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Liquor petition could uncork Town Meeting controversy

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TOWNSEND — A proposed wine-and-cheese fundraiser at the Townsend Meeting Hall has sparked some controversy in recent months, and a citizen’s petition will ask Town Meeting voters on May 4 to ban such activities henceforth.

Located at the end of the warrant, article 33 proposes a minor, but key, amendment to Chapter 112-16 of the local bylaws, which would remove the ability of local boards to allow alcoholic beverages in areas under their control.

That was put forward by former library trustee Carol Wright, who said Townsend has traditionally eschewed the use of alcohol on public property, adding it was time to put that practice into the bylaws.

“It’s been a tradition in town that there was no alcohol on town-owned property, but it’s actually up to the selectmen,” she said. “The present selectmen go along with that tradition, but selectmen change, you don’t know. I think it’s a good idea to make the tradition a rule, so it never happens.”

Wright confirmed that talk of the wine-and-cheese fundraiser was a factor behind the petition, but she added the larger concern of liability from the newly opened Townsend Meeting Hall, which has a kitchen, projection televisions, and many other amenities that could lead to the venue being in demand for functions that serve alcohol.

It turns out the local committee with oversight of that venue has also been grappling with that issue, but Townsend Meeting Hall Committee Chairman Jane Jackson did not agree that a one-size-fits-all ban was the answer.

Instead, Jackson said they’ve done a great deal of research on this topic in recent months, saying they were hoping to put together a policy that would allow for one-day alcoholic beverages permits, which would be granted at the discretion of the Meeting Hall Committee or selectmen.

Explaining why, Jackson said the new meeting hall is part of a complex that was donated to the town for the purpose of both education and cultural enhancement. Inside those parameters, she said it’s possible groups may want to serve the correct wine with dinner after a French cooking class, serve drinks at a chamber music event, or allow for a champagne toast at a birthday party. Jackson said the committee wants to keep the door open for those kinds of activities, whereas the petition would prohibit them all.

“We just wish it wasn’t such a broad-brush ban on alcohol in town; that individual events might be taken into consideration,” said Jackson.

Elaborating, Jackson said the Meeting Hall Committee is working to put together a proposal that would cover only the meeting hall, adding they were willing to have it be a one-year trial, so the town could determine if that policy was working.

Unclear at this point is how the Board of Selectmen would respond to that proposal. The board unanimously rejected the wine-and-cheese request last year, and former selectmen chairman Dave Chenelle said questions of appropriateness and liability were key to that decision. A lawyer by trade, Chenelle said the latter issue had him particularly concerned.

“If we issue a permit for liquor on town-owned property, we were going to have to get a rider on our insurance to cover that, and I was looking at the liability issue,” he said.

Looking ahead, Chenelle said this was probably the only article on the warrant that will generate some heated debate, adding he has no problem with wine and cheese, but remains concern about the liability.

Asked about those issues, Jackson said she’d prefer to see them addressed through a process that would include public hearings, research, and testimony from public safety officials, adding she wished the petitioner had approached them on this matter.

The wine-and-cheese fundraiser that started all this was proposed by the Townsend Public Library Endowment Committee, which is looking to establish a trust that will supplement the library budget in years to come. Asked about the possible ban, Endowment Committee Chairman Carolyn Sellars said she’s yet to read that petition, but added she’ll likely oppose any blanket restriction.

“I do think that it’s unfortunate for people to make all alcohol a villain, because there is responsible use of alcohol,” she said. “In the Bible, Jesus drank wine, and changed water into wine at the wedding; you can’t point to the Bible and say it’s a bad thing.”

The Annual Town Meeting will begin at Memorial Hall on Tuesday, May 4, at 7 p.m. Other articles are as follows:

Fire-protection articles

There are three articles on the warrant pertaining to fire protection. Two of those articles establish a new fee and fine structure for commercial fire alarms, while the third is an amendment to reflect changes in state law, said Fire Chief Donald Klein.

Article 20 proposes a new automatic fire alarm bylaw, which would establish an annual fee of $100 for businesses that have fire alarms tied into the master fire box panel at the Fire Department. Klein said maintenance of that infrastructure has traditionally been the department’s responsibility, but he said the fee is needed to defray that cost.

“I don’t have the funding to keep the system maintained and it’s very costly to do so,” he said. “All I’m asking for is $100 per year…to help maintain the infrastructure.”

Elaborating, Klein said his department has been operating with cuts and level-funding over the last nine years, adding the fire box system has become antiquated in that time. He said the fee wouldn’t be necessary with the newer radio boxes that have become widespread, but re-iterated they’re necessary with the older analogue systems used in Townsend.

Article 21 is directly related to Article 20, and it proposes a fee and fine schedule for the new fire alarm bylaw.

In related business, Article 19 proposes eliminating the town’s fire sprinklerbylaw, and Klein said that proposal is being put forward because a new state law has superseded local regulations.The current bylaw requires a sprinkler system for multi-unit dwelling with more than four living areas, but a recently passed state law has lowered that requirement to three.

“Under Massachusetts state law you can’t have a regulation that’s less stringent than state law,” said Klein. “This is really housekeeping, to clean up a bylaw that’s no longer needed because it’s superseded.”

Other proposed zoning changes

* Articles 31 and 32 are citizen petition articles, which seek amendments to the town’s “cluster” or Open Space Preservation Development bylaws. The bylaw is for multi-unit developments, and works by “clustering” housing units close together, in return for preserving at least 30 percent of the land as common open space areas.

Under its current configuration, the open space bylaw requires that any parcel being considered for cluster development must have space to accommodate at least 10 dwellings under the underlying zoning; article 31 proposes opening that type of project up to smaller parcels, by changing that minimum to three dwellings.

The bylaw also requires that 30 percent of the total land area in such projects be set as aside as “common open space,” which is either conveyed to the town or a trust dedicated to preserving the open space. However, Article 32 proposes amending that passage to allow the developer to meet that requirement by giving the open space a conservation restriction.

The article language claims that this would eliminate the need to convey the preserved land and “simplifies the tax picture for the town”

Efforts to contact Planning Board Chairman Gerald Coughlin for comment on this article were unsuccessful.

* Articles 29 and 30 are citizens petition articles, both of which seek to enlarge the town’s Outlying Commercial District Zone. Article 29 asks for the enlargement to include 29 Main St., 35 Main St., 37 Main St. Article 30 is identical, except that it includes 2 Pepperell Road as well.

* Article 26 proposes several amendments to the town bylaws governing flood plains. A number of the changes are to account for the 2010 update of the region’s flood maps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency . It also includes language about who the town Building Inspector is required to contact in the event of major river flooding, along with specifically referencing permit requirements for all development activity in the town’s flood plains.

* Article 25 proposes amending the town’s Groundwater Protection District bylaw to include a 2004 well-head protection map of the Harbor Trace Well, and a 2006 Department of Environmental Protection endorsement of that document.

Other bylaw proposals

* Article 27 asks if the town will support legislation that would make it easier for communities to set up municipal light companies. This article was inserted by the Board of Selectmen, and Chenelle said they did so because the current laws allow electric companies to name their price when a community wants to but them out, making it virtually impossible to set up new municipal energy utilities.

Chenelle said this article supports an effort being led by the town of Lexington to change that, adding it carries no obligations for the town.

“It’s a feel-good article,” he said. “It has no impact on the town.”

In general, municipal utilities rates are significantly cheaper than for-profit electric companies. Conversely, Chenelle said Townsend currently pays some of the highest rates in the state.

Chenelle added that there was some dissatisfaction with the current electric provider after massive ice storm of 2009, saying the selectmen formed an ad hoc committee to look at the prospect of setting up a municipal utilities. He said that group determined the cost of purchasing all of the electrical poles, substations, and wires would be impossible at this point– though he added this reform could make it a possibility at some point in the future.

“It’s still going to be expensive, but this would make it possible, if communities want to do it,” he said.

* Article 23 proposes minor amendments to Townsend’s Sex Offender Bylaw, dropping a reference to the state Office of Child Care Service and eliminate a clause that would consider a lease- extension to be considered “establishing a residence. It also changes the word “chapter” to “bylaw” in one place.

* Article 28 seeks to exempt vehicles owned by people in active military from excise tax, by adopting Chapter 60A, Section 1 of the Massachusetts General Laws.

* Article 23 proposes relocating the town’s Facilities Maintenance Department Bylaw from Chapter 43 to Chapter 44 of the General Bylaws.

* Article 10 asks the town to choose a committee of three West Townsend Village residents to serve as members of the James H. Tucker Fund, for the purpose of keeping curbing, gravestones, and monuments in good order.