Special Town Meeting - Oct 17th, 2023

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First night of the fall special town meeting. Materials were available from https://www.arlingtonma.gov/town-governance/town-meeting/2023-oct-special-town-meeting-warrant.

This evening's test vote: Vote yes if you'd like to finish by Halloween. Vote was 173--9--10.

The next vote asks Town Meeting to consent to the use of a satellite room. Most of the body is on the floor of the town hall auditorium, and a few are in the balcony. The satellite room is a small room where all TMMs are masked, connected to the auditorium by an A/V link.

Town meeting consents to the use of the satellite room, 184--2--3.

There are no announcements this evening.

Article 1 - Reports of Committees

The Select Board, Finance Committee, and Redevelopment Board submit their respective reports to town meeting.

Article 2 - Contingent Arlington Public Schools Education Funding

(Christine Deshler, Finance Committee Chair) Ms. Deshler says that since the Finance Committee report was issued, they discovered that the language in the budget override ballot question makes Article 2 unachievable. The finance committee now recommends no action on Article 2.

(Eric Helmuth, Select Board Chair) Mr. Helmuth says there was a typo in the ballot language. It proposed budget changes at the end of FY 2024, rather than FY 2023, so the new tax rates won't go into effect until next year. When the error was discovered, we had to make a decision about whether to change the language, or proceed with what had been printed. The town finance department felt we could proceed. This was possible through a combination of one-time financial events and the town's conservative budgeting. He says the Select Board is comfortable with this course of action.

(Jim Feeney, Town Manager) Mr. Feeney says that staff reviewed the financial plan, and felt we could still meet the needs of FY24--26. The one-time financial events that Mr. Helmuth referred to include the assessor's office finding more new growth than expected and lower school enrollment. Several town positions have gone unfilled for a long period of time, which led to a salary surplus. Therefore, we'll defer the school budget adjustments until this spring.

(Greg Christiana, Town Moderator) Mr. Christiana explains how town meeting members can use the handset buttons to add and remove themselves from the speaking queue. Press 1 to get on, and press 2 to get off.

(Carl Wagner, Point of order) Mr. Wagner says he was added to the speaking queue after pressing 9.

(Elaine Crowder, Point of order) Ms. Crowder has a question about toggling in and out of the speaker queue.

(Greg Christiana) Mr. Christiana says it usually takes a few seconds from the time that a handset button is pressed to when the signal is received. He advises town meeting members to look on their handset screens for confirmation.

(Mark Kaepplein, Point of order) Mr. Kaepplein says there's an important vote coming up about the tax override. He hasn't seen any specific information about this, and was hoping that article 2 would provide some.

There's a voice vote on the recommended action of "no action". Motion passes unanimously.

Article 3 - Administrative Correction

(Claire Ricker, Planning Director) Ms. Ricker gives a brief introduction to the set of zoning articles being offered by the Arlington Redevelopment Board. The goal is to improve the business district zoning. She introduces Redevelopment Board member Steve Revilak, who will be presenting for the board this week.

(Steve Revilak, Redevelopment Board) Mr. Revilak says Article 3 proposes administrative corrections only to correct a reference in the Zoning Bylaws to a re-lettered subsection of Section 8.1.3. Section 8.1.3 was amended at the 2022 Town Meeting.

This amendment provides clarity to the Zoning Bylaw and does not alter the substance of the Bylaw. The ARB Voted (4-0) at their October 2nd meeting to Recommend Favorable Action on Article 3.

Article 3 passes, 197--1.

Article 4 - Reduced Height Buffer Area

(Steve Revilak, Redevelopment Board) Mr. Revilak says the Redevelopment Board voted 4--0 that no action be taken under article 4.

Vote of no action passes, 188--3.

Article 5 - Open Space in Business Districts

(Steve Revilak, Redevelopment Board) Mr. Revilak introduces Article 5, a proposed Zoning Bylaw Amendment related to Open Space in the Business Districts.

