Choices – we make them daily in our personal lives, at work and in the running of our communities. Some choices are easy – I’ll always opt for a sail if I have the opportunity. Others, of course, are much harder, especially when there are competing needs, as so often the case in our community-wide decisions.
We are facing a large number of decisions as a community right now. Some are being imposed on us (how do we best continue to respond to the pandemic, what is the best way to respond to the proposed 40B development) while others are the result of community decisions (Master Plan implementation efforts like looking into changes to the Limited Commercial District.) Still others are part of our annual budgeting process (should we switch over to the regional dispatch service.)
The 40B project proposal has generated a lot of new interest in our housing and how best to diversify it. Since its inception by a vote of the Town, the Affordable Housing Trust has tried to create new housing options. While many leads up to now have not materialized, current work with the Manchester Housing Authority is looking promising as a way to expand the amount of affordable housing in town. Our Housing Production Plan, first crafted over five years ago, calls for the creation of a dozen or so new affordable housing units a year as a way to get to the state’s requirement for 10 percent of a community’s housing stock being officially designated as affordable. The new energy and resources of the Citizen’s Initiative for Affordable Housing is a welcomed addition to the efforts. The ultimate outcome of the proposed Shingle Hill 40B project likely will not be known for quite some time as we are still in the preliminary stages of the project.
Choices for how to manage growth in the Limited Commercial District are another point of considerable debate. Through the Master Planning process, high interest was expressed for the consideration of changes that could add greater flexibility for what can be built in this area of town, north of Route 128. The Planning Board continues to work on various options. Any new development must meet high standards especially relative to environmental protections. This is not a call for unbridled growth. Finding the right choices that allow for new uses that grow the commercial tax base of the Town while providing for new amenities is the challenge here. Voters will need to make the final decision once proposals are brought forth to a town meeting (now slated for a special meeting in the fall.)
Voters approved funding to recodify our zoning regulations. The process has uncovered many sections that are either inconsistent with recent laws/court cases or are no longer serving our needs well. How best to update the zoning regulations is another area generating debate. Again, once proposals are finalized by the Planning Board, they will be brought forward to the voters at a town meeting.
Budgetary choices come before voters every year. And choices made in the past typically carry forward. Bonds approved for the two schools resulted in annual bond payments for 30 years each that voters have chosen to place outside the limits of Proposition 2 ½. Recently, voters have approved annual capital exclusion votes, again outside the limits of Proposition 2 ½, that replace the drop in annual town debt payments with a like amount of cash for infrastructure improvements. This approach means total tax dollars do not decrease with lower debt payments nor do taxes increase to pay for the upgrades to our infrastructure.
The services residents choose for the town to provide impact our expenses. Very few towns of our size provide for Advance Live Support Ambulance service by town personnel. We have been doing so for quite awhile and have two ambulances at the ready for emergency medical calls. Many comparable towns rely mostly on a volunteer corps of firefighters. We have chosen to have a combination department with career firefighters and volunteers. Our volunteer numbers have dramatically fallen off. Unless we can re-establish a group of call firefighters, we may have to expand the number of career firefighters or rethink how our Fire Department operates.
Having an in-house dispatching operation is another service and cost that a town of our size often does not have. The decision to have an in-house dispatch operation was made decades ago. The question of moving toward to a regional service has been debated off and on for the past eight years and is getting another look as part of this year’s budget development process. The current system has plenty of advocates thus making a switch is not an easy decision.
Every community faces an array of choices. As a town that operates under the open town meeting form of governance, the choices that Manchester makes are determined by the voters. Staff working with our volunteer committees will continue to work on various options for presentation to voters at our upcoming town meetings.