Jan 22

From the Town Administrator's Desk - January 22, 2021

Posted on January 22, 2021 at 5:26 PM by Tiffany Marletta

Budget Work Progressing, Capital a Perennial Challenge
By Gregory T. Federspiel

While bigger headlines both nationally and locally are garnering attention, the work on a proposed budget for the new fiscal year that begins this coming July continues apace.  A preliminary FY22 budget was presented to the Selectmen and the Finance Committee in December. Both are now going through the numbers line by line with the goal of finalizing the proposed budget come early March.  Similarly, the School Committee is working through their proposed FY22 budget for the regional school district.  Voters will have the final say at the Annual Town Meeting (which may have to be delayed again due to COVID.)

The Town’s operating budget is relatively stable and is manageable within the confines of the limits of Proposition 2 ½. The possible exception for a significant change is the future of the Fire Department as we continue to struggle with a much-reduced call fire fighter rooster.  The bigger budget challenges we face come from the School District and our capital needs.

Most of the cost of education is connected to personnel. A typical teacher union contract builds in 3.5% annual increases as staff move up through the step and column system based on years of experience and degrees earned.  Compounding this situation is state aid not keeping pace with these increases causing localities to have to pick up an ever-increasing percentage of the total cost.  The District often gets by for a number of years with asking for an increase on either side of 3% while trimming costs, being creative with staff arrangements and making program cuts when necessary.  We have been in a pattern of doing this for 8-10 years, then having a fairly large override as a revenue correction and repeating. The question arises as to whether there is a better way.

On the capital front, we have significantly boosted the amount we are spending annually on infrastructure projects and other capital needs in the last few years.  We are playing catch-up on a large backlog of deferred maintenance needs.  We are making progress, in part by increasing the amount of an annual capital exclusion vote by the same amount as our excluded debt payments are declining.  While this prevents tax rates from declining, it also prevents the tax rate from increasing as we offset a higher capital exclusion with lower town (non-school) debt exclusion payments. 

The Town’s capital improvement plan calls for expending at least $3 million a year on a cash basis on infrastructure improvements and large equipment replacement needs. The focus is on replacing vehicles on a prescribed schedule, installing new water and sewer pipes, repaving roads and sidewalks, and updating town facilities.  We hold an option on the Cornerstone Church as a possible Senior Center which we envision purchasing using reserve funds and upgrading using donated funds.  Longer term we face the need for large investments as we deal with sea-level rise and the need for major upgrades to our water and sewer plants. If we can hold off for 12 or so years, we will have fully funded our retirement liabilities (pension and health insurance) as well as remaining town debt, freeing up considerable funds for these longer-term needs.

A few of the more note-worthy projects proposed for the FY22 capital budget include matching funds for the rebuilding of the floats at Tuck’s Point, engineering work for a possible new turf field at Sweeney Park, replacing the old water line on lower School Street and funds to begin the design process for a possible new DPW garage at the existing compost site off upper School Street.

The proposed new floats at Tuck’s Point are being designed in anticipation of sea level rise and a renovated Rotunda.  Instead of being held in place by an anchor system, the new floats will be attached to pilings.  These pilings must be sized to handle storm surges and rising sea levels and, similar to the pilings installed at Reed Park, will take a bit of getting used to.  We hope the bulk of the funds needed for the project will come from a state grant.  Community Preservation funds are proposed for our local match. 

Efforts to create more useful sports fields in town continue with the top priority emerging from a recent planning effort that Park and Recreation undertook being the creation of a multi-purpose turf field at Sweeney Park.  Funds for the engineering of the project were taken out of this year’s budget as we worked to reduce expenses due to the pandemic. The funds, 50% from the Community Preservation Fund, and 50% from the general fund are proposed for FY22.

The next major waterline project is the proposed replacement and enlargement of the watermain on School Street that is a mainline to the town system.