With the exception of Article 10, articles 5-11 are being proposed as a package, to enhance Arlington's business districts. These were inspired by the 2022 Town Meeting changes to floor area ratios, to encourage the redevelopment of underutilized properties in the Business District. Currently, Arlington’s Business District makes up less than 4% of all zoned parcels in Town.

Last fall, the Redevelopment Board identified a number of business zoning requirements that inhibit the ability to redevelop properties in the business districts to the heights previously approved by Town Meeting. At that time the Redevelopment Board began working on a series of proposed amendments that would address the challenges to creating more needed and desired quality commercial business space in our few areas of town zoned for Business development.

This map shows the locations of the limited number parcels throughout town designated within Business Districts.

Article 5 proposes three main changes: (1) changing the calculation of open space from being tied to the residential gross floor area to being based on a percentage of lot area, (2) increasing the amount of landscaped open space required while eliminating the requirement for usable open space in the business districts, and (3) allowing open space may on balconies and roofs at any level, not limited to 10'. These changes would only apply to properties in the Business Districts.

To address the first change, Open Space is currently tied to residential gross floor area as opposed to parcel size which means that the area of each property that is dedicated to open space increases with the size of the building. For example, consider a mixed-use building with two stories; the second story of residential creates an open space requirement. Now consider adding a third floor; doubling the amount of residential space doubles the open space requirement, and the footprint of the building has to become smaller. Tying open space to gross floor area tends to limit the footprint of mixed-use buildings, and the amount of ground floor space available for commercial use. These limits also restrict building height beyond the limits set forth in our zoning bylaw, and the ability to develop upper story residential. They also typically exceed the rear and side yard setback requirements for most uses in the Business Districts

By increasing the required percentage of landscaped open space and eliminating the requirement for usable open space, this amendment would align with the strategic goals of the Town of Arlington. Currently, the open space requirements do not reflect the environmental and climate priorities of the town, as the definitions of open space limits where and how its benefits of can be achieved.

Currently, balconies rooftops may only count as open space if they are located not more than 10 feet above the level of the lowest story used for housing. The incorporation of landscaping on balconies and rooftops is an important strategy for the town to embrace, allowing for climate positive impacts while maximizing our ability to create tax-revenue generating commercial space. It is important to note that on private property, neither usable open space or landscaped open space are required to be accessible to the public -- these are intended for occupants and users of the building. Thus adding landscaped open space where it would be most impactful to the building's occupants and users is a positive outcome of this amendment.

This Article simplifies and improves usability of the Zoning Bylaw by tying open space calculations in the business districts to parcel size rather than building size, and, although it eliminates the category of “usable open space” from the dimensional requirements, it increases the requirements for landscaped open space within the Town’s limited number of business districts. The ARB Voted (4-0) at their October 2nd meeting to Recommend Favorable Action on Article 5.

(Jordan Weinstein, Precinct 21) Mr. Weinstein has an amendment to article 5, which would remove the provision allowing open space on balconies and rooftops more than 10' above the lowest floor used for residential use. He likes what article 5 is doing, by tying the open space calculation to parcel size. He says this will increase building footprints, and allow more space for commercial. He believes the ARB's change to the open space definitions remove all open space requirements from the business districts, and he considers that double-dipping. His amendment would remove the changes to the definitions, so that open space would be required at ground level.

(Matt Owen, Precinct 19) Mr. Owen speaks in favor of article 5, which was partly suggested by the ARB last year. He's attended ARB meetings and saw how these requirements were more or less unworkable for mixed-use development, because the open space requirement scales with the size of the building. He favors having more space for ground-floor commercial. Mr. Owen says he doesn't understand all of Mr. Weinstein's amendment, but thinks it might not be necessary. It's common for lots to have no open space before they're developed. He thinks that allowing open space on balconies and roofs could get us more green space, without cannibalizing space for business uses.

(Beth Melofchik, Precinct 9) Ms. Melofchik is all for green space on the ground. She likes the green space around the Brighams apartment building. She asks town meeting to please support green space on the ground, like there is at the Brighams building. She'd like more development that embraces the bikeway.

