ESSEX — The town's zoning, or lack of it, is the subject of three warrant articles related to the downtown, a conversion moratorium and cell towers that Town Meeting will consider this spring.
Around 50 people tuned into the Planning Board's Zoom hearings Wednesday evening either online or by phone to learn more about proposed changes to the zoning bylaws.
An Essex Downtown Zoning District on the Main Street Causeway (Route 133) from Martin Street (Route 127) to Eastern and Southern avenues would be created under Article 13, proposed by the Planning Board. The district's main goal is to allow more mixed-used buildings downtown.
During his time on the board, Planning Board Chairman Wes Burnham said he had been part of three failed efforts to zone the town. Essex's lack of traditional zoning has become a hot-button issue for some residents after a recreational marijuana store on John Wise Avenue and a cell tower off Eastern Avenue were proposed.
Now, the board is working to create a zone at a time, starting with this new district.
"Eighty-four percent of all the properties within that zone are nonconforming with our current bylaws," Burnham said. With the district, "we hope reduce some of those discrepancies to make it easier make changes ... to do basically anything."
Burnham said the district will bring around half of the non-compliant buildings into compliance. No changes will occur to buildings already in compliance.
Lisa Lunnenof Winthrop Street pointed out that the article decreased the current accessory building height limit from 25 to 15 feet. Burnham said he was unaware of why that change was made and will look into it further. If the Planning Board wishes to change this height requirement, members will need to make a motion to do so when the article is presented at Town Meeting.
A two-year moratorium on business and industrial conversions would be implemented by selectmen-sponsored Article 14. During these two years, the town will draft plans to better mitigate the negative impacts new businesses may bring to residents and the environment.
Selectmen Chairwoman Ruth Preen explained the moratorium was written specifically to not affect the proposed Downtown Zoning District, all established commercial business in town and occupied homes.
"We want you to continue to continue to grow your business," she said. "This is a pause button on change of use (for zoning property) ... This is so we can come up with a more thoughtful approach for change of use (procedures) to better protect residential and agricultural land."
Preen said she is committed to work alongside the Planning Board during the two-year moratorium to draft mitigation plans for new businesses.
"It'll be a lot of work," said Burnham, "but we all understand the need for it."
Cell tower rules would be updated by Article 15.
Shelly Bradburry of the community group Save Essex's Landscape and the group's attorney Peter Mello were the last to speak at the meeting. They outlined Article 15, drafted by Mello and Save Essex's Landscape, which hopes to rewrite town bylaws on personal wireless service facilities.
"Our citizen group bylaw is up to date with the current technology," said Bradburry. "We are one of the few towns that haven’t updated their bylaw."
Mello said the language used in the bylaw "draws liberally from provisions that have been promulgated in other municipalities," specifically those already approved of by the state attorney general's office.
The Planning Board, however, voiced a myriad of concerns with how the proposed bylaw is currently written. Burnham said he had "two or three pages of technical issues" that are "not compliant with our bylaw." For example, the bylaw highlights an order of preference for where wireless tower may be located — town-owned land, industrial zoning land, commercial zoning land then residential zoning lan. Problem is, the town does not have any form of zoning.
Due to the bylaw's cut-and-paste nature, some sections as written are inconsistent as well. Burnham highlighted a section that reads,"Towers shall be set back at least one hundred fifty (150) feet from the boundary of all wetlands resource areas." Further down, another passage states, "No tower or personal wireless service facility, with the exception of repeaters, shall be located within any of the following prohibited areas ... on or within 100 feet horizontally of any Massachusetts or federally regulated wetland resource area."
Kim Drake described the bylaw as "not ready for prime time."
Despite the Planning Board's issues, all six residents who spoke during public comment voiced support for the bylaw.
"It sounds as if there are some form over substance clarifications that are warranted," said Mark Renzi of Southern Avenue. "We want to makes sure we can clean these up on the floor (of Town Meeting) so we don't have any technical foot faults."
Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or firstname.lastname@example.org.