Town Meeting Approves Instructional Motions

Reading, MA — After a marathon session on Monday, virtual Town Meeting resumed on Thursday to consider two instructional motions, each involving zoning bylaws. As Moderator Alan Foulds reminded the members, instructional motions are non-binding but give a sense of town meeting’s wishes to the boards or committees involved.

The first such motion, presented by Town Meeting member Mary Ellen O’Neill, expressed concern over some recent developments in the downtown.  The motion asked the Community Planning and Development Commission (CPDC) to revise the 40R zoning bylaw to reduce the amount of lot coverage allowed from 100% to 85% and to present these changes for town meeting consideration in the spring. The lower coverage percentage is to encourage “pocket parks” and other green space downtown. The motion also directed that CPDC not approve any new developments until after Town Meeting’s discussion on the issue. “It is time to roll back what we have wrought.” O’Neill declared. “One hundred percent lot coverage is excessive.”

Town Meeting member James Bonazoli agreed, expressing “dismay” over some of the downtown changes in recent years. Member David Talbot added, “Zoning is the town saying ‘This is what we want our town to look like.’” While agreeing in concept, Town Meeting member Barry Berman wondered if requesting percentages in the motion was “too prescriptive” and suggested that CPDC be given a wider berth in its discussions. Town Meeting member Jonathan Barnes offered that he would like a review of the entire 40R bylaw by the CPDC.

Regarding the final line asking CPDC not to approve any new projects, Town Counsel advised that CPDC was obligated to review any application under current 40R bylaw restrictions and issue permits under current regulations regardless of what is expressed in the instructional motion. In response, Town Meeting softened the language to reflect this advice, amending the final line to asking that CPDC “discourage” applications in the downtown that do not include green space. The amendment passed by a vote of 110-41. After continued consideration, the main instructional motion passed by a vote of 119-39.

Town Meeting member Phil Pacino offered a second instructional motion involving the development of regulations regarding short-term rentals, such as those provided on websites like Airbnb or VRBO. Pacino believes that non-owner-occupied rentals are not allowed under the current bylaw. The town guidelines should be created regarding the safety, maintenance, and health conditions of these arrangements. “The intent is to get the ball rolling here.” Pacino stated, “It is not to eliminate the arrangements, but to bring them into compliance.”

After continued discussion, Town Meeting amended the motion adding a line that asks the town to monitor and collect any legal taxes and fees from these establishments. In 1989, Town Meeting established a four percent hotel excise tax that a 2019 Massachusetts law now extends to short-term rentals. The state collects these taxes and distributes the proceeds to the town. Town Meeting voted 117-35 to approve the motion.

Town Meeting adjourned Sine Die at 9:40 pm.

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