(Xavid Pretzer, Precinct 17) Mx. Pretzer is in favor of the article. They say our business districts have small parcels and the current requirements are a barrier. The ARB's recommendation is a great way of recognizing open space, and allowing more housing.

(Daniel Jalkut, Precinct 6) Mr. Jalkut is confused about Mr. Weinstein's amendment, but he understands the fear about losing open space on the ground. He asks if it would be possible for open space on the ground to be lost.

(Eugene Benson, Redevelopment Board) Mr. Benson says this article wouldn't reduce the amount of open space required, but it would allow some of that to be on rooftops and balconies. He notes that, according to our bylaw, open space is for the occupants and users of the building to which the open space is attached.

(Daniel Jalkut) Mr. Jalkut if it would be possible for ground-level open space to be replaced with open space higher up.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson says that some of the space could be moved to balconies and roofs, but some would have to remain on the ground.

(Sanjay Newton, Precinct 10) Mr. Newton asks if it's possible to have open space on balconies and rooftops today.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson says yes, but only on the roof of the first floor with a residential use.

(Sanjay Newton) Mr. Newton believes that Mr. Weinstein's amendment will reduce the amount of housing in mixed use, an he asks town meeting to vote against it.

(Carmine Granucci, Precinct 21) Mr. Granucci moves the question.

Motion to terminate debate passes, 149--64.

(Timur Yontar, Point of order) Mr. Yontar asks if article 5 requires a two-thirds vote.

(Greg Christiana) Mr. Christiana answers in the affirmative.

Weinstein amendment fails, 58--156.

Vote on article 5 passes, 167--53.

Article 6 - Rear Yard Setbacks in Business Districts

(Steve Revilak, Redevelopment Board) Mr. Revilak introduces article 6, a proposed Zoning Bylaw Amendment related to Rear Yard Setbacks in the Business Districts.

Article six proposes a simplification to the rear yard setback requirements in Business Districts. This is one of a set of articles intended to encourage the redevelopment of underutilized properties in the Business Districts, and create more needed and desired commercial space in the few areas of town zoned for Business development.

Currently, rear yard setback requirements are formulaic, based on the length and height of the building. Some of the formulas are 10+(L/10) where L is the length of the building, or (H+L)/6 where H and L are the length and height. These formulas make it difficult to gauge the build-out potential of a parcel. You don't know what kind of building you can build until you know what the setbacks requirements are, but you don't know what the setback requirements are until you know what kind of building you want to build. There's a catch-22 inherent in these setback formulas, and we'd like to make the bylaw simpler and more straightforward to reason about.

The changes proposed under Article 6 would establish a fixed set of rear yard setbacks in the business districts, based on the height of the building, and the surrounding context. These rear setbacks proposed under Article 6 are:

0 feet when the building abuts an alley, or right of way at least ten feet wide

10 feet when the rear yard abuts a non-residential district

20 feet when three stories or less abuts a residential district

30 feet when four stories or more abuts a residential district

Staff in the Department of Planning and Community Development surveyed rear yard setback requirements in neighboring communities such as Burlington, Lexington, Medford, Somerville and Watertown. These communities typically require 10 - 30' rear yard setbacks in their business districts. None use formulaic requirements as Arlington does.

This amendment simplifies rear-yard setback requirements in the business districts, making them much easier to calculate and more context-specific to adjacent neighbors. The ARB Voted (4-0) at their October 2nd meeting to Recommend Favorable Action on Article 6.

(Xavid Pretzer, Precinct 17) Mx. Pretzer thanks the ARB for bringing this article forward, saying that it's a good idea. They've filed an amendment that would make the rear-yard setbacks independent of building height -- the rear yard setback would just be 20' when abutting a business parcel. Mx. Pretzer says that many of the B district parcels are shallow, and some are only 60' deep. A 30' rear setback would be half of that. Ms. Pretzer thinks that 20' is more consistent, and won't discourage 4--5 story buildings.

