Voters attending Saturday, May 15th's Annual Town Meeting in Essex are being asked to consider the town’s future. And that future has a clear theme: zoning.
In fact, of the 25 articles in the 33-page Town Warrant, nearly all relate to zoning. Voters will be asked to approve a new downtown district. They will be asked to consider new, comprehensive regulations for cell towers. And they will be asked to approve a two-year moratorium on residential-to-commercial conversions while the town develops its big picture zoning strategy based on the town’s economic development and housing needs.
First up, Article 13, the creation of the “Downtown Zoning District,” which would be the first distinct Zoning District beyond the town’s current, uniform zoning rules in Essex’s history. The Planning Board has been hard at work for more than two years on this move. The District would stretch along Main Street from just before Southern Avenue, to Martin Street (to just past Winthrop Street) and up along John Wise Avenue, ending just past Spring Street.
Currently, Essex has no subdistricts. Owners with at least 40,000 square feet of land and 150 feet of frontage can put their property to any use—as a single family or a two-family home, retail or professional services, or industrial—as long as they follow the town’s basic zoning bylaws.
The proposed Downtown District would allow as a matter of right “mixed use” business and residential buildings, as long as the business is on the first floor. Other permitted principal uses in the district include motels or hotels (by special permit), some industrial uses, parks and recreation, and storage. These uses feature reduced requirements for lot sizes and frontage, depending on their use. Permitted accessory structures are allowed, with limitations.
Existing downtown properties that are non-conforming and already “grandfathered” because they predate town zoning would hold onto their status.
Next, Article 14, asks voters to approve a two-year moratorium on conversions of residential zoning to commercial zoning to give the town time to shape a town wide vision for its economic future.
Finally, Article 15 takes up an 18-page stretch (that’s right) of the Town Warrant to ask voters to repeal the town’s 1990s-era zoning bylaw governing the construction and regulation of wireless service facilities (read: cell towers). This is a citizen’s petition that that BOS last month agreed to place on the warrant to avoid the logistics and expense of a Special Town Meeting. It’s also the single issue that Shelly Bradbury successfully ran on in the town election this week for Planning Board. The threatened construction of a cell tower off Eastern Avenue is what prompted the formation of the “Save Essex's Landscape” citizens group. The proposed language was crafted by Peter Mello, an attorney funded by the private group and is based, said Bradbury, on the most current bylaws in other municipalities. It addresses regulations, setbacks, antenna height restrictions, elevations, special permit criteria and exemptions, co-location requirements, among many other regulation specifics. The idea, said Bradbury, is that technology has changed dramatically since Essex’s original wireless bylaw was installed in 1996. The town is vulnerable to what it doesn’t know.
The Federal Communications Commission gives municipalities to address wireless towers in three areas: construction, placement and modification. These are the areas of focus for Article 15, said Bradbury.
“It’s difficult to maneuver and navigate the complexity of the FCC, and a local governing Planning Board responsible for special permits can be arbitrary depending on who happens to be on it,” she said. “This is complex, and we need a set of standards that are comprehensive and consistent.”
What’s comprehensive is the overall picture of Essex and its move from very little zoning to taking on big and tricky zoning challenges that have been bubbling under the surface for years. It’s not unusual at town meetings to hear a resident proclaim that Essex is “like a little New Hampshire” with its hands off posture with property owners. And they like it that way. But last 2020, the BOS nearly yanked the operating license from an Eastern Avenue specialty automotive dealer and mechanic after he doggedly refused to respond to neighbors and the board’s repeated requests to thin out the 50+ junked automobiles on his property. And in 2019, when a recreational cannabis dispensary signed a Purchase and Sale Agreement for a building in a residential neighborhood at a turnoff to Conomo Point, it prompted action from neighbors who wanted to stop it.
But perhaps more relevant to Essex’s increasing focus on planning and bylaws is its future capital obligations, including paying off a new public safety building and a new Essex Elementary School that is expected in just eight years. The other challenge looming in its future? The escalating cost of real estate, and its suitability for aging residents and young people who have smaller (and less expensive) needs for homes. And that is about building a purposeful economic base, and planning for it. Starting with zoning.