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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.

A Plus One Fourth!

Disruptions to our normal routines offer, if we are receptive to them, fresh perspectives on matters we ordinarily take for granted. Duxbury’s rain-delayed July 5th Fourth of July parade is a good example. Abbreviated by the absence of elements that could not be re-scheduled for a day later, it was a charming event nonetheless. It was also a reminder of the extent to which, in recent years, reliance on outside ‘acts’ has tended somewhat to supplant locally developed content.

Most conspicuously absent from this year’s delayed parade were the paid-for marching bands, drum and bugle corps, and so forth imported from various relatively distant places. Except for the excellent Colonial Pipers bagpipe band from Boston (which really is local, anyway) all the rest of the parade participants appeared to be local, south of Boston, folks.

There was no sign of the usual out-of-state band busses from Ohio or Quebec or wherever parked around Hall’s corner. Any that might have been booked for the fourth presumably had other places to be, other things to do, on the fifth. Their absence made for a shorter but more local parade than we have seen in recent years.

The number of locally developed floats also appeared to be unusually low. There were some and they were good ones. Overall, however, they seemed to be less numerous and smaller than usual. Since it is unlikely anyone who prepared a float would abandon it because of the one day delay, this appears to be due to a decline in the number of locally prepared floats, rather than a result of the delay.

The absent out-of-state bands and relatively small number of local floats, however, were nicely made up for by the powerful proliferation of politicians due to the salutary effect of the upcoming state and national elections in November. Duxbury’s 2014 July Fourth plus One parade had one of the largest contingents of office holders and seekers in some time. Albeit not as much fun nor quite as entertaining as clowns on unicycles or bagpipers, they did do yeoman service by bolstering the parade content!

Local core participants also ensured a strong parade. A stalwart crew of veterans from the Duxbury American Legion was there to remind everyone that the Fourth of July is not just about fireworks and hot dogs. A solid contingent of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles from Duxbury and surrounding towns made sure the parade got off with ear-splitting noise and a holiday spirit.

The Duxbury Board of Selectmen marched on foot, as usual, getting their Fifth of July exercise. A very strong showing of antique cars added to the parade with vehicles that, though not quite filling the place of the long-banned and much-missed “horribles”, were nevertheless great fun to see.

It was also delightful to see now-retired former Duxbury Town Clerk Nancy Oates as Parade Marshall. Nancy was long a mainstay of Town Hall. Having her as Parade Marshall was a fitting and appropriate recognition of her long years of service to the citizens, taxpayers, and voters of the Town of Duxbury.

At the end of the day, the result was reminiscent of those times in early adulthood when, lacking ornaments of their own, a young couple puts up a first Christmas tree festooned with handmade strings of cranberries and popcorn. While not as glitzy or glamorous as one with a lot of store-bought content, it has a home-grown quality that is very special. Duxbury’s 2014 July Fourth plus One parade had that homespun feel, that down home spirit, about it. Let’s aim for more of that in the years to come!

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.

So Far, So Good!

It is now a year since Rene Read came on board as Duxbury’s new Town Manager. Although, for the most part, Duxbury had been managed very well by his predecessor, Read came into the job facing some extraordinary challenges including a surging tax rate putting increasing pressure on home owners with fixed or limited incomes; an unfavorable judgment against the Town of Duxbury in the lawsuit over the North Hill management contract; and a piping plover invasion that had many purchasers of beach stickers hopping mad over being squeezed out by the birds.

While these and other lesser challenges remain fully to be resolved, Read’s mature, professional, yet relaxed and easy-going approach has let to encouraging progress in the right direction. Various initiatives aimed at getting the best possible value for money spent in town government are underway. Positive steps have been taken toward a negotiated settlement and final resolution of the North Hill case. Despite an even larger population of plovers this year, sensible measures to ensure their safety but with less restrictive beach closings seem to be working well.

Meanwhile, nearly everyone agrees that Read has brought a much more open, people-friendly, yet nevertheless performance-oriented management style to Town Hall. Folks who work there not only seem to be happier and more relaxed than they were in recent years, but citizens often comment now on how agreeable it is to transact business with the offices there. Read’s management style seems to have permeated Town Hall to the benefit of everyone.

There are, of course, ongoing issues and occasional dissatisfactions. These appear, however, mostly to be either policy issues on which honest people may disagree and which, in any case, are not directly within the authority and control of the Town Manager anyway. Duxbury’s soaring legal costs, for example, are really a matter of the choices made by the Board of Selectmen rather than anything Read can manage directly. Controversies over matters such as docks and housing developments are within the purview of the land use boards, not the Town Manager.

Read’s direct powers as Town Manager are not nearly as extensive as some folks seem to assume they are. The biggest part (roughly two thirds) of Duxbury’s total expenditures are in the control of the School Committee and the Superintendent of Schools. Government policy is set the Board of Selectmen. And despite working under a contract, the Town Manager serves entirely at the pleasure of the Board of Selectmen.

Duxbury’s Town Manager Act is a relatively weak implementation of the position that, in effect, imputes responsibility to the Town Manager while leaving actual, effective control in the hands of the Board of Selectmen. The Town Manager’s freedom to act is far more limited than one might think.

Given all that, Read is certainly off to a very good start in his first year on the job. He’s made good progress on key issues, brought a new and more amiable mood to Town Hall, effectively negotiated the hazards of trying to please numerous factions with differing views on what should or should not be done, and harmonized well with the existing structures of Town Government. He has laid the foundation for greater accomplishments in the years to come.

The next major challenge will be to manage the process leading up to the 2015 Annual Town Meeting and the development of the FY 2016 budget. The key to success is to balance the budget without asking for a Proposition 2½ override. Read looks like he will be up to the job. So far, so good!

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.