Essex Special Town Meeting: Historic Zoning, Apple Street Project Fails


For the second time in six months, Essex residents at Monday’s Special Town Meeting failed to approve a town plan to elevate and widen a portion of Apple Street to link the sides of town during flood emergencies. But they did approve most items on the 25-article Warrant, including passage of a historic zoning milestone; approval of $40,000 for an outside consultant to review operations of the Manchester Essex Regional School District and $353,255 for district athletic fields project; and approved $1.2 million for a new ladder truck for the Fire Department.
In all, 255 voters showed up at the Essex Elementary School gymnasium Monday to weigh in on town business. The most impactful vote came with Article 4 to create a new General Use Zoning District. Sponsored by the Planning Board, the article secured the required 2/3 votes easily with no public comment.
The vote’s low drama, however, belied its historic importance.
The proposed new General Use District would comprise more than 98% of Essex land, she said, and approving it would be historic. Before the town approved the Downtown District and Conomo Point District two years ago, Essex was the last municipality in Eastern Massachusetts that allowed landowners anywhere to use their property for any purpose.
“Until two years ago, all uses were permitted anywhere in town,” Planning Board Chair Lisa O’Donnell said in her introduction of Monday’s four zoning articles (Articles 4-7) that supported her board’s two-year effort to shape Essex’s Comprehensive Zoning Bylaw.
She said in many ways Article 4 will change nothing for Essex property holders. Approvals, permitting, definitions and uses remain, the same she said. But for the first time, the entirety of Essex would be covered under a formalized district with expectations.
Article 5 sought approval for new language that significantly bolsters language for projects requiring Site Plan Review passed after O’Donnell explained that, again, nothing practically would change about special permit process when it applies.  However, strong site review would give the town a review and notification tool for impacted neighbors for relevant projects.  It passed easily, as did Article 6, which introduced new definitions to the bylaw for terms such as attic, basement, certificate of occupancy, mixed-use lot, buildable lot area, special permit, among others.

Finally, Article 7 asks voters to extend the change of land use moratorium established in 2020 from January 1, 2024 to January 1, 2025 unless the Planning Board decides to end it earlier. This was the second time the moratorium has been extended by Town Meeting approval.

Apple Street Project Proposal Fails Again
The fireworks started with consideration of Article 8, which reprises the town’s effort at May’s Annual Town Meeting to acquire easements over a series of primarily roadside strips of land along approximately 850 feet of Apple Street starting at Southern Avenue to replace a culvert and elevate the roadbed to make it a navigation link to Rte. 22/Martin Street for emergency vehicles in case the Essex Causeway on Route 133 is flooded.
Essex Selectman Peter Phippin, and environmental scientist, presented the article and Town Administrator Brendhan Zubricki offered a lengthy response to feedback given the board after the project’s rejection by voters last spring.
At the time, those opposed to the project said Apple Street is a charming historic rural road and widening it using federal grants and engineering requirements was too big and would destroy what makes Apple Street special. They also said the forced taking of valuable property by eminent domain is excessive.
In his remarks to voters, Zubricki emphasized the required lands were an “easement” rather than an out-and-out taking of lands. He said the total lands needed for the project are 1.8% of the targeted parcels, representing narrow slivers of roadside property that would widen the pavement width of the public road from 18ft to 20ft. He acknowledged the plan would require the felling of trees but said they’d be replaced. And he said the culvert under Apple Street is weakening, and it will only continue to be vulnerable.
Further, he said, access to federal grants that would entirely fund the $4.5 million project would not be available forever. If and when the state mandates the project, Essex will have no choice but to proceed with the project on their nickel and the required easements will simply be taken.
Most importantly, Zubricki said, 46% of Essex homes (many dependent on wells) are on the eastern side of the Causeway, and not having a backup link between them and the Public Safety Building’s police and fire on the western side is dangerous.
While it is true that Apple Street itself has not flooded very often, experts are predicting additional events in the future due to rising sea levels and climate change.
“This is an over-widening to satisfy federal engineering requirements that aren’t appropriate,” said one resident. “The elephant in the room didn’t just show up,” said Janet Carlson, an Apple Street resident who said residents already voted the project down last spring.
The article failed to secure the 2/3rds majority required to pass.

MERSD: Bellwether Vote?
When it came to the Manchester Essex Regional School District-related questions, Articles 13 and 14, there was a bit of a surprise. Some predicted Essex voter support (or lack thereof) of funding the school district’s replacement of student turf fields, completed last summer, would be a bellwether of how the Essex-School District-Manchester relationship will be after Essex voters failed to pass a Proposition 2½ override last spring to plug the District budget gap.
But, Monday’s voters approved $353,255 for their share of the fields project overwhelmingly, with just two residents voting “No.”
Then, Article 14 seeking $40,000 for a consultant to review school district operations to find efficiencies was approved even as Manchester voters at their Special Town Meeting rejected the idea earlier that evening. The issue was said to be moot. Why even discuss it?
Voters on Monday disagreed, discussing and debating the issue at length before ultimately approving the article narrowly.  Support for the third-party review has come from Finance Committees and Boards of Selectmen in both towns.  Both say that audits or reviews of regional school district are routine and since Manchester Essex has never done one, it’s time to do so.
The School Committee has said the idea of a review could be productive, but determining the project’s goals or scope hasn’t been collaborative, and since they would be left to implement the consultant’s recommendations, excluding them is wrong.
Also, they say, the Massachusetts Dept. of Education (DESE) offers similar reviews of school districts for free, and free is better than the estimated $70,000 to $100,000 for an outside district review.
“The two towns don’t seem to be on the same page,” said Annie Cameron, who served on the School Committee at the time of regionalization.  “We should explore the free (DESE) review first.”
In the end, voters narrowly approved to fund the review, although it’s not clear how the town will proceed with Manchester having failed to support funding its share of the project.