TEWKSBURY — After a defeat at special Town Meeting on May 5, 2021, the zoning bylaw review committee reconvened to debrief and plan for next steps. An updated zoning bylaw for Tewksbury, which consolidates overlay districts, addresses signage, building height, density, and so forth for the community, has long been in the works.
Reorganization of the document to make it easier to navigate, updated language and removal of obsolete items were all part of a process that started back in 2016. The zoning bylaws had accumulated over 120 amendments over the years, according to Assistant Town Manager Steve Sadwick, and was unwieldy and in some places, contradictory, making permitting for various projects arduous.
Adoption of an updated bylaw was considered a way to help craft the future for the town and follow the master plan. However, acceptance was defeated by two votes, as 89 residents voted for the article and 47 voted against. 91 votes were needed to meet the two-thirds majority threshold required for adoption.
The committee would like to bring the document back to annual Town Meeting in May of 2022.
The committee is made up of five residents: Planning Board members Bob Fowler and Stephen Johnson, selectmen James Mackey and Todd Johnson, certified planner Erin Wortman, and land surveyor Dick Cuoco.
After a reorganization, newly appointed member and chairperson Todd Johnson continued the debrief. The committee discussed future outreach initiatives including public meetings and an email address for residents to submit suggestions, comments and potential amendments. The committee discussed the numerous amendments introduced at Town Meeting, and were concerned about the process.
Stephen Johnson said that “picking apart the document on Town Meeting floor, while allowed at Town Meeting, was concerning.”
Johnson said that after five years, and many opportunities for the public to weigh in, it seemed that some members of the public wait for Town Meeting to “hijack” the document. Johnson suggested that an amendment at that time could have far reaching implications, noting that a change to one section could unravel other sections of the document, likening it to a “thread in a tapestry.”
Cuoco didn’t feel the article failed due to lack of outreach.
“The debate had to do with one specific issue. It was crazy. People brought up schools, traffic, population, etc. You never see people unless it affects them,” Cuoco said, stating that “splinter groups” affect outcomes at Town Meeting.
Cuoco added, “The people have spoken. Why are we bringing it back?”
Cuoco did suggest possibly breaking the document into pieces and trying to pass it that way, citing the constraints of a 2/3 majority vote.
Bringing the zoning bylaw article back to Town Meeting in under two years requires a positive endorsement from the Planning Board according to MGL c. 40A Section 5. There was discussion around which version of the document would be endorsed if the article was submitted for the 2022 annual Town Meeting warrant.
Sadwick said there was research that would have to be done to understand the intricacies of bringing the article back in under two years. Discussion of the role the town moderator plays in this situation was also entertained.
Wortman said, “Town Meeting is the purest form of government and I wouldn’t want the Planning Board to pull it if they didn’t agree with any sections of concern.”
She continued, “I want to understand what amendments would trigger the Planning Board to pull their support for an amendment.”
Stephen Johnson was disappointed that the Board of Selectmen did not stand up to endorse the document. Johnson commented that “people voted against it so the stuff they were upset about got put right back in.”
The committee agreed that it would make sense to strategize about how to “sell” the article and explain the benefits to the town.
“We should introduce subject matter experts to explain why it is important to pass it,” said Wortman.
Assistance with the bylaw review was provided by consultants and town staff over the five-year period.
The committee is on a tight timeline to review any changes by early February 2022.
As to which sections to review, Cuoco raised the issue of removing multi-family dwellings from the office/research zones.
“I don’t think people in town have an appetite for that,” he said.
Cuoco said that additional items such as the OSRD not taking smaller lot sizes into account should be reviewed or removed.
“We missed that,” Cuoco admitted.
Residents could not offer comments at the meeting as it was not a public hearing, drawing disappointment.
“It would not be appropriate without proper public notice,” said Todd Johnson.
Mackey said that the large number of residents in attendance showed there is a strong interest.
The next meeting of the committee will be on Wednesday, Sept. 22 at 6 p.m. at town hall. Residents are welcomed to attend and any comments or suggestions may be emailed to email@example.com.