Residents of Manchester and Essex each head to Special Town Meetings this coming Monday, November 13. In some ways, the issues to consider are similar. Voters in both towns will weigh in on significant adjustments to their Comprehensive Zoning Bylaw and address funding and capital items.
But while Fall town meetings are an opportunity to address supplemental or special items, Essex will plow through an ambitious 25-article Warrant full of critical issues.
Big items for discussion include the proposed widening and fortification of a culvert on Apple Street along with substantial roadbed elevation for emergency vehicle passage during flooding events; a request to extend the change-of-land-use moratorium; adoption of a property tax cap for seniors on fixed incomes; and school district funding related to turf fields replacement and financial consultants to help navigate school district budget gaps expected for next year.
The Essex STM is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Essex Elementary School. Here are the highlights:
Articles 4 to 7 all address a series of Planning Board articles related to its two-year effort to shape zoning. Article 4 is a highly detailed article that would add a new General Use Zoning District, characterized by single-family and two-family dwellings, including dwellings with home occupations, and small-scale multi-family dwellings, with considerable protected and/or private open spaces and wetlands. The district also includes areas of commercial and agricultural use, occasional institutional, civic, and light industrial uses, and minor utility facilities.
The article details all the associated regulations like parking, permitted uses, density, multifamily regulations, nonconforming lots and structures, dimensional requirements, permitted uses, among others. The new tables that would be added to this section of the bylaw provide extreme clarity on all the requirements (density, setbacks, etc.) and clearly identify what projects would be by right, by special permit, or allowed subject to listed standards.
Article 5 asks voters to approve new language that significantly bolsters language for projects requiring Site Plan Review. This would give the town a strong tool to review and notify impacted neighbors as projects seek approvals for things like change of use and adds clear procedures for site plan review. The controls that would have teeth in the process would still be the special permit process, but the site plan review bylaw would offer visibility to the modification or development projects that are permissible under present zoning and gives impacted parties a way to register site-specific concerns like safety or other issues.
Article 6 introduces new definitions to the bylaw for terms such as attic, basement, certificate of occupancy, mixed-use lot, buildable lot area, special permit, impervious surface coverage, accessory building, family, variance, among others.
Article 7 asks voters to extend the change of land use moratorium established in 2020 from January 1, 2024 to January 1, 2025. This is the second time the moratorium has been extended at Town Meeting.
Moving from zoning, Article 8 reprises the town’s effort 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 when the Essex Causeway on Route 133 is flooded. This is the second time the town has sought to acquire easements at 128, 129, 131, 135 Apple Street; 1 Andrews Street; and 0 Southern Ave.
Last spring, a similar article failed the required approval at Essex’s ATM. Those opposed to the project said Apple Street is a charming historic rural road that should stay the way it is. They also said the forced taking of valuable property by eminent domain is excessive. The town counters that the total lands needed for the project are just 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. The value of these roadside easements is minimal since the land is generally wetlands that abut the roadway with virtually no other possible use. They say the “public good” offered by emergency vehicle access (especially if the Causeway Bridge on Main Street floods, which it has done three numerous times in the last six years). While it is true that Apple Street itself has not flooded very often, experts are predicting additional events in the future due to sea level rise and climate change. The town is seeking to have the project completed entirely with state and federal grants.
Then, Article 9 would add a 3% “impact fee” to short-term rentals managed by professional rental companies like Airbnb. If passed, this fee would be collected by the Massachusetts Dept. of Revenue and would be in addition to the 5.7% tax retailed by the state and the 6% local excise tax paid to the town. But if this passes, Article 10 would seek to apply that 3% impact fee to all short-term rentals, not just those professionally managed.
Article 11 seeks to establish a property tax cap for means-tested senior citizens by authorizing the Board of Selectmen to petition the Massachusetts General Court for special legislation. If implemented, this would begin a dramatic move toward helping senior citizen homeowners with increasing property taxes.
On the topic of the Manchester Essex Regional School District, Articles 13 and 14 ask voters to fund the town’s apportioned share of two turf athletic field replacement projects that were completed this summer by the district; and the next article asks voters to fund the town’s share of a third-party audit of the Manchester Essex Regional School District operations.
Other articles to be considered address specialty funds for targeted projects and purposes:
A full Warrant is available on essexma.org, along with FAQs and reference info.