By a slim margin, Manchester voters on Saturday rejected a plan to move a section of Chebacco Road while also approving all other business, including funding the design of a new athletic field on Pine Street and replacing a Harbormaster boat. They also easily streamlined sections of the zoning bylaw to prepare for next year’s recodification, and overwhelmingly supported the town plan to redevelop its affordable housing sites.
In all, the three-hour Special Town Meeting Town drew 228 residents to consider the eight-article warrant in a “socially distant” format that split attendees between the ME High School gymnasium and auditorium. A tag team approach was used for moderating, with Town Moderator Alan Wilson at the main lectern and former Selectman Arthur Steinert managing participation as assistant moderator in the auditorium.
The big focus of the debate came right at the start, with Article 1 asking voters to approve a Town of Hamilton request to relocate and pave a town-owned section of Chebacco Road located near Gravelly Pond, Manchester’s water supply reservoir. For Hamilton, the initiative began in 2019 and officials say moving the road is about improving access to Route 128 for public safety and emergency vehicles. Hamilton holds two legal rights of way dating back to the 1950s, and its proposal sought to relocate the road along a new path recommended by its engineers, creating a new easement and abandoning the original rights of way.
The BOS supported the proposal because moving the road away from the town’s water resource would reduce sediment runoff into Gravelly Pond. MBTS Conservation Commission Chair Steve Gang told voters he’d studied the plan, walked the site, reviewed state data, and concluded that Hamilton’s plan is good enough.
“Is it perfect? No,” he said. But it’s still a good move, one that is “a significant improvement over what we have now.”
Vocal objectors said Increased traffic from a paved Chebacco Road would bring on dangers to safety and ruin its specialness. The current dirt road is unfriendly to vehicle traffic, and that’s how it should be, they said. The area is popular with runners, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Manchester resident Dave Parmellee said paving Chebacco Road would make it a car and truck “cut through,” comparing it to Mill Street. Hamilton residents at the meeting, including Chebacco Road’s Anna Sarkisian, told voters she fears increased traffic would bring dangers to public safety.
Hamilton’s DPW chief Timothy Olson, who attended the meeting with Hamilton Town Administrator Joseph J. Domelowicz Jr., assured Manchester voters that traffic safety measures were a priority, and said the road’s design would “maintain a country road feel.”
Others opposed to Article 1 did so because of procedural issues. Manchester resident and Planning Board member Christina Deliseo said Hamilton did not properly go through the state permitting process. She also said Hamilton’s plan should have been formally reviewed by local boards, such as the Manchester ConCom and the Planning Board. MBTS resident Sheila Pidgeon Hill, also citing procedural issues, said the article was premature for a Manchester vote.
Article 1 required a two thirds majority to pass, and it was ultimately rejected by a slim margin: 91 voters approving and 60 rejecting.
Up next, Article 2 asked voters to appropriate $92,200 in planning and design fees to create a multi-use rectangular athletic field on Pine Street at the location of the former “burn dump” that has been remediated by the town. The article passed easily, 118 to 30. In 2020, the Athletic Fields Master Plan pointed to a critical shortage of field availability for youth club sports, said Sean Daly, chair of the Manchester Parks and Recreation Committee, and the Pine Street site scored highest in the report’s analysis. Cheryl Marshall, director of MBTS’ Parks and Recreation Department, assured residents and abutters this was a first step in a process that would offer “plenty of opportunity for public input” into the estimated $1,014,038 project.
The remaining articles on the warrant passed quickly, and easily. First, $120,000 was approved for the purchase and maintenance of a replacement Harbormaster boat (135 yes, 6 no). Next, two Planning Board articles to reorganize and simplify the town’s zoning bylaws to make recodification easier to present to voters next year (141 yes, 1 no; 126 yes, 14 no).
Then, a big win for the Manchester Affordable Housing Trust and the Manchester Housing Authority came with Article 6, the non-binding referendum to document support for their plan to effectively address the under-funded and aging senior housing units at Newport Park, The Plains, and Loading Place Road. The two groups have labored for nearly three years on a strategy to rehab the 84 existing units on those properties and add approximately 90 more to create a financially viable affordable housing portfolio. The concept currently includes converting the town’s DPW facility on Pleasant Street into a site for potential residential development. The BOS endorsed the article.
MAHT Chair John Feuerbach said a successful referendum would assure potential developers that the town is supportive of this type of residential housing project and worth their investment of resource to respond to the town’s RFP to redevelop the sites.
There was debate, but in the end the article passed easily, 122 to 16. Sandy Rogers of Old Essex Road called the plan “outrageous density for our town.” Rob Beatty from Loading Place Road proposed an amendment to split the article, so voters could weigh in separately on the DPW site’s future and then the three existing MHA sites (the motion failed). Tom Kehoe of Lincoln Street said he supported the plan and encouraged others to support it too.
The last two (Articles 7 and 8) were “citizen petition” articles submitted by the Citizens Initiative for Manchester Affordable Housing (CIMAH) and they were pulled by CIMAH. Both articles would have limited residential development projects, one by prohibiting more than 50 building permits and sewer hooks ups in any year, and the other by requiring a secondary access road to any 50+ residential cluster with an access road greater than 500 feet. But in the weeks before Town Meeting, the BOS, the Planning Board, and the Affordable Housing Trust all declined to support the articles, even as CIMAH made efforts to adjust them in light of concerns. In the future, the group said it may revisit the articles in conjunction with the appropriate boards for another town meeting.