(Chris Loreti, Precinct 7) Mr. Loreti has an amendment that would remove the 0' setback when the rear yard abuts an alley or right of way. He points out that this zoning requirement comes from Somerville's zoning ordinance, but thinks it's fine with his amendment. Mr. Loreti says that a number of properties abut the minuteman bikeway; he thinks the bikeway is a right of way, and a 0' setback would not be appropriate there. He says the other consideration is through-lots which are already taken care of in the bylaw. He views his amendment as a modest proposal to protect the bike path and avoid conflict. He thinks Somerville did a good job with their regulations.

(Asia Kepka, Precinct 1) Ms. Kepka opposed article 6. She says setbacks provide light and air, and are necessary for greenery and open space. Setbacks are also important in cases of emergency, by spacing buildings farther apart. Ms. Kepka experienced a fire a few years ago, and her whole backyard burned up. She says her house would have burned too, if not for the back patio. Ms. Kepka says that setbacks are here for a reason, and it's not healthy to have buildings too close together.

(Mark Kaepplein, Precinct 9) Mr. Kaepplein says that fire safety and rear access are important to him too. Triple decker fires in Dorchester often involve nearby buildings. Mr. Kaepplein has a problem with narrow rear alley ways; he says they're important for dumpsters, and there's not enough room to place a dumpster in a ten-foot right of way. He thinks a 0' setback for an alley is inadequate.

It's 9:30, and we take a short break.

(Jordan Weinstein, Precinct 21) Mr. Weinstein speaks in favor of the Loreti amendment. He thinks it's something that the Redevelopment board overlooked, and would want to add. He says the amendment would avoid developers building up to rights of way. He also wouldn't want his home to burn down due to lack of a backyard.

(Arthur Prokosch, Precinct 4) Mr. Prokosch asks if rear yard setback requirements would be smaller under this article.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak says the current setback regulations are formulaic, so it would depend on the size of the building. For example, consider the formula (H+L)/6. A five-story building, sixty feet tall and sixty feet wide would have a required setback of 20', and article 6 would require 30'. A building that was 30' tall and 60' wide would have a setback requirement of 15', and article 6 would require 20'.

(Arthur Prokosch) Mr. Prokosch asks if there's a difference in fire safety standards for new mixed use buildings, versus old triple-deckers.

(Michael Ciampa, Building Inspector) Mr. Ciampa says that all mixed use buildings have sprinkler systems, fire alarms, and fire ratings. There may be requirements for additional protections, based on their proximity to other buildings.

(Arthur Prokosch) Mr. Prokosch asks how wide the bikeway right of way is.

(Claire Ricker, Planning Director) Ms. Ricker says the minuteman bikeway was formerly a railroad right of way; those were usually 40' wide.

(Arthur Prokosch) Mr. Prokosch says he supports businesses, especially those that face the bike path. He urges a yes vote.

(Paul Schlichtman, Precinct 9) Mr. Schlichtman says he's confused about the definition of "alley", and asks if it's a defined term in our zoning bylaw.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak says that our bylaw does not define that term, so the definition would come from the Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionary.

(Paul Schlichtman) Mr. Schlichtman asks if the minuteman bikeway is a right of way?

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak reads a definition from the zoning bylaw, which indicates that the bikeway is not considered a right of way.

(Paul Schlichtman) Mr. Schlichtman thinks that renders Mr. Loreti's amendment moot.

(Chris Loreti, Precinct 7) Mr. Loreti says the definition of rear lot line doesn't say anything about the Minuteman Bikeway.

(Andrew Greenspon, Precinct 5) Mr. Greenspon thinks the 30' rear yard setback in Somerville's ordinance doesn't apply to the first three stories. He supports the Pretzer amendment.

(Gordon Jamieson, Precinct 12) Mr. Jamieson moves the question.

Motion to end debate passes on a voice vote.

Pretzer amendment fails, 84--123.

Loreti amendment fails, 101--105.

Article 6 passes, 173--37.

