To the Editor,
Risking further personal attacks, I’m writing to respond to the letter “What Manchester Wants … HUH?”, published November 26. The Manchester Master Plan is an important and legitimate piece of work, produced by many of our fellow residents and active volunteers.
The letter attacks our dedicated and professional staff and implies that we are all being misled by corrupt and unqualified staff with an agenda of uncontrolled growth in the service of Governor Baker.
We are not.
The letter is presented as a fair and accurate presentation of the Master Plan and the “actual” priorities of residents.
It is not.
First, there is an implication that the credentials of a former Town Planner and the 2000 Master Plan are more legitimate than our current Master Plan. The 2000 Master Plan consisted of little more than a single survey (247 responses), a few meetings, culminating in a simple published Five Goal Statement; this was not a plan.
The 2020 Manchester Master Plan can hardly be called an “obscure thing.” Rather, it is the result of a multi-year process of widespread community engagement, led and managed by the Master Plan Committee, a group of dedicated volunteers, including experienced professionals in Planning, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Design, Real Estate, Law, Finance, and Community Engagement. This Committee was appointed by the Board of Selectmen in coordination with the Planning Board, with their oversight throughout the process. While the MAPC did provide technical assistance for the Master Plan and facilitated public forums, neither they nor our Town Planner created or dictated content. The content was created with public input through over 100 meetings including those with community stakeholders, Town Boards, staff, and committees, as well as multiple public forums, workshops, open houses, and surveys.
The 2020 Master Plan also referenced and incorporated the work and recommendations of nearly a dozen other planning documents, all with their own public review process. The final content was reviewed and unanimously approved by the Planning Board, with final edits by a subcommittee including two current Board members.
The letter in question presents side-by-side lists of “Priorities” from each Master Plan for comparison as if these are the “actual” priorities identified by the plans. They are not.
These two comparative lists were fabricated by the author; neither Master Plan published a simple list of priorities. The issues facing our town are too complex to be represented by a simple list of priorities, which is why the survey for the 2020 Master Plan was scenario-based designed to gather feedback on relative support for specific proposals (+/- 500 responses, 2017). Undoubtedly, there is much debate about how to meet housing needs, but there has been clear agreement that diversifying housing options is a top priority.
The survey conducted during the early work of the 2020 Master Plan Visioning (>500 responses, 2016) indicated that the greatest challenge facing our town is housing options (37.5%); housing options ranked next to last in the list of assets (2.23%); 46% of respondents either “Strongly agree[d]” or “Somewhat agree[d]” that, “[t]he Town should support the private development of affordable housing for low and moderate income households.” This is hundreds of residents identifying housing options as a priority, not a mandate from outside or some planning conspiracy.
The letter falsely implies that the Master Plan has been used to promote the 40B housing project. It has not. Neither the Master Plan nor anyone involved in town planning efforts have been promoting the 40B housing project proposed for Shingle Hill. The 40B project is indeed scary but it is a monster of our own making stemming from decades of a Culture of No.
We are further told that we are being subjected to housing initiatives and relaxed zoning that would result in a “Free-for-all for crowding and consumption of our remaining green space.” Again, not true. In fact, many of the zoning strategies out of the Master Plan process are designed to preserve green space, here are just two:
1. The proposed “Smart Growth Overlay District” allows mixed-use development to meet dual community priorities of increasing tax revenue to fund infrastructure and provide a variety of housing options. This district will focus development on previously disturbed land in the Limited Commercial District (LCD) and preserve surrounding woodlands and wetlands. Design guidelines will require appropriate building scale and design, as well as additional green spaces integrated throughout development.
Unfortunately, the appearance of the 40B proposal confused and derailed “40R” discussions before issues of scope and density could be resolved; however, the Planning Board voted to continue work on this local LCD Overlay District without the requirements (and subsidies) of the Commonwealth’s 40R program.
2. The proposed Residential Cluster strategy, which allows a variety of building configurations on smaller footprints within current lot requirements, allowing more green space to remain undisturbed. In east Manchester, this strategy could have saved many acres of woodlands that have been cleared for just three new homes.
Thoughtfully managing change will benefit our entire community and preserve woodlands, wetlands, and open space, while the stifling Culture of No and continuation of business-as-usual will result in our town being slowly eaten away by large, single-family homes that serve only a few and hardly reinforce the character of an authentic New England small town.
Finally, we’re told our “drinking water is under constant contamination and capacity threat”. It is not.
Infrastructure IS clearly identified as a top priority (along with housing options) in the Master Plan, and while we do have water main breaks, these cause only temporary quality issues during repairs. The town has invested considerably in infrastructure over the last few years and made great progress in repairing and replacing aging supply and wastewater lines, effectively increasing the capacity of our wastewater treatment facility.
These unjustified assaults on the 2020 Master Plan and the conspiracy that our planning efforts are dictated by outsiders have become a ploy of the Culture of No. So, when you see clever fear-mongering catch phrases, or read or hear attempts to delegitimize and undermine various planning efforts, you should ask: is this a fair presentation of the issue or just a tactic to garner as many “NO” votes as possible, and always, consider the source.
Gary L Russell, AICP