Archive for Information

Big Zoning Changes Ahead!

Three key factors are combining into what is likely to be a ‘perfect storm’ with profound and far-reaching effects on Duxbury over the next few decades. These include 1) a clear shift toward a more easy-going enforcement policy in Duxbury over the past few years; 2) the ongoing activity of the Duxbury Zoning Bylaw Review Committee, likely to propose significant changes to our local zoning bylaws at the 2015 Annual Town Meeting; and 3) a bill (currently H.4065) currently working its way toward likely passage within a few weeks in the Massachusetts Legislature.

The net result will be significantly easier, faster, easier, denser, more, and more profitable development. The pace of housing development in Duxbury has quickened markedly over the past few years. It is likely to accelerate further over the next decade. The proposed changes to the Zoning Laws of Massachusetts will have profound impact state-wide, but potentially even greater impact on Duxbury.

The proposed legislation is the brain-child of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance (MSGA). MSGA describes itself as an organization that “promotes healthy and diverse communities, protects critical environmental resources and working landscapes, advocates for housing and transportation choices, and supports equitable community development and urban reinvestment.”

It does so, it says, by “advancing legislation and promoting a favorable regulatory environment”; by “advocating for state planning, funding and construction decisions in line with the state’s sustainable development principles”; and by “identifying best practices and helping Massachusetts communities tackle the smart growth challenges they face.”

MSGA has for some time been pushing for a total revision of the Zoning Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. They have been the primary mover behind and advocate for the bill now before the Legislature. MSGA maintains a very comprehensive site with detailed documentation about the bill on their Zoning and Permitting Reform page. They have worked hard to build support for the Bill.

Designated as “An Act promoting the planning and development of sustainable communities”, H.4065 (previously H.1859) is currently 42 pages long. It is, in effect, a total re-write Massachusetts municipal zoning, subdivision control, and planning laws. It extensively modifies MGL. Ch.40A: “Zoning Act”; makes significant changes to three others (Ch. 41, Ch. 185, and Ch. 240); and adds two entirely new sections: Ch. 40X: “Consolidated Permitting” and Ch. 40Y: “Planning Ahead for Growth Act.”

It is a very complex bill. Many of its provisions are likely to be considered desirable by nearly everyone. Some, though, clearly have the effect of considerably weakening the zoning law protections that many Massachusetts cities and towns, certainly including Duxbury, have used for well over half a century to ensure development consistent with the character of the community and the desires of its citizens.

One major provision, for example, is the elimination of the requirement, state-wide, for a 2/3 “super majority” to change local zoning laws. Although not requiring a local change, it makes it possible for a community to require only a simple majority to change zoning laws. This will make it much easier to get pro-development laws passed locally, if adopted. Other changes include making it much easier to obtain special permits, to obtain zoning variances, and to create denser developments.

So if you care about the future of Duxbury, you need to look hard at what the local consequences of this H.4056 are going to be. You may not like everything you see in there.

For Whom the Battelle Tolls

The lead article headlined “Battelle P&S signed” on the front page of the May 21, 2014 issue of the Duxbury Clipper reported that an “agreement was signed by Battelle and an organization that hopes to utilize the site as an educational institute.” The site would be used, or so it seemed, by the University of Massachusetts, Boston as “an educational facility for marine studies.”

My friend and colleague, David A. Mittel, Jr., in his signed editorial the following week headlined “Much more than a P&S”, welcomed the notion that Battelle would become a site for “young scientists, small in number, doing serious marine research.” Although noting that “it isn’t quite time to celebrate” since the deal had not yet closed and “until the passing of papers any real estate deal can fall apart” he went on to say “it’s not too early for Duxbury to give a special institution – the University of Massachusetts – a warm welcome to the town some of us also regard as special.”

A different view was expressed by Thomas H. Tucker in his letter to the editor in the June 11, 2014 issue. “Speaking as a. abutter” he expressed “serious reservations about the desirability of having 80-150 or more (the rumors vary) students living next door”. Tucker said he thought a “condominium complex” would be a much better alternative. “The Battelle buildings,” Tucker wrote, “(except for the new office building) are old and tired and need to be renovated or torn down” and a condo complex “would have served a specific, existing need of the Town and provided needed tax revenue.”

But all of this discussion is based upon and promotes an assumption likely to be and almost certainly false: that the purchase and sale agreement is between Battelle and the University of Massachusetts. The statements by Selectmen Shawn Dahlen and by Jim Borghesani, “spokesman for the purchasing group” in the original Clipper article superficially seem to imply that said “purchasing group” is or, at least directly represents the University of Massachusetts. That implication, however, appears to be false. To the best that can be determined at this point, the deal that is underway is not between Battelle and the University of Massachusetts, but between Battelle and some private investment group.

