Have you read the Manchester Zoning By-law? Probably not, and for a good reason. It is a complicated document, incrementally changed and added to over the years, that regulates how land can be used. Unless you or your neighbor is proposing a major construction project, it is best to let it gather dust in the library.
The purpose of zoning regulation is to protect the health and safety of people by preventing noxious things like pig farms and junk yards from being located in residential neighborhoods. And it is also intended to protect property values, protect natural resources and encourage supportive development by establishing rules for how buildings and land may be used and where buildings may be located.
The zoning By-law is divided into seven sections that establish districts, describe what uses are allowed in each district, set limits for where buildings may be placed on their site (setbacks), and limit the size and height of structures. It also spells out procedures for how the zoning requirements are administered and enforced. It was first adopted in 1945 and has been amended and revised many times over the past 75 years. The most recent revision was approved in 2018, which repealed a moratorium on recreational marijuana and allowed associated businesses in the Limited Commercial District with a special permit. A major restructuring of the By-law has never been proposed, though significant regulations were added in 2007 and 2013. Changes, which require a 2/3 vote at Town Meeting, have created special districts to protect water resources and manage areas prone to flooding and have adopted special rules for large- scale developments. Some changes have had major implications for how the town can grow. Other changes have been small adjustments.
Over the years the Zoning By-law has grown and become more convoluted as new regulations have been added without regard for the basic organization and readability, so now the rules are often difficult to interpret or understand. As it has evolved, the regulations have become more and more restrictive to the point where an estimated 2/3 of the properties in town are not in compliance with the current By-law and are defined as “non-conforming”. Owners of all these non-conforming properties must apply for special permission, or variances to undertake often simple modifications to their property, which puts unnecessary pressure on the Zoning Board of Appeals to grant these permits. It is also adds expense and inconvenience to the property owner.
The Manchester Planning Board has spent the last two years working on revisions to the current zoning regulations with the help of special consultant, Mark Bobrowski, an attorney who specializes in developing and revising zoning regulations for cities and towns across Massachusetts. Together, the members of the Board with the consultant, other town officials including the Chair of the ZBA, the Building Inspector, and the Town Planner have carefully reviewed the existing By-law and have come up with a series of initial recommendations to “recodify” the zoning By-law to be presented for consideration at the next Town Meeting. The Board is hosting a series of public workshops and a public hearing to seek widespread public input.
The Board proposes to revise the existing By-law in a two-step process. The first step is to make changes in how the By-law is organized and to delete or reword parts of the existing regulations that are confusing, out of date or are unable to be enforced. A subsequent second step, to be presented at a future town meeting, is to make the zoning By-law more consistent with the goals established in the town’s Master Plan. However, even if no future changes were made, step one would be a major improvement.
In this first step, which the Board believes has no controversial proposals, the Planning Board will offer modifications that reorganize sections of the existing By-law and clarify some of the language to make it easier to understand without any changes to the basic intent. No changes to district boundaries, allowed uses, dimensions, or procedures are being proposed at our Fall Town Meeting. One important clarification is to insert a simple table which clearly identifies allowed uses within each zoning district, replacing a lengthy narrative that is hard to follow. Other changes in wording would more clearly define specific terms and spell out procedures and criteria for granting variances and special permits. There are some minor changes to sections that describe the purpose of the By-law and how the By-law is administered, but these are clarifications, not changes in process or policy.
To accomplish this first step, the Planning Board has prepared four warrant articles for consideration at the Town Meeting.
The first warrant article would renumber sections of the existing By-law, expanding the number of sections from 7 to 12, and moving some regulations into new sections which would allow for better organization and make it easier to understand.
The second article would delete specific sections of the By-law which are either determined by Attorney Bobrowski to be invalid or are outdated and unnecessary.
The third article would replace Sections 1-4 of the existing By-law with new sections that are more clearly written. Section 1 would restate the goals and intent of the zoning regulations. Section 2 would add specific definitions to the current list. Section 3 would more accurately describe the existing zoning districts and specifically separate Residential District D into two subdistricts as is currently spelled out in the existing regulations but was never clearly defined. Section 4 would replace the existing complicated narrative of allowed uses with a simple table with notes.
The fourth article would replace the existing Section 7 which describes how the zoning By-law is administered with a new Section 12 that describes these procedures more carefully and with greater detail.
Town residents are encouraged to visit the Manchester government website where specific modifications are described, and the current zoning By-law can be compared to the proposed new By-law. The Public Hearing will take place at 7 p.m. on October 12, and the public is encouraged to attend via Zoom to learn more and express their opinions. Any specific questions may be directed at any time to Town Planner Sue Brown and members of the Planning Board by contacting them via email. Email addresses are posted on the Planning Board’s page on the town’s website.
Given the public health concerns with having a long town meeting in a confined space, town officials are evaluating the possibility of postponing consideration of some of these articles until Spring. Nevertheless, the Board intends to receive public comments on all these proposals at the hearing on October 12.
-Manchester Planning Board, Ron Mastrogiacomo, chair