Each week, the Abington News is asking the three candidates for the Planning Board board a question to help voters better understand them as candidates. Election Day is Saturday, April 30.
Because the Editor of Abington News is also a member of the Planning Board, questions for this series were crafted by Jeff Welch, a former member of the Abington Zoning Board of Appeals and past Plymouth County Commissioner. Candidate responses are published as submitted, in the order they were received, and were not edited.
Week 1’s question can be found here.
This week’s question: Is there a planning/zoning policy or practice in another community that Abington should adopt or implement? What barriers to implementation might need to be overcome?
I would like to start by saying that Abington should first adopt more precise, less ambiguous language in our bylaws. Bylaws in other communities offer clearer definitions and provide for a wide variety of specific situations. Some even go so far as to include illustrations to give readers a clearer picture.
A number of communities have a more intensive site plan review process, specifically site visits and design review boards.
Firstly, in other communities, it is common practice for the planning board members to conduct site visits after receiving an application but before holding the public hearing.
For example, in Provincetown, planning board members, alternates and staff individually conduct site visits prior to a public hearing to familiarize themselves with the proposed location and are also encouraged to do a “windshield survey” of the area to get a feel for the neighborhood and other properties in the vicinity.
Randolph’s policy states: To the extent permitted by law, filing an application for Approval or Permit grants the Planning Board and its employees and agents permission to enter the subject site to verify the information contained in the application, and to inspect, survey, or sample to determine compliance with any Approval or Permit.
Some towns have more focused site visits, like Raynham. In Raynham, there is only a pre-pavement site visit which is exactly what it sounds like; it’s a site visit/inspection prior to the commencement of any pavement on the site.
Foxborough, Amherst and Duxbury, to name a few, are also among the list of towns where site visits are common practice.
Currently, Abington’s board members can, if they so choose, perform a drive-by inspection of sites. However, this only shows what is visible from the street. Alternatively, they can look at pictures provided to them, but, depending on the source, these may not even be considered.
If our Planning Board conducted site visits, I firmly believe the board members would be able to better envision and understand exactly what is being proposed in the applications they receive.
Secondly – design review boards. A design review board is just that – a board that reviews designs. The purpose of such a board is to conduct an independent & impartial review of applications and provide a non-binding, advisory opinion of whether an application should be approved or disapproved. Generally speaking, once an application is received by a planning or zoning board, it is then referred to the design review board. Like site visits, this happens prior to a public hearing concerning an application.
Some towns, such as Hull, have a five-member board with their beautification committee, board of selectmen, conservation commission, historical commission and planning board each appointing one member. Some design review boards consist of members elected by either the planning board, selectmen or zoning board of appeals. Other towns require the members of their design review board to be of varying professions; members of these design review boards usually include an architect, a landscape architect, an engineer, an attorney, a realtor, a contractor and a designee of the planning board.
Similarly, each town establishes their own minimum standards of review Applications are typically evaluated based on the following: whether there will be a deleterious effect on nearby properties or the balance of the district involved; compatibility with the style & character of the surrounding area; if vehicular or pedestrian circulation will adversely affect the use & enjoyment of nearby properties; whether the location is a good choice; landscaping; and other similar factors.
Regardless of how board members are chosen or what the standard of review is, the underlying goals of design review boards remain the same: to avoid negative affects & consequences for residents of the town in general, but especially those nearby; and to promote attractive development.
Rockland, Amherst, Hanover and Acton are among the list of towns having a design review board.
The main barrier I could foresee is satisfying the number of votes required to implement these changes in our planning/zoning policies & procedures. Some residents may be skeptical. However, I believe that once they realize these changes would not only be for their benefit, but also for the benefit of the Town, the residents would welcome these changes.
I am not conversant with the technical details of the planning and zoning practices of other communities. My focus has been on the practices implemented in Abington in conformance with Massachusetts General Zoning and Planning Laws and in the best interests of our Town.
With that said, it is reasonable to assume that those who adopt and enforce planning and zoning policies in some other communities collaborate effectively as a matter of practice. Planning and Zoning Boards share some common responsibilities in service to the towns that they represent and it is in the towns’ best interest that these Boards communicate and work well together.
The recent Annual Town Meeting debate regarding the proposed Article 14 Marijuana Production and Cultivation Overlay District did not reflect well on the collaboration between our Boards. Residents can review the Town Meeting debate at https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=Qf_36izvMdQ. Reference the timeline beginning at 1:02.14.
The debate regarding the proposed Article 14 was spirited. Arguments for and against the article were made, which reflected a healthy exercise in town government. I was dismayed, however, by the interaction of Board representatives on the Town Meeting floor. It did not appear that the Boards had engaged in any collaborative discussion and consideration of the Article in the time leading up to the Town Meeting, although the opportunity for this kind of discussion had apparently existed.
If elected to the Planning Board, my commitment would be to do all that I can to improve the communication and collaboration between the Planning and Zoning Boards. I strongly believe that this is in the best interests of our Town and that any barriers to this objective can and should be resolved.