The deal is a secretive one. As the Clipper reported “Katy Delaney, media relations manager at Battelle, also confirmed that Battelle has come to an agreement on the Duxbury facility. Out of respect for the partners in the transaction, and due to contractual obligations, she was not able to disclose any further details until the sale is final.”

Absent full disclosure of what is really going on here, it is possible that this secretive deal is  a “fake left, run right” promoting the superficially benign notion that Battelle will remain as it is to deflect concern and possible opposition to a major development of the property only to switch to, say, a 40b mixed-use, high-density, condominium development after the purported but possibly never really serious UMass “educational facility for marine studies” deal somehow “falls through” in the fall. Whoops!

Selectman Shawn Dahlen has long been in an ambiguous position regarding the various (and numerous) town offices he has held and his business interests as not simply a landscaper but as a contractor, builder, and deal-maker. That Dahlen is privy to the details of a secretive deal over the future of the Battelle site is particularly troubling.

As a Selectman of the Town of Duxbury, Dahlen should be requiring full disclosure of the details of the deal to and on behalf of the voters, taxpayers, and citizens of the town of Duxbury; not acting as a de facto spokesperson for a secretive and possibly misleading deal on behalf of private investors.

Duxbury Development

The current controversy concerning a proposed 24-unit development off Bow Street, which faces vigorous opposition from abutters and others in the neighborhood, is part of a much broader issue: the course of future residential and commercial development in Duxbury. The bottom line is that Duxbury will likely experience far more and much denser development over the next decade.

The late Ruth Rowley, a former Selectwoman and long-time active volunteer participant in Duxbury Town Government, long ago predicted that the real challenge in preserving the semi-rural and historical character of Duxbury would come in the final stages of build out. A combination of factors has created, in recent years, a situation of precisely the sort that Ruth predicted; one that will play out over the next decade or two.

The root of the matter is quite simple. It is that there is a lot of money to be made developing properties in Duxbury, especially if Duxbury’s local zoning by-laws can be eased, set aside, or simply ignored. An improving economy, superficially “do-good” Massachusetts laws that demolish local zoning restrictions, and more builder-friendly land use boards in Duxbury are combining into a sort of “perfect storm” that has already permitted more new residential units than Duxbury has seen in decades. And there is more to come.

When we last did a full-scale Comprehensive Plan for the Town of Duxbury in 1999 it was determined that a complete build-out under the then current Zoning Bylaws could, theoretically, result in an population increase of 80% to a theoretical maximum of 26,877.

Of course, no one expected that the theoretical maximum would be reached. The forecast in the plan projected an increase from 5,100 households and a population of 14,848 in 2000 to 5,378 households and 15,042 people in 2010 and, by 2020, 5,588 households with a total population still of only 15,199.

In fact, the actual population in 2000, at 14,248, was slightly less than estimated but actual growth somewhat higher so that the population in 2010, despite a very slow economy during that decade, was almost exactly as predicted (15,059 actual versus the 15,042 predicted) even though the number of households (5,344 actual versus 5,378 predicted) as slightly lower.

New units already permitted, however, not even half way through this current decade, already are more than enough substantially to exceed 5,378 households by 2020 and larger than predicted household sizes will grow total population much more rapidly in this decade than in the last. Moreover, the pace of new development is increasing and likely to accelerate. Duxbury will be a lot closer to theoretical build-out density by 2020 than anyone thought it would be back in 1999.

Ironically, it is the quality of life in Duxbury brought about by the restrictive zoning and strict enforcement of the past that makes it such a desirable place to live today – and that makes more and denser development so profitable. Unfortunately, however, that development will prove as devastating to Duxbury’s taxpayers as it is profitable to developers, since the actual cost of new units to the town will exceed the tax revenues they bring in. It is not a very pretty picture.

Hall’s Corner Confusion

One of the liveliest conversations to date on the “You know you’re from Duxbury when. . .” page on Facebook was set off last Friday morning with the wry comment: “Someone new to town must have found navigating Hall’s Corner difficult. Now there is a cop attempting to direct traffic! What’s so difficult? Keep the flag pole to port and don’t look at other drivers!” By noon on Sunday that posting had 64 likes, one share, and 52 comments!

In fact, the police officer seems to have been on traffic detail to ensure the safety of runners in some sort of (apparently unannounced) road race. But the extended discussion on Facebook made it clear that even long-time Duxbury residents are confused about the proper flow of traffic through the five-way intersection at Hall’s Corner and the rules drivers should follow when passing through it.

