Charlestown Planning Commission’s Proposed Amendments to Residential Development Ordinance Draw Controversy;
Public Comment and Discussion to Continue Thursday Night
Monday night’s Town Council meeting drew about 80 members of the public concerned about proposed amendments to a Zoning ordinance regarding residential development. Ordinance 397, which seeks to amend part of the town’s zoning ordinances, was presented by members of the Planning Commission and others before the Council and the public.
The proposed amendments would grant new, far-reaching, vaguely defined powers to the Planning Commission to regulate the development of residential land in Charlestown.
Changing the title of a zoning section from “Residential Cluster Subdivision” to “Residential Conservation Development,” the Planning Commission proposes to set broad restrictions subject to the “discretion” and “satisfaction of the Planning Commission” for residential development that, according to them, would “serve the best interests of the town.” Among the restrictions are new minimum lot sizes and new rules about how lots may now be subdivided. In certain zones, any development modifications to a lot area, lot shape or other dimensions would have to be approved by the Planning Commission under these
A controversial restriction would force a property owner looking to develop land in certain districts to give up 50% to 70% of their developable land to open space — an increase from the current 40%. This land would be owned by one of four entities:
The Town of Charlestown,
A conservation nonprofit,
A trust or corporation comprised of lot owners (with the property owner required to establish this trust as well as a homeowners’ association, with mandatory membership), or
The owner/developer, as long as they limited the land use to agriculture, habitat or forestry.
If the property owner chose not to convey this portion of their land to the Town, a
conservation easement or “restriction enforceable by the town” would be imposed, in which the property owner / development applicant would pledge the land be kept in open space.
In addition, the amendments would grant the Planning Commission the right to “approve, modify or reject the proposed form of ownership” of this forfeited land, and allow the Planning Commission to “limit or restrict the amount of open space that may remain in private ownership where necessary to contribute to a connecting greenway system or to provide public access to open space.”
Only single-family homes (no duplexes or apartment houses) would be permitted on this developed land.
Read the full amendment starting on page 419 of the agenda packet of Monday’s meeting.
Public comment included environmental leaders praising the proposed amendments as necessary to protect groundwater threatened by increased property development. Arthur Gantz, president of the Salt Ponds Coalition, said that the proposed amendments would protect groundwater and reduce runoff from deforested areas and paved roads.
Dave Prescott, the South County Coastkeeper for Save the Bay, said that the proposal’s decrease of impervious ground surfaces (such as driveways and other paved surfaces) will benefit our drinking water, and that restrictions would generally support healthy coastal inland habitats.
Property owners, while acknowledging environmental benefits, were concerned that the amendments would give the Planning Commission unbridled authority to diminish the rights of property owners.
William Coulter, who owns a 150-acre parcel of land in Charlestown, said it "would tie people’s hands” on decisions about the size of property residents could live on, noting that
proposed rules limiting homes on 20,000-square-foot lots was unacceptable.
Planning Commission member Ruth Platner countered that 20,000 square feet is the minimum proposed size, and that a property owner “can still do 40,000 square-foot lots… it’s just a different kind of cluster… it doesn’t slow growth but it does reduce impacts. It helps lessen negative impacts of subdivision.”
Resident Steven Stokes pointed out that although density wouldn’t change, the proposal would reduce a property owner’s living space and constrain choice on modifications like tree
placement and house orientation. He noted that the proposed amendments would give the Planning Commission unprecedented and broad authority, with “too much left to whim.”
Resident James Mageau asked whether homeowners would be compensated for the “taking” of their land for conservation easement. Frances Topping of the Planning Commission answered that the land would “ belong to the homeowners who live in that
development.” Mageau countered, “It’s a taking, and it’s illegal.”
As heated public comment continued past 10 pm, the Council voted to suspend discussion of the topic for the night and continue it this Thursday, July 14, at 7 pm at Town Hall.