Twilight Zoning: By-Laws In Dracut

Philippe Thibault, 6-23

You can hear the iconic music all ready, can’t you: dee, dee, DEE, dee. Such is life in a small bucolic hamlet in northeastern Massachusetts, but appearances can be deceiving when the light is dim. A dim light from the twilight zone. Let us cast a brighter light on the zoning bylaw review by this municipality.

The story started back in 1985 when the current zoning bylaws were adopted at town meeting. There have been many amendments and redactions to the bylaws in the past nearly four decades. Unlike parrots, zoning bylaws are not meant to be generational pets. July 2019, Dracut was amid updating its Master Plan, a report that deals with community development.

A consistent theme being heard by the Master Plan Committee was the need for zoning bylaw reform. So much so the Chair of the Master Plan Committee went to the town manager, Jim Duggan at that time, and discussed starting a zoning bylaw review committee prior to the completion of the Master Plan. The Master Plan nearly complete at that time could blend seamlessly into bylaw review and not lose momentum. The cynical senior selectman insisted there was an “angle” to the request, and the project was scuttled.

Selectman Forcier was next to bring up zoning bylaw reform. This was several months after the initial denial by his colleague. Mr. Forcier’s involvement on the Master Plan Committee, although he only attended the first meeting of the thirty-month commitment, was perhaps the impetus for the motion. A Zoning Bylaw Review (ZBR) Committee was formed by the Selectmen with Mr. Forcier being the Selectmen representative. Other members were recruited, two members from the zoning board of appeal, two members from the planning board.

The next members are curious since members of the conservation commission and board of health already work under the purview of their own regulations, none of which are pertinent to zoning. Mr. Forcier wanted the process to be speedy with an eighteen-month goal to finalize and adopt the new zoning bylaws, this is a process that typically is accomplished in thirty to thirty-six months when organized properly. Public input would need to be discarded to keep the artificially aggressive schedule.

Mr. Forcier would end up leaving Dracut well short of his ambitions. Ms. Heather Santiago-Hutchings would garner his vacated membership on the ZBR Committee. She is a knowledgeable candidate having served on the Zoning Board of Appeals for several years. Requests were still being made to put at least one member of the public as a member at large for the ZBR Committee. Heather assumed that charge with the selectmen. Informing the board that the member of the Board of Health was consistently absent and when asked about their commitment to the zoning review, the Board of Health stated there would be none. The members were already stressed for time with their schedules. Heather made the pitch for a member of the Master Plan Committee with much of the zoning review making reference to the newly adopted Master Plan.

A majority of the Board of Selectmen were opposed to appointing a Master Plan Committee member. There were people on the Master Plan Committee that some selectmen did not want on the ZBR Committee, or any committee for that matter. A compromise was crafted to have one member at large and two alternate members at large to round out the ZBR Committee.

A call went out for applications for the three new positions and true to form in Dracut, there were fits and starts. Interviews were arranged and then cancelled. Could it be those making the arrangements and final approvals did not like who were applying? Did they, like the Grinch, need to find a way to “stop it from coming.”

The Town Manager at this junction stated she was contemplating dissolving the ZBR Committee and handing the task solely to the Planning Board. I should stop to let you catch your breath on this rollercoaster ride because here comes a big dip. The Town Manager threatens to dissolve a committee that she did not convene.

Moreover, the ZBR Committee was established by the Board of Selectmen who have no authority over zoning bylaws. This oversight belongs to the Planning Board as does the Master Plan. The Chair and Vice Chair of the ZBR Committee appeared at the next Selectmen meeting to plead the case of steering the course and continuing with the process that started some eighteen months prior, already behind an aggressive schedule set by the Selectmen.

The interviews were set and held for the new ZBR members, and the choices were unanimous to recommend the Chair of the Master Plan Committee, with experience on the Planning Board and regional planning. This was the choice the Selectmen Gang of Three did not desire. The ZBR Committee’s recommendation was summarily dismissed. A call went out for other applicants.

Mr. Warren Shaw, who stepped out of politics nearly two decades ago was disturbed by the events surrounding the attempts to scuttle the process, applied for the position. With grumblings from the Gang, he was appointed.

Over the next four months the ZBR Committee labored at the revisions aided by the Community Development Director and a zoning consultant. With Town Meeting nearing, the Planning Board and Board of Selectmen meet to review the works to make recommendations for Town Meeting. The Planning Board held its hearing and voted to recommend the seventeen warrant articles. The response was from this executive board was doe-eyed confusion. Mind you, this is an ad hoc committee assembled by the Selectmen and overseen by the Chair. The same Selectman who stifled Heather’s attempts to strengthen the ZBR Committee by replacing habitually absent members with one from the Master Plan Committee and members at large.

Chair Genest now has inserted herself into a process while being devoid of any zoning or planning knowledge or experience. She has replaced Selectman Heather Santiago Hutchings as the Selectmen representative with herself. If you did not think it ran well before, just wait until Genest gets to the helm.

Although a call for public input, comments and visioning sessions have suddenly become fashionable. There are several old adages that come to mind that are all appropriate. “There is never time to do it right, but always time to do it over,” may be the most appropriate. I am not sure where this all ends. The Board of Selectmen, and Chair Genest in particular, will claim saving the ZBR Committee and Dracut from a catastrophe.

The ZBR Committee will now exist with nearly half of the members without experience in town planning or zoning bylaws. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” ◊