Article 7 - Step Back Requirements in Business Districts

(Steve Revilak, Redevelopment Board) Mr. Revilak presents Article 7, a proposed Zoning Bylaw Amendment related to Stepbacks in the Business Districts. This is one of a set of articles intended to encourage the redevelopment of underutilized properties in the Business Districts, and create more needed and desired commercial space.

Mr. Revilak starts with some background information: what is a step back? A step back is when the upper stories of a building come in a few feet, away from the street. From the perspective of someone standing in front of the building, the step back uses the lower stories to conceal the upper ones, so that the building seems less big. It also creates a built in requirement for variation in the facade.

Arlington currently has a step-back requirement: starting at the fourth story, the building has to step back 7.5 feet on each side of the building with street frontage. Of Arlington's Business parcels, approximately 44% are on corner lots, with street frontage on two sides, and sometimes three. Combining that with small parcel sizes, the requirement to have step-backs on multiple sides makes it challenging to develop upper story residential space.

Article 7 proposes to change the step-back requirement, so that it only applies to the primary facade; the primary facade would be along Mass Ave or Broadway, unless there's a compelling reason to choose otherwise. Article 7 also clarifies that the step-back is to be measured from the property line.

Staff in the Department of Planning and Community Development surveyed business district step-back requirements in other communities. Most do not have them. Of communities that do require step-backs, the requirement is generally for step backs above 65' feet, which means starting at the sixth story of a building.

This amendment addresses a challenge in developing the upper stories of mixed-use buildings, particularly on smaller corner lots. The ARB Voted (3-1) at their October 2nd meeting to Recommend Favorable Action on Article 7. The Board member who voted no was in favor of this amendment but preferred the step back requirements start at the fifth floor rather than remaining at the fourth.

(Carl Wagner, Precinct 15) Mr. Wagner says the proponent said that step-backs make buildings seem smaller. He thinks they also protect rear yards. Mr. Wagner says these articles were only presented to the public during one rainy weekday night. He believes there have been more public meetings in prior years. He says there are only 211 town meeting members here tonight, and their decisions will affect thousands of people. He urges a no vote.

(Aram Hollman, Precinct 6) Mr. Hollman urges a vote against the article. Mr. Hollman says this step-back requirements would only apply to the principal facade, the nicest part of the building which faces the street. Mr. Hollman thinks that other sides of the building will be less attractive, and this will send a message that abutters aren't important. He thinks that nice facades that are only seen from the front are a disservice.

(Eugene Benson, Precinct 10) Mr. Benson says that Arlington's step-back requirements are more restrictive than other communities, and we're competing with those communities for commercial uses. Mr. Benson says that under the existing zoning bylaw, step backs only apply to street-facing sides of the building, not to the other sides.

(Christopher Moore, Precinct 14) Mr. Moore moves the question.

Article 7 passes, 140--60.

Article 8 - Height and Story Minimums in Business Districts

(Steve Revilak, Redevelopment Board) Mr. Revilak introduces article 8, a proposed Zoning Bylaw Amendment related to Height and Story Minimums in the Business Districts. Article 8 is one of a set of articles intended to encourage the redevelopment of underutilized properties in the Business Districts, and to create more needed and desired commercial space in the few areas of town zoned for Business development.

Article 8's goal is to encourage traditional mixed-use development in the Business districts, with uses like retail or restaurants on the ground floor, and office or residential space above. It's also a way to encourage more efficient use of the limited land resources in Arlington's business districts.

To that end, Article 8 proposes a height minimum of two stories and 26' feet, unless there are site-specific circumstances that would make a second story infeasible. For example, the board would be unlikely to require a second story on a new gasoline service station.

Article 8 would not require the owners of one-story commercial properties to add a second story. The requirement would only apply to new development.

This amendment tries to encourage higher-value mixed-use development in the business districts by requiring a minimum of two stories, unless there are site-specific conditions that would make a second story infeasible. The ARB Voted (4-0) at their October 2nd meeting to Recommend Favorable Action on Article 8.

(Angel Mozina, Precinct 15) Ms. Mozina agrees with the article. She thinks it's prudent to make more efficient use of land, and she fully supports it.

