Heather Santiago-Hutchings Zoned Out in Dracut ~EYE ON DRACUT

By: Brian Genest – 6-23


What was Selectman Heather Santiago-Hutchings thinking? For a year, she’s been a member of the Zoning Bylaw Review committee, which is in the process of trying to overhaul the town’s zoning bylaws for the first time since the 1980s.

She’s been present, at least physically, but you have to wonder where her mind has been when it comes to informing the community about the proposed changes, which are wide ranging and significant.

Those zoning bylaw changes were supposed to come before town meeting for consideration in June, but the Board of Selectmen and residents were so blindsided and concerned by the number, scope and potential impact of the proposed changes and lack of communication about them, they have been pushed forward to a future town meeting.

Heather Santiago-Hutchings had just one task to perform as the selectmen’s representative on that committee: report to the board and townspeople about the zoning changes. She failed.

Not once in the last year did Heather Santiago-Hutchings let her colleagues, or the taxpayers know what was going on. Not once did she mention a single item of substance about the changes when asked for subcommittee reports at selectmen’s meetings month after month.

Not once did she give the heads-up that the changes included removing the need for special permits in some cases, changing some zones, and changing the permitted uses in some zones. Talk about zoning out!

When the Board of Selectmen began reviewing and discussing the proposed changes at their meeting in May, it was like Heather Santiago-Hutchings had never heard about any of them. At one point in the discussion, Town Manager Ann Vandal asked her for clarification, “Heather, are you on the Zoning Bylaw Review Committee?” She was, and she should have known at least something about them.

But Heather-Santiago Hutchings hasn’t been focused on policy, she’s been focused on politics. If you remember, she spent a considerable amount of time and effort in recent months trying to change the makeup of the committee and get one of her buddies appointed. She failed on that mission, too, while wasting plenty of the board’s valuable time. Selectmen talked about the issue at five meetings in the fall last year. Everyone’s time would have been better spent if Heather-Santiago Hutchings had let them know what the bylaw changes entailed instead.

In case you missed it, last September, Heather Santiago-Hutchings brought forward a proposal to remove the Board of Health member from the Zoning Bylaw Review Committee and replace them with a member of the now-defunct Master Planning Committee. At that time, Community Development Director Alison Manugian told selectmen that Health Inspector Dave Ouellette had talked to the three members of the Board of Health and they were unable to serve on the committee.

The board delayed the proposal so they could check with the long-serving Board of Health members about their availability and interest.

“These members have been serving the town for many, many, many years,” Selectman Joe DiRocco said. “If for some reason they can’t do it, you know, we appoint, so I don’t know why we wouldn’t have them come in and tell us they can’t do it for whatever reason. I don’t like to hear it from someone else that they can’t. I would rather hear it from them, seeing we appoint them.”

DiRocco also suggested that an at-large member would be more appropriate than a member of a dissolved committee.

“Is there someone on the Master Planning Committee that you don’t want? Is that what’s happening here?,” Heather Santiago-Hutchings asked.

“It sounds like there’s somebody on it that you want,” DiRocco answered. He answered correctly. Spoiler alert: That somebody was Dracut’s most-rejected perennial candidate Phil Thibault, her pal who has lost nine town elections.

“It seems like there’s people on the Master Planning Committee you don’t want in this spot,” Heather Santiago-Hutchings repeated again later in the discussion. “Alison’s already confirmed she’s reached out to the three people, so it’s almost like you think I’m lying, or Alison is lying.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” DiRocco responded. “We appoint them. I think we have the right to talk with them. I don’t like someone else making a decision for me.”

When selectmen picked up the discussion at their next meeting later that month, however, DiRocco did question whether board members had been told the truth.
“I have to say, the information we were given was not accurate. Members (of the Board of Health) told me they were never asked,” DiRocco said. “We were told that they were. That was not accurate.”

Town Manager Ann Vandal said she met with the three members of the Board of Health, and one had committed to serving on the committee.

As a result of the board’s discussion, Heather Santiago-Hutchings changed her proposal twice before the vote was taken. First, she wanted to keep the voting membership the same and add two non-voting alternate members to the Zoning Bylaw Review Committee from the Master Planning Committee, which Vandal reminded her had been officially disbanded. Once the board majority indicated they weren’t in favor of that idea and instead suggested making the alternates at-large members, she revised it, again.

In December, Heather Santiago-Hutchings put an item on the board’s agenda to change the makeup of the Zoning Bylaw Review Committee, again. Her story was the same, again: no members of the Board of Health were able to participate. This time, she made the motion to remove the Board of Health member and add an at-large member, which passed 4 to 1 with DiRocco opposed.

The next item on the agenda that evening, of course, was Phil Thibault requesting appointment to the at-large seat on the Zoning Bylaw Review Committee, which had been created a moment earlier. Thibault was rejected for the position, however, with the board majority citing conflict of interest, as Thibault is an architect who conducts business in town with contractors and others governed by the zoning bylaws.

It was Thibault’s own words that torpedoed him. In 2016, Thibault resigned from the Planning Board after talking with the state’s Ethics Commissions and then he went on Warren Shaw’s AM radio program to talk about it. Shaw’s sidekick Shawn Ashe posted the audio recording on his Dracut Forum blog, so you can hear all the details for yourself. (HERE)

It’s a shame Heather Santiago-Hutchings didn’t spend her time focused on the right thing. The Board of Selectmen deserved better from their colleague. The taxpayers deserved better from their elected official. Heather-Santiago Hutchings didn’t just drop the ball when it comes to the zoning bylaw changes, she wasn’t even on the playing field.

— Brian Genest is the producer and host of Eye On Dracut, winner of the Hometown Media Award for News, sponsored by Lucky Oil. ◊