The the confusion begins with varying understandings of what the Hall’s Corner intersection is under Part I, Title XIV, Chapter 89, Section 8 (“Right-of-way at intersecting ways; turning on red signals”) of the General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. There are three possibilities, with different rules:

  • The first, a sort of default baseline, is that when “two vehicles approach or enter an intersection of any ways . . . at approximately the same instant . . . the operator of the vehicle on the left shall yield the right-of-way to the vehicle on the right”.
  • The second applies to left turns in ordinary intersections: “Any operator intending to turn left” must “yield the right-of-way” to vehicles moving in the opposite direction “until such time as the left turn can be made with reasonable safety.”
  • The third and final case governs rotary intersections: “Any operator of a vehicle entering a rotary intersection shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle already in the intersection.”

So, if Hall’s Corner is an ordinary five-way intersection a car entering from Standish Street and exiting on Chestnut Street is making a left turn and must yield to one proceeding directly across the intersection (entering from Depot Street and exiting onto Standish). But if Hall’s Corner is a rotary the driver coming out of Standish Street and proceeding the Chestnut Street should have the right of way.

In fact, Hall’s Corner is not a rotary, despite the “rotary” signs put up late last year on the approaches from Standish Street and from Depot Street. It is legally an ordinary intersection with, in theory, a five-way stop sign. Drivers proceeding straight through have the right-of-way over those moving in the opposite direction and making left turns. If it were a rotary it should have yield signs, not stop signs.

It is not even necessary to go around the center island, despite the arrow signs placed on it last year. It is perfectly legal to enter from Chestnut Street, keep to the left of the center island, and turn left onto Depot Street provided, of course, you yield to cars entering from Washington Street and continuing straight through to Chestnut Street. Large trucks sometime, quite legally, do so.

Topping off the confusion is the lack of a stop sign on Chestnut Street. One is meant to be there, but there is no place to put it. So to prevent drivers entering from Chestnut Street assuming (wrongly) that they can just blast into the intersection without stopping (or even slowing down) the confusion has been compounded recently with signs erroneously giving the impression Hall’s Corner is a rotary.

A perhaps fortunate side effect of the confusion is that most drivers, uncertain of who really has the right of way and who does not, tend to be extra cautious moving through Hall’s Corner. There have not been many accidents between two moving vehicles. Still, it would be far better to resolve the confusion rather than perpetuate and even to exacerbate with signs implying it is a rotary when it is not.

The Upsides and Downsides of the In-Crowd

When one refers to a “town hall in-crowd” or to “town hall insiders”, some readers apparently assume that the intent of such phrases is necessarily pejorative. A few have responded critically with letters saying there is no such thing (while defending some or all of its members as dedicated public servants foully maligned by any suggestion that they are part of it).

Yet Duxbury certainly does have a social structure that such phrases can reasonably be used to name. Like all social structures its exact boundaries are not sharply defined. But a sociologist would have no trouble making a clear definition and description of it. It includes, at its core, a number of long-time citizen volunteers active in town government as well as some town employees in key positions of influence, most of whom are also citizens of Duxbury.

Like all successful social institutions the in-crowd perpetuates itself, assimilates newcomers, encourages continued (and broader) participation by those who harmonize with it, and discourages those who do not. One of the most common variations is seen in the path from citizen volunteer, initially in some minor capacity, through appointment to key committees like the Finance Committee and the Fiscal Advisory Committee (both appointed by the Town Moderator), to election to the Board of Selectmen.

Like private clubs that screen out prospective members who are not likely to harmonize readily with the existing membership, Duxbury’s town hall in crowd vets those interested in actively participating in town government. It backs and promotes those who accord with its general consensus to more influential positions. Outliers who do not harmonize well with the group are just not re-appointed. If they run for elected office they are defeated, if possible, by the in crowd’s preferred candidate. Most of the time, the preferred candidate wins.

It would be easy to provide specific examples of how this works by listing the successions of positions held by some of the more prominent de facto members of the town government in-crowd over the years – and by reviewing the history of the relatively few successful candidates for elected office in recent decades that were not backed by the in-crowd. But for present purposes there is no need to, as it were, name names.

For the key point here is that although there clearly is a self-perpetuating in-crowd in Duxbury’s town government, its influence is generally benign. For the most part, its members really are dedicated volunteers who devote enormous amounts of time and energy doing their best to ensure that the Town of Duxbury is well and fairly run for the good of the community as a whole. There is a considerable upside to the in-crowd and so there is nothing inherently pejorative in acknowledging its existence.

There are also, however, potential downsides. One is that when the majority of voters does not agree with the consensus of the in-crowd its’ response may be to try to deny voters any direct say in the matter. Another is that individual members of the in-crowd may occasionally be tempted to use their position for personal advantage, rather than for the good of the community as a whole.

What works well requires less attention than what does not. Let us therefore make it a point to affirm that, for the most part, the town hall in-crowd works very well on behalf of all the citizens, taxpayers, and voters of the Town of Duxbury. Let us by all means celebrate its upside! But let us also not hesitate to recognize and to correct any occasional slips to the downside, either. Let us not forget the wise old saying: “Trust in God, but tie your horse to the hitching post!”