The Citizen’s Petition to Amend the Duplex Bylaw

In its February 5 2019 meeting, the Planning Board considered whether to propose an amendment to zoning bylaw Section 7-06-030(J), paragraph (5), relating to two-family dwellings in the Residential C (RC) zoning district. The proposed change was to delete a waiver clause that followed a table specifying minimum lot frontage and minimum lot width in RC to be 150 feet:

The Planning Board may approve a waiver to reduce the minimum lot frontage and minimum lot width to 100 feet by special permit upon a determination that it would not be detrimental to the neighborhood, would be appropriate with respect to the surrounding properties and activities, and would not disturb any consistency of the neighborhood.

The Planning Board members engaged in a lengthy discussion and expressed mixed opinions and uncertainty about whether the effect of the change was truly an improvement. By a 2-3 vote, the Board declined to bring that proposal forward to Town Meeting.

And that was that.

**

That was not that.

Shortly after, a Citizen Petition warrant article for Town Meeting was submitted. It proposed to delete the waiver text and make additional changes to impose further restrictions on duplexes; in other words, the petition proposed a more complex amendment than the one the Planning Board had considered earlier but failed to advance.

As required, the Planning Board held a public hearing on April 9 2019 to receive public input about the petition, in order to formulate the Board’s recommendation to be offered at Town Meeting. At that hearing:

  • Due to a family emergency, the petitioner was unavoidably absent from the hearing. (Lest anyone suggest otherwise: I do not fault the petitioner for that, and do not suggest the petitioner should have acted differently.)
  • No other person appeared at the hearing to stand in the petitioner’s place, present the proposed amendment, and answer questions about it.
  • The petitioner had submitted a written statement in support of the proposed amendment, which was read aloud. Portions of that statement were unclear to Planning Board members and Planning staff, and could not be clarified because of the lack of a petition sponsor at the hearing to answer those questions.
  • The Town Planner, by her comments, sought to discourage the Planning Board from recommending approval of the petition.
  • The Zoning Enforcement Officer, by his comments, sought to discourage the Planning Board from recommending approval of the petition.
  • The petition carried twenty signatures of citizens in support of it. None of them appeared at the hearing to speak in favor of it.
  • I was present at the hearing and I urged the Planning Board not to recommend approval. I did not speak to the specifics of the petition’s proposal, but instead argued that zoning is a complex matter, the issue of duplexes has been controversial, and any proposed bylaw amendments concerning duplexes ought to emerge from careful consideration by the Town-elected representatives invested with authority over zoning — the Planning Board members — and not from a citizen’s petition.
  • Nevertheless, the Planning Board, by a weak 3-2 majority, voted to recommend approval of the petition at Town Meeting. The two longest tenured and most experienced Board members were the two opposing votes.

At Town Meeting, I spoke in opposition to the petition. I recounted the circumstances of the April 9 public hearing, suggested the petition should be defeated, and recommended that the Planning Board reexamine the issue and consider whether to bring forward a bylaw amendment, with a stronger recommendation, the following year.

After discussion concluded, the vote was taken: 83 in favor, 66 opposed.

That’s a simple majority in favor.

But a zoning bylaw amendment requires a 2/3 majority — 66.66666…% — and the YES votes fell short, at 83/149 = 55.7%.

So the article did not pass. But it was close.

**

Was it close?

How many more votes are needed to pass the article?

Remember the twenty signers of the petition, none of whom had appