MBTA Task Force Presents Plans to Planning Board


Members of the Manchester-by-the-Sea MBTA Task Force presented its current proposals to the Planning Board at a meeting on Monday, March 25.

The presentation was an attempt to bring the Planning Board up to speed on where the Task Force is headed as it proposes new overlay zoning districts to comply with the state’s new MBTA zoning mandate.

The town is required to find 37 acres to include in the new zoning, including 14.8 acres within a half mile of the train station on Summer Street.  In addition, the new zoning must allow on average 15 units per acre, or a total of 559 units in the new districts. 

The meeting was supposed to be a joint meeting of the two panels, but due to a mistake in how the meeting’s agenda was posted, it was only a meeting of the Planning Board, thus only four (less than a quorum) of the members of the Task Force were allowed to speak. 

“We’ve learned there are packets of dense multi-family housing in the town that mostly go unnoticed and serve the residents very well,” said Chris Olney, a member of the Planning Board and chairman of the Task Force. 

Olney said that the majority of the Task Force agreed on a basic framework for the new districts, although one member was against all solutions.

“We would prefer to offer possible solutions rather than face the
possible consequences if we fail to comply with the MBTA Commuter Law,” said Olney.

Olney said there were several guiding principles that the Task Force was allowing in selecting areas for the overlay zoning.

“The most basic of these is our commitment to minimize the potential changes to the town that might result from these new zoning requirements,” said Olney.

Other goals included, Olney said, preserving historic buildings, protecting businesses and restaurants and “to minimize the number of new incremental units that could be allowed.  We can do this by limiting new zoning districts to the areas of town that are already densely settled ... and to areas that have small lots and can only support a small number of units and new development.”

“We can’t make everybody happy,” Olney concluded.  “We have to make trade-offs to get to a reasonable plan.”

Emily Innes, the Task Force’s consultant, spoke about the areas that were being considered for the overlay zoning. She explained how they could adjust various design requirements, such as setbacks, percentage of lot coverage, and parking to determine how many total units could be on each lot.

For example, Innes said that for lower Pine Street to Powder House Lane district and the Valentine to Summer Street district, she has used minimum lot size of 6,000 square feet, a limit of 2.5 stories, a maximum of 40 percent lot coverage, and parking for 1.5 cars per unit.

“That’s pretty close to what you have now,” said Innes.

The other two districts the Task Force is currently looking at are one along a section of Summer Street between Allen and Lincoln streets, and the Calben property next to the Manchester Athletic Club in the Limited Commercial District.

She said these four areas taken together were compliant with the state’s requirements.

Planning Board members Mary Foley and Christine Delisio questioned several aspects of the proposals.  Foley said that several of the buildings in the Valentine to Summer Street district, including ones on Tappan and Sea Streets were part of the National Historic Register.  She suggested that Innes should model for two parking spaces per unit, since most families had at least two cars.  And she suggested that Newport Park, which is part of the Pine Street district, should have greater setbacks because it is surrounded by open space.

Delisio questioned why the Task Force wasn’t looking at other larger lots outside the half-mile station circle, including the Shingle Hill property, the Cell Signaling property, Gordon College property and the Essex County Golf Club.

Delisio also questioned why members of the public on Zoom were not being allowed to comment or ask questions. Planning Board Chairman Ron Mastrogiacomo said it was not a public hearing and that anyone with a question could ask the Task Force at its next meeting. 

Foley also suggested that the Task Force should investigate what it would cost the town if they didn’t approve the state’s mandate.  She said that over the last few years, the town has received $600,000 from the three housing grants that the state has said will be cut off from communities that do not comply. 

But others pointed out that the town has applied for a $3.4 million grant as part of the Cell Signaling project.

Planning Board member Laura Tenney clearly supported the work of the Task Force. “Our town changes and continues to change,” said Tenney.  “It’s not encased in amber.  It’s a beautiful historic town.  I think the task force is doing hard and good work to preserve the things that are special about the town and to preserve the resources in it.”

“We also do need housing,” Tenney added.  “Our kids can’t afford to stay here.  Families can’t afford to move in. ... Maybe we should think about this as not a bad thing, trying to allow housing to happen for people of different incomes and different family types.”

Despite Foley’s and Delisio’s objections, Mastrogiacomo said the board appeared to approve of the Task Force’s plans and urged it to proceed with its current proposals. The Task Force is planning another forum to help educate the public and answer questions on April 11.

The Planning Board will try again to hold a joint meeting with the Task Force on April 18.