(Al Tosti, Precinct 17) Mr. Tosti moves the question.

Motion to end debate passes, 141--58.

Article 8 passes, 185--23.

Article 9 - Corner Lot Requirements

(Steve Revilak, Arlington Redevelopment Board) Mr. Revilak introduces article 9, a proposed Zoning Bylaw Amendment related to Corner Lot Requirements. Article 9 is one of a set of articles intended to encourage the redevelopment of underutilized properties in the Business Districts, and to create more needed and desired commercial space in the few areas of town zoned for Business development. It also seeks to clarify how the Arlington Redevelopment Board has been interpreting this aspect of the Zoning Bylaw.

Under Arlington's bylaws, corner lots have multiple front yards; there's one front yard for each side of the property that abuts a street. According to section 5.3.8 of our zoning bylaw, the depth of these front yards "shall be the same as the required front yard depths for the adjoining lots". In other words, on a corner lot, the front yard setbacks are determined by what's on the adjacent parcels.

In the vast majority of cases, a corner lot will be in the same district as the parcels that abut it, and section 5.3.8 produces a nice result: an even front setback as you go around the corner. Where this becomes a challenge is in cases where the corner lot is in a different district than the abutting properties -- specifically when the corner lot is in a business district, and the abutting parcels are residential.

A commercial or mixed use building in a business district is generally allowed to have 0' front yard setbacks, but residential parcels typically have setbacks of 20', or 25' feet. Applying residential setbacks to corner lots in business districts would reduce the footprint of the building, and the amount of commercial space available. Article 9 would amend the zoning bylaw so that when a corner lot is in a business district, the business district setbacks apply.

There is a section of the bylaw - Section 5.3.16 - that allows the ARB to adjust setback requirements during Environmental Design review, and Article 9 is largely a codification of how the Board has been applying the bylaw in this regard. The board hopes this leads to more clarity, and more predictability in the permitting process.

This amendment adjusts the setback requirements for corner lots in business districts, so that the setback requirements are based on the business district, rather than abutting parcels which may be in a different district. The ARB Voted (4-0) at their October 2nd meeting to Recommend Favorable Action on Article 9

(Matt Miller, Precinct 11) Mr. Miller has a question about the setbacks. And asks to have the diagram from the presentation slides shown. He asks if someone can walk him through the diagram.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak says the diagram depicts a corner lot in a business district, with residential lots on either side. The slide shows the yard setbacks, which are larger in the residential districts. Mr. Revilak explains how applying the residential setbacks to the corner lot in the business district would reduce the amount of space available for commercial uses.

Mr. Revilak says the diagram is based on a case that came before the redevelopment board earlier in the year. It's more common for corner lots in the business district to be abutted by residential on one side, but the same reasoning still applies.

(John Worden, Precinct 8) Mr. Worden says the problem with this is multi-story buildings. He says that one-story buildings that come up to the sidewalk aren't bad, but multiple stories push height and create shadows. He thinks this article should go back to the board, and they should consider building height. He says this is okay for one story, but not multiple stories.

(Christian Klein, Precinct 10) Mr. Klein asks why the article language includes mention of side yards.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak says it's because the intention is that the side yard requirements of the business district should apply too.

(Peter Gast, Precinct 2) Mr. Gast moves the question.

(Chris Loreti, Point of order) Mr. Loreti believes that Mr. Klein raised a scope question. He asks if the redevelopment board's main motion is within the scope of the warrant article text.

(Eugene Benson, Redevelopment Board) Mr. Benson believes the motion is within scope, because the distinction of side vs front depends on which way the building faces.

(Greg Christiana, Town Moderator) Mr. Christiana asks if Town Counsel has an opinion.

(Mike Cunningham, Town Counsel) Mr. Cunningham says that decision of scope are ultimately up to the moderator, but in his opinion, Article 9 was properly noticed.

(Greg Christiana) Mr. Christiana believes the motion is in scope.

Article passes, 150--49.

Meeting adjourned. We'll pick up with Article 10 on Thursday.