, and he wasn’t sure the club would be willing to do that. He did say he would contact the club and ask.

“The real reason we are not targeting three-acre (and larger) lots is because we know exactly what will happen,” said Smith earlier in the meeting.  

“Forty-five units,” said Task Force member Sarah Mellish.

The MBTA Zoning would allow a developer to build 15 units for each acre on a lot, and a three-acre lot would allow 45 units.

On the other hand, if a developer acquired a small lot of 4/10ths of an acre in the downtown area that had been rezoned, the developer would only be able to build six units.

The scarcity of time crept back into the conversation toward the end of the meeting.

“The numbers and the areas we were looking at, we were looking at two months ago,” said Smith.

“But now we know which ones work and which ones don’t,” said Bodmer-Turner.

“My point is that we are really under a lot of pressure,” said Smith. “We need to come to a geographic decision real fast. ...  Even after the geographic decision, we have a lot of huffing and puffing to do.”

Smith was referring to design requirements, such as setbacks, height restrictions, and other zoning changes the Task Force may seek to attach to the newly zoned districts.