MassWorks Grant, Fire Dept Budget, 40A Task Force


The Manchester Planning Board last week picked up on the town’s response to the state’s “40A” Commuter Rail Overlay District, which seeks to establish by-right, multi-family zoning within a half mile of all MBTA commuter rail stations.  This impacts 175 communities—including Manchester, Rockport, Essex and Gloucester.  

The clock may be ticking, but it’s doing so relatively slowly.  Communities have until the end of 2024 to either adopt local zoning to comply with the new law, or vote not to adopt the commuter rail zone.

On Monday, the Planning Board voted 4-2 to create a task force comprised of board members and citizens who would, together, navigate the consideration of a commuter overlay district and make recommendations for what to bring to voters.  Planning Board members Christine Delisio and Mary Foley voted against forming the task force.  

This new district isn’t a mandate from the state, but there are “sticks” to squeeze communities to pass it.  Those that opt out would be ineligible for state grants related to infrastructure and public housing.  The problem is the language to the law doesn’t address critical issues, like parking or environmental non-starters, such as FEMA flood zones that become more relevant with sea level rise and climate change (which is the case with rail beds approaching Manchester’s MBTA station from the south).

Interestingly, Essex, which doesn’t have a train station, was targeted by the state as an “MBTA adjacent” community, and it looked like Essex would be subject to comply or opt out of the same 15 units/acre zoning as Gloucester, Rockport, and Manchester.  But last fall, that changed. 

The Essex Planning Board and Economic Development Committee had been working with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) on a larger economic development and zoning planning effort to shape the entire town into rational districts.  As part of its work with the Planning Board, MAPC helped Essex submit a letter, along with other municipalities to the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), asking for reconsideration of their 40A classification.  The DHCD responded by creating a new classification, “Rural Adjacent,” and lowered its obligation under the law. As a result, Essex’s new mandate is to demonstrate downtown zoning that could add just 81 new units, well below what they would have had to show under its previous classification.   

The next meeting of the Essex Board of Selectmen and PB to discuss the zoning project will likely be March 22, and the next community forum on the topic will be in April.

MANCHESTER'S TOWN MEETING is Monday, April 3, so the Finance Committee and the Select Board are at the end of budget planning season.  The FinCom has been holding weekly meetings with department heads and other boards on their FY24 budgets since January, and it’s expected that a final budget will be complete for the Town Meeting Warrant in the first week of March.  

So far, nearly all the submitted budgets have been approved without much discussion or pushback, with the exception of Public Safety, the town’s second-largest expenditure after the ME Regional School District.  

The two big issues that have come up in several (often heated) rounds with the FinCom are overtime hours in Fire and Police and capital expenditures.  On the surface, public safety—police and fire departments and the harbormaster office—are relatively even in their budget increases.  Police is up 3.04%, Fire up 2.2%, and Harbormaster is up 2.2%.  

But really, the heat has focused on the Fire Department and Fire Chief Jason ClearyFinCom Chair Sarah Mellish led the questioning, pressing the necessity of expenditures in staffing or equipment investments while Cleary maintained the department’s FY24 budget is a reasonable reflection of today’s staffing challenges, and strongly defended what he said should be a properly equipped and staffed department for the safety of the town residents and the firefighters themselves. 

Both Police and Fire were over budget last year in overtime.  Both suffer from perennial challenges of finding trained personnel, and both have been understaffed from officers and firefighting staff on extended leave from illnesses.  Then, with the Fire Department, there is the added challenge of coping with equipment failures on aging trucks that fundamentally handicaps the department’s fire response posture.  

As for hiring staff, the Fire Dept. needs to hire people who can serve both as EMTs and firefighters.  Finding job candidates who have both, he said, are extremely rare if not impossible.

Throughout the meetings, Cleary has consistently held that Manchester should keep to the nationally accepted “two in, two out” standard for personnel on hand during a fire emergency so both firefighters and homeowners are safe.  On the other side, the FinCom questioned whether the national standard is excessive for a small town like Manchester.  Couldn’t we rely on “mutual aid,” the informal partnership among neighboring fire departments, they asked?  

In the end, the FinCom and Select Board struck a compromise, adding two staff positions each to Fire and Police to defray expensive overtime hours.  

For Fire, the board agreed to fund staffing shortfalls between now and Annual Town Meeting with reserve funds and agreed to ask voters for a supplemental $50,000 at Town Meeting to cover the weeks between April and the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1.  

Then, this Thursday (after deadline), the FinCom will address capital items (read: fire truck maintenance and obsolescence) before it finalizes the Manchester town budget. 

FOLLOWING LAST WEEK'S informal but comprehensive presentation before the Manchester Planning Board, representatives from Cell Signaling Technology (CST) appeared Tuesday before the Select Board to ask the town to apply for a $5-6 million Massachusetts MassWorks economic development grant to connect municipal sewer and enhanced water to its property in the Limited Commercial District.  

The connection is necessary for the company’s planned research laboratory campus, which will go before the boards for appropriate approvals in April.

The company shared schematics for the general layout of the project, located on an estimated 11 acres within its 50-acre property that extends from the Manchester Athletic Club (MAC) off of Atwater Avenue and extends north along Route 128.  The first of two phases will seek to build a 120,000-sf research building housing about 250 employees and an accompanying garage structure housing about 225 vehicles.  If approved, Phase 1 is estimated to be complete by 2025.

Peter Gourdeau, a consultant with the CST, said when the two phases are complete, the company will have invested approximately $150-$200 million in the project.

The MassWorks grant supports municipalities with matching grants to support infrastructure connected to economic development, as well as housing.  Gourdeau said CST’s campus would be a boon to the town’s and the larger Cape Ann economy and the company has been working together with Manchester DPW and Town Administrator Gregory Federspiel on preliminary planning on the grant that requires a formal letter of interest by March 17.  

The campus would be connected to the existing water connection to the MAC through an envelope passage under Route 128 to Mill Street and the estimated $5-6 million in work would focus on expanding the existing water line and add a sewer connection along the same path.

The final application, which CST would pay to complete, has a deadline of June 2, and the town would know if it is approved for the program in the fall.  Select Board member John Round asked if CST was prepared to pick up the cost of the infrastructure build-out if the grant is denied.  

Gourdeau said yes.

gregory federspiel, manchester athletic club, sarah mellish, john round, select board, 40a task force, manchester’s mbta station, fire chief, christine delisio, economic development committee, fincom and select board, essex, metropolitan area planning council, massworks grant, cell signaling technology, essex planning board, manchester planning board, commuter rail overlay district, mary foley, department of housing and community development, me regional school district, fincom, jason cleary, essex board of selectmen, peter gourdeau