One of the Town’s oldest and most tired facility is the DPW garage off Pleasant Street.  A better location for such a facility is the current compost site off Upper School Street.  Funds are being requested to start the feasibility and design process for a possible new garage, freeing up the current location for new uses (cemetery expansion, housing or athletic field.)

Complete budget details are available on the Town’s site.  Your comments are welcomed.

Jan 15

From the Town Administrator's Desk - January 15, 2021

Posted on January 15, 2021 at 1:20 PM by Tiffany Marletta

Proposed 40B Project Review Continues on Multiple fronts
By Gregory T. Federspiel

The Selectmen continue their 40B workshops this Thursday, 1/14, at 6:30PM.  The virtual meeting link can be found in the calendar listing on the Town’s web page.  The workshop will include presentations by the consultants hired by the Town to conduct a review of the traffic study and the fiscal impact study that the developer submitted as part of his original application to the Town for the project.

These efforts are focused on helping the Selectmen determine how they can best respond to the developer’s request to negotiate mitigating measures to the project in exchange for allowing the project to then go before the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) where the formal hearings take place to determine if a comprehensive permit should be issued.  The developer could bypass the Selectmen and ask the state to allow the project to go before the ZBA. Given an opportunity to work on ways to help the project be less impactful on the community, it makes sense for the Selectmen to engage at this preliminary level to see what mitigating measures might be possible if the project ultimately goes forward.  Agreeing to mitigation measures does not mean the project is approved. 

Since the submittal of the proposed project this past September, the Selectmen have been familiarizing themselves with the details of the project to the extent that the developer has them, listening to public comments about the project, and developing a list of concerns and possible measures to address them. Whether or not the Selectmen will be able to come to agreement with the developer on mitigation measures remains to be seen.  Regardless, it is the ZBA who has the responsibility to issue a comprehensive permit or not. Ultimately the state’s Housing Appeal Commission has the final say if the project will go forward (unless further appeals are made in the courts.)    

The review of the traffic study found that the analysis that the developer’s traffic engineer conducted was reasonable and depicts the likely impacts of the project.  While additional concerns were not raised regarding the impact on various intersections in town given that peak hour traffic increases only by 2%, our consultant noted that the access to the proposed new apartment complex does not meet typical standards required for such a large number of dwelling units and raises public safety concerns.

The new 157-unit complex proposes only the one access road that dead ends at the new apartment building, about a third of a mile in from Upper School Street.  Typical subdivision standards, including Manchester’s, calls for cul-de-sacs to be no more than 500 feet long unless special circumstances dictate otherwise.  Our regulations go on to state that a second access/egress route be provided when more than 10 dwelling units are involved.  Maximum grades are set at 6% whereas the proposed project has grades over 7%.  And the width of roads serving over 120 units are supposed to be 34 feet wide, plus a sidewalk, not the 22 to 24 feet widths the developer proposes. The peer review report recommends that as many of these issues as possible be addressed.  As with other local regulations, 40B projects are not required to adhere to all our standards here. 

Additional suggestions are raised in the report, including possibly eliminating the median strip on the access road for improved safety, better spacing of the parking in the underground garage to avoid conflicts with various structural elements, and establishing a shuttle service between the complex and our core village area. 

The review of the fiscal impact study found that the developer’s lower end of the range for the net positive fiscal impact on the town was reasonable.  Our peer reviewer felt that the number of students the project would add to the School District would be a bit higher but he felt that the cost per student used by the developer’s consultant was overstated as it included many fixed costs the District has regardless of the number of students enrolled.  The bottom-line annual net positive fiscal impact to the town was within a few hundred dollars between the two different approaches.  The estimated expenses can easily change depending on the actual number of new students the project brings to town, but our reviewer felt that a reasonable expectation is for the project to raise around $132,000 in net revenues annually.  This figure drops to $103,000 if the project is reduced to 120 units per calculations done by our peer reviewer.

