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Lions & tigers & new houses, oh my!

Again with the Soap Box: Welcome to Town Meeting

“What’s that?” you say. “I always go to town meeting. I’ve been going for twenty years!”

“Well,” says me (admittedly an on & off attender over the past decade or so), “Then you will remember that back in 2009, we wholeheartedly adopted a Master Plan, and all this zoning stuff that you are screaming about on social media was laid out, with a timeframe, in said Plan.” Yes, loud talkers, you voted for this, and apparently you did not burst into flames.

Just as March Madness culminates with the NCAA championship game, many residents will be gathering at the high school for our own annual slug fest, which if local Facebook chatter is any indication, could prove to be a screamer. Newcomers, please be advised that if you show up ready for action, or battle, or some sort of actual excitement, you will soon find that the slug in this fest denotes the speed in which the proceedings actually proceed. For the uninitiated, watching paint dry may be less tedious than this exercise in local law making. But hopefully you’ll adjust. Bring knitting; bring crossword puzzles. Snacks are treated as contraband, but may be worth the risk, to avoid a comatose state.

Let’s review. As a bleary-eyed mother of young children, I first became fascinated with town meeting by watching it on local cable in the late ‘80s. I had moved here from DC, so I was familiar with the slow grinding of government, but this? People get to write their own laws, and attempt to pass them in the school gym?! Are you kidding me? It was riveting, and amazing (compared to vomit, diapers, and vacuuming).

When I finally managed to extricate myself from the house, years later, Town Meeting was a wonderful, annual break from domestic life, and a great place to make sweaters. Eventually, when I really got out of the house with a full time position as a newspaper reporter, it was my job to be there, my notepad replacing my knitting. Territorial by nature, I staked out a claim in a certain section of the auditorium where I felt relatively safe (I realized the closer I was to the video camera, the more likely it would shoot over my head, leaving me out of the picture), and since a lot of town meeting people like to sit in the same seats year after year, we established a little crew, famous for our extra loud “NO” votes. We were feisty for sure.

After my newspaper career crumbled with the demise of our plucky little weekly, I spent a while employed by the planning office, becoming intimately acquainted with the zoning bylaw, and how land use functions on Nantucket. I’m grateful for the education, but fate ended my career as a town employee. I wasn’t really cut out for it anyway, and retreated to care for my family, after a traumatic event changed the course of all of our lives. But I did work part-time preparing permits for an architectural designer, so I was still a familiar face at various town departments. And I still attended town meeting, but not as regularly as in the past.

In 2008, when the bottom fell out of the economy, permitting work dried up, but I got a call from our planning director, asking if I would help as a writing consultant to the town’s Master Plan. Since my other part time job was gardening, I jumped at the chance to have something to do for the winter, not really knowing exactly what I was getting myself into. Suffice it to say that about 18 months, and endless hearings and reviews later, I was familiar with every letter, chart, illustration, and punctuation mark in that 106-page document. I was also present at the 2009 Town Meeting, at which it was adopted without dissent, as Article 26.

And guess what? A large part of what was described in that plan was a series of changes in the zoning bylaw, to realistically manage the inevitable growth that was, and is, happening on the island. The Master Plan tells the story of the TOD and the COD, the former being the Town Overlay District, and the latter, the Country Overlay District. In a nutshell, the Master Plan organizes land use patterns on Nantucket in a reasonable, thoughtful manner, rather than letting the chips fall as they may, with a commercial sand pit in the middle of a residential neighborhood, or an affordable housing subdivision placed out in the moors, away from services like town water, sewer, and public transportation.

Over the years since the Plan was adopted, as per the implementation chapter (nine), zoning changes have been brought to Town Meeting floor, and much has been accomplished. In outer areas, many lots were rezoned to LUG-3, the largest lot size designation, at about three acres, which reduced the possibility for subdivision, thus more houses in expansive, rural areas. Currently, about 68% percent of land that is not designated as conservation is zoned LUG-3, the largest zoning district on the island. Many of the zoning changes over the past few years have removed potential dwelling units from Nantucket, within the COD and the TOD as well, mainly to preserve water resources under the Comprehensive Water Management Plan (CWMP; yes, there’s a plan for everything out here!). By 2012, the shifts in zoning, which also added potential dwelling units in appropriate areas, resulted in a net loss of 730 possible homes.

