Zoning Bylaws Approved by Town Meeting

Reading, MA — After two full nights of discussion, Town Meeting, by a vote of 126-0, approved a series of changes to the 40R smart growth district zoning bylaw on Thursday night. At the previous session, Community Planning and Development Commission (CPDC) member Heather Clish presented proposed zoning changes in five broad categories: the promotion of open space through an expanded definition; protections for abutting uses; modifications to the as-of-right zoning for dimensional setbacks, parking requirements, commercial components, and affordable components; an innovative tiered approach to waiver requests; and alignment and clarification of the bylaw. 

Thursday’s session of Town Meeting was highlighted by debate over eleven proposed amendments to CPDC’s recommendations made by Town Meeting members. Town Meeting member Barry Berman proposed to add a clause providing protections for existing businesses in redeveloped properties. “It doesn’t make any sense to say we value new businesses and turn our backs on current businesses,” Berman argued. While many members applauded the intent of the amendment, others considered it unenforceable, and a vote of 48-72 defeated the amendment.

After an amendment by Clish to correct a typographical error was passed by a hand vote, Town Meeting member Sarah Brukilacchio offered four amendments. The first, regarding the affordability waiver, was withdrawn by Brukilacchio after a determination was made that it was counter to state law. The second, the addition of a tier of parking requirement for two-bedroom units at 1.5 parking spaces, passed with a hand vote after extensive discussion.

Brukilacchio’s third proposed amendment added a provision for a 15-foot setback from a residential lot in a transitional area. Clish expressed concern over the wording as it defined what a developer could do based on usage of a property and not how the property was zoned. “When we establish a setback for a particular use, it upends the purpose of zoning itself,” Clish argued. “What your neighbor chooses to do with their property then determines what you can do with yours,” Clish continued. Despite this warning, Town Meeting passed the amendment with a hand vote.

Brukilacchio’s final proposal reduced the percentage of compact spaces allowed in a development from 25% to 15%. This passed with a hand vote despite Development Director Julie Mercier pointing out that most of the issues in town with compact spaces were only in one development that contained spaces that were not built as approved by CPDC.

Town Meeting member Mary Ellen O’Neill proposed an amendment requiring that landscape plans use 75% native species. This amendment was passed with a hand vote. Town Meeting member Philip Dardeno suggested an amendment requiring that 70% of the affordable units in a project be offered to current residents. Dardeno noted that the 40B laws already require this percentage. After an attempt to amend the percentage to 60% failed, the amendment also passed with a hand vote.

Town Meeting member Linda Snow Dockser proposed an amendment requiring affordable units to be comparable to market-rate units in space, utilities, location, and amenities. Town Counsel Ivria Fried pointed out that these provisions are already part of the state law. The amendment passed with a hand vote. Town Meeting member Cynthia Tozian Cool proposed an amendment that would restrict waivers for any project on a lot under 30,000 square feet. The proposal failed by a hand vote.

The final amendment, proposed by O’Neill, reduced the suggested cap on any development’s density from 65 units per acre to 60 units per acre. This was amended to 50 units per acre by Town Meeting member John Arena, stating that it was time to “pump the brakes” on the 40R district and give the town a rest from development. He continued to argue that the cap could always be adjusted in the future if needed. Arena’s amendment passed by a vote of 76-42. Then O’Neill’s amendment, as amended, was passed with a hand vote.

After the final vote on the bylaw, Town Meeting concluded with three instructional motions, one to direct the Town Manager and the Select Board to develop a plan for meeting senior needs before a new senior/community center comes online, and the second to ask for a proposal to increase safety for children walking to the Wood End School on Sanborn Lane. The third is to develop a plan to modernize the Affordable Housing Trust. All three were passed by Town Meeting with hand votes.

Town Meeting adjourned sine die at 11:45 pm.

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