Environmental impacts are a third major area of concern.  The project will need to obtain many permits including those related to wetland impacts, stormwater runoff, on-site wastewater disposal, and possibly protection of critical wildlife habitat. Our Conservation Commission is working with a wetland specialist in reviewing the proposed delineation of wetland resources on the property.  Confirmation of wetlands and the presence of critical habitat may have to wait until the spring when additional studies can be conducted.  At a minimum, the Selectmen will be insisting that the project complies with all applicable environmental standards and that no net impacts extend beyond the boundaries of the property.  

Jan 08

From the Town Administrator's Desk - January 8, 2021

Posted on January 8, 2021 at 1:32 PM by Tiffany Marletta

Future Development Options in the Limited Commercial District
By Gregory T. Federspiel

Lands to the north of Route 128 both at Exit 15 and 16 currently fall within the Limited Commercial District zoning designation.  Through the master planning process, the LCD was identified as an area of potential development as long as high standards for protecting the environmental attributes of the area were upheld.  Part of the rationale for looking into expanded development in this part of town is to grow the town’s commercial tax base and thus add to town revenues.

The LCD, as the name implies, limits the type and density of development in the area.  Currently the minimum lot size is 5 acres, the largest in town, and only one use is allowed per lot.  Allowed uses are limited to offices, recreational clubs/facilities, municipal uses and solar arrays.  Marijuana facilities and scientific research facilities are possible through a special permitting process.

A total of some 760 acres comprise the LCD.  About 60% of this land is permanently protected from development.  40 acres are developed leaving 278 acres as potentially developable.  Four landowners account for nearly all of this undeveloped, unprotected land – Gordon College at 147 acres, the MAC at 40 acres, the Town also at 40 acres and the Brown Family Trust, the site of the potential 40B project, at 23 acres.

Assuming taxes collected on commercial space averages $2.00 square foot and that a 20,000 square foot building is built per acre (a 2 story structure with a 10,000 sq. ft. footprint) each acre developed could generate $40,000.  Thus, at this relatively low density (under 25% lot coverage), some 25 acres of new development would generate $1,000,000 in new tax revenue.  For comparison,  a 1% tax hike generates some $260,000 in new revenue.  If  50 acres are developed out of the 278 undeveloped acres (18%), then $2 million in new tax revenue is generated annually. 

Of course, it is not all about the money – town character and environmental protection are high priorities for the town.  Thus, voters may prefer to continue with our trend of annual tax increases in the 2.5% range with occasional overrides and debt exclusions rather than seek new commercial development.

We have a number of options for the LCD.  We can decide to keep things as they are and not have much development in this part of town.  We can decide to add additional flexibility to the existing District, tweaking the current bylaws to allow for more uses and some additional density.  A third choice is to pursue a Smart Growth Overlay district, or “40R” zoning district.  Other options are possible as well.

The 40R option is what was recommended by the Master Plan and what is currently being studied at the request of the Planning Board through a grant the Town received from the state.   Presentations on the  options for the LCD will be made to the Planning Board Monday evening, 1/11 and to the general public on Tuesday evening, 1/12. Background information can be found on the Town’s web site. 

The interest in the 40R approach pre-dates the 40B proposal that has since been presented to the Town.  For some, the 40B proposal is a higher priority to deal with and it may change how receptive the Town is to the 40R approach.  40R overlay districts are designed to be a combination of housing and commercial uses.  One of the larger landowners in the LCD has expressed a desire to develop a continuing care facility for seniors in the LCD and preferred using the 40R approach to accomplish his goals.  In this case the housing element can satisfy the housing requirements of 40R without adding to our student population.  Alternatively, revising the current language of the LCD without moving to the 40R approach might accommodate such a plan as well.     

During next week presentations, a brief overview of the LCD as it currently stands will be given and different options for pursuing additional development in the district will be summarized.  The focus of the presentation will be on what new mixed use development at this location could be like, including what uses, density, design and environmental standards could be required. The public input gathered at these presentations will help guide future decision making of the Planning Board and other boards and committees in town regarding the best approaches we should take for guiding future development in the LCD.  Voters ultimately have the final say as any zoning changes require a 2/3rds majority vote at a Town Meeting.