But housing for year ‘round residents, and seasonal workers, whether you want to admit it or not, is a massive problem out here which needs to be addressed, and the lack thereof identified in the housing chapter of the plan has not changed much since it was written. In fact, with our economy booming, jobs have attracted workers to the island, even though they have a terrible time finding a place to live. But there are areas where zoning changes are designed to allow potential housing targeted at the non-vacation community (that’s us). If you look at the implementation schedule in chapter nine, you will see that 2015 is a big year for this, and thus, the screaming has begun, because on Nantucket, CHANGE IS VERY, VERY BAD AND SCARY! WE LIKE THINGS THE WAY THEY ARE! NO MORE PEOPLE! RAISE THE DRAWBRIDGE! SAVE THE SCALLOPS! ERECT ELECTRIFIED FENCES!

Believe me, I am all for saving the scallops (I spend a great deal of time opening them, after all), and the environment is one of the top three issues on my “Concerns for Nantucket List,” along with housing and mental health. But voting against potential increased density in appropriate areas will not save the scallops. We have done, and continue to do, an excellent job preserving open space on Nantucket. People are happy to contribute dollars to open space. But somehow, they are not happy to contribute dollars to help the year ‘round, working community of the island to live in safe, affordable conditions, so in large part, it’s up to private developers to fill that need. When the economy bounced back, and property values recovered after 2008, many rental homes were sold (“Let’s get it while we can!”) or became winter/summer rentals rather than year ‘round. Families were forced off island, or into cramped basements, and the “Shuffle” each spring and fall has reached epic, highly stressful proportions. Yes, we can’t all afford to live on Nantucket, but can we afford to depend on a workforce that commutes from the Cape on a daily basis? I doubt it. If you think it sucks when the boat doesn’t run in the winter, and we’re out of milk and bread, imagine how you’ll feel when there’s no one at the checkout counter to sell it to you.

So here’s the deal. Many of the zoning changes proposed at next week’s Town Meeting are designed to address this issue. Families with larger lots that get re-zoned for increased density may or may not choose to subdivide, but they will have options. My lot in Surfside underwent such a zoning change, after two separate rounds at town meeting. I now have the ability to divide my big lot into two smaller ones, and leave one to each son. My property value increased! Yay for me! The guy next door immediately carved his up and built vacation homes. I’m not cheering for that, but it’s his right, and must be respected. Most of the lots in the neighborhood were smaller than ours, and grandfathered as such. Going down to one-acre zoning actually made the big lots conform to existing conditions, and I’m okay with that.

There are some similar articles up for a vote this year, as well as changes in other neighborhoods.  Many of the possible density increases even come with a caveat of extra control (bonus!), such as in areas that will change to R-5L and R-10L. The L stands for Limited; in these areas, by-right duplexes, and tertiary dwellings (if approved; I like to think of them as “tri-dary," as opposed to secondary) will not be allowed, as well as some commercial uses, plus secondary dwelling will require special permits.

In the land use chapter of the Master Plan, commercial nodes for village centers were designated, around existing commercial areas, like on Old South Road. The development of these properties is already allowed by law, and the zoning changes for proposed development are not designed to attract new people to Nantucket (NO MORE PEOPLE!); they are written to help the people who are already here, gainfully employed, but struggling to find space to live. In my humble (yet maybe unpopular) opinion, it is heartless and arrogant to say no, just because some of us have already found our place here. Change and growth are a part of life, and have been since the beginning of time. These articles were not dreamed up in November, fueled by greed. They were carefully written to deal with the issues laid out in our Master Plan, which addresses not only land use and housing, but economics, transportation, recreation, natural and cultural resources, and infrastructure as well. All of these things come into play when it comes to zoning.

The Master Plan was not created in a vacuum. It was the subject of a lot of debate, expert review, and community input. So were these articles (just ask any Planning Board member), and so are all the permits that come before town boards for approval. This is a public process, and it is great to see public involvement and concern, but before you start screaming “NO!” (like I said, our section is very good at a loud “NO”), think about your own motivation, which at this point, looks suspiciously like greed to me, or pure, uninformed, reaction. It’s good to ask questions, but useless if you already think you know the answers. Nantucket can pretend that it has somehow stopped time, with its unparalleled success in preservation, but the change and growth of this community is just as dynamic and inevitable as the sand and tides that reshape the island, season after season. We need to manage and respond to growth, not label things “Scary” or “Bad For the Environment,” slamming the door on reality, and burying our heads in beach sand. It will erode away in time, and then where will we be?

Enjoy Town Meeting, if you can sit still for that long. It’s an educational process, valuable, and worth preserving, for islanders, rare birds, and spring peepers, if they decide to chime in on schedule (just listen in the NHS parking lot; their voices are always a treat).