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Ayer special town meeting approves zoning changes, rejects Saturday town meetings

During discussion of a proposed zoning change to allow accessory apartments, resident Laurie Nehring said she supports the concept, but had concerns, such as rentals being turned into “air B&B’s.”
During discussion of a proposed zoning change to allow accessory apartments, resident Laurie Nehring said she supports the concept, but had concerns, such as rentals being turned into “air B&B’s.”

AYER – Over the course of a three-hour Special Town Meeting Monday night, residents passed most of the 15 articles on the warrant, minus one item withdrawn and one that failed. Almost all sparked discussion. Turnout was 107 at the outset and grew later on. The final count was 134, Town Clerk Susan Copeland said .

Most votes were verbal, including the first two articles, which were approved.

The first paid off a couple of bills leftover from last year.

The second sought to transfer previously passed borrowing authorization – $3.6 million, slated to pay for upgrades at the Grove Pond water treatment plant– and use the remainder of that money to build a plant at Spectacle Pond instead.

The Grove Pond plant upgrades will continue, but not at the town’s expense. The U.S. Army has accepted responsibility for perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) in Grove Pond and has promised the town, via a grant agreement, to pay for plant upgrades there. Confronting a similar PFAS issue at Spectacle Pond, Water Dept. Superintendent Mark Wetzel proposed the alternative plan.

Voters agreed to divert the money, as requested and the article passed on a majority voice vote.

Most motions that followed were decided on voice votes, but Town Moderator Tom Horgan segued to standing counts for those he considered too close to call.

The next article sought borrowing authorization for $250,000 to construct a new storage and office building at Pirrone Park for the Park and Recreation Dept. It passed by a verbal, two-thirds vote. Park and Recreation  Director Jeff Thomas explained that the original plan passed muster two years ago but was held up, “mostly due to the bid climate.” Facing a higher cost now, the plan has been modified for a one story building with offices attached instead of the two-story structure previously planned.

Article four sought to amend a zoning bylaw, replacing the “by right” lot calculation formula for new residential subdivisions with a “Yield Plan Requirement.” As Town Planner Mark Archambault described it, the proposed change simplifies the process and creates a better outcome, with fewer shared drives, less crowding and traffic and other problems associated with the existing approach.

Apparently satisfied with Archambault’s explanation, and the Planning Board’s recommendation, voters after some discussion agreed to the change. The article passed unanimously.

Another bylaw change regarding accessory apartments faced challenges before it passed.

The stated intent was to make it easier for residents to create separate living quarters, including a kitchen and bath, in their homes or next to them on the same property, say for aging parents, adult children or other renters.

Crafted to rule out duplex-style additions and protect the character of existing neighborhoods, adding an accessory apartment under the bylaw calls for a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals, Archambault said.

First came an amendment from former selectman Jim Fay, who said the size was “too small.” He proposed upping it from 750 to 1,000 square feet. But other residents pointed out that with a 25 percent rule embedded in the bylaw, that would mean that to create a 1,000 square foot apartment, the main house must be pretty big, at least 4,000 square feet. He proposed an amendment so that the requirement would be for either 1,000 SF or the percentage, “whichever is greater.” It failed, 65 no to 29 yes.

Fay’s amendment passed, 81-38.

When Laurie Nehring, who said she favored the “concept” with reservations, raised the specter of an accessory apartment becoming an “air B&B,” the Planning Board Chairman said that issue hasn’t been addressed yet but it would be.

After more discussion, a motion was made to “move the question,” ending debate. The article, as amended, passed by a 2/3 vote.

The next article – another bylaw change, regarding “inclusionary housing” versus “affordable housing,” simply redefines a measurement term that had previously passed, according to Archambault. “Our housing specialist caught a minor oversight,” he said. “This corrects it.”

Voters agreed and the article passed unanimously.

A wetlands protection bylaw amendment (Article 7) also passed, but not easily.

According to the Conservation Commission, the new language would not only protect drinking water resources (wetlands are “sponges” that soak up pollutants and provide wildlife habitat, for example) but add to the town’s character by ensuring its ponds and waterways are protected as well, in part for all the recreational and scenic value they bring.

Kevin Bresnahan, whose family lives at Sandy Pond, said while he appreciates all of those things, he objected strongly to the altered appeals process in the amendment, which would require going to Superior Court to settle issues rather than Land Court, as it stands now. “I’m all for environmental protection,” he said. “But this is too restrictive.”

After much discussion, the article passed, on a resounding voice vote.

Voters also approved a move to up the Community Preservation Act surcharge from 1 to 3 percent.

Originally passed at three percent and later reduced, the increase should bring in more money via state matching funds, proponents said.

The act allows a specific, agreed upon percentage to be added to annual property tax bills and nest-eggs the money for specific purposes spelled out in the act, including affordable housing, historic preservation and open space and recreation.

A CPA Committee oversees the funds, augmented by varying percentages the state kicks in, reviewing project proposals and making recommendations to Town Meeting, which gets the final say.

The motion, which required a simple majority to pass, did pass, with a loud yes from the crowd.

Next came Economic and Community Development Director Alan Manoian’s ambitious brain child: a bylaw amendment to re-zone West Main Street, re-imagined as “West Ayer Village” with a new, Form Based Code to replace existing “by right” zoning for the area.

He’s made his case before, rolled it out at visioning sessions, selectmen’s meetings and public forums. Basically, it will mold development into functional spaces rather than simply plug it into “places” like the scraggly West Main Street corridor, where too many buildings are set back too far from the road and planted sideways, shunning the street rather than facing it.

The new code isn’t so much about how an area looks as how it works, Manoian said, creating an environment where business can thrive and people want to go.

The idea – framed in a grant application submitted with MassDevelopment – has gained momentum around town and it seems that virtually everyone knows the details by now.

The Planning Board and the Selectmen supported the article. Town Meeting approved it with a hearty yes vote, followed by applause.

Articles 10, 11 and 12 called for accepting certain streets as town roads. One was withdrawn. The rest passed.

The last two articles (14 and 15) on the warrant sought to change dates and times for annual town meeting and the town election. Both called for amending town bylaws. The first one passed, the other failed.

Existing rules call for annual town elections to be held on the fourth Monday in April, with town meeting to follow in May. The new plan switches the order, with town meeting preceding the election.

The new schedule starts in 2021.

The 2020 calendar stays the same: annual town election on April 26; annual town meeting on Monday, May 9.

The following year, 2021, annual town meeting is set for Monday, April 26 and the annual election will be on Tuesday, May 11.

Selectman Jannice Livingston explained the reasoning for moving town meeting to a Saturday. The idea has “come up for years,” she said. Senior citizens who dread driving at night have said they dislike navigating the high school parking lot in the dark, she said.

But Kevin Bresnahan said that for young families with kids who play sports, it would be a hardship, forcing them to choose between attending their kids’ games and attending Town Meeting. “I’m not for this,” he said, citing baseball, soccer and kids as reasons for opposing a Saturday schedule.

“It’s come up and failed before,” Jim Fay said, noting that folks who come will continue to do so and those who don’t, won’t, no matter when it’s held.

“Please don’t do this to me,” said one resident with young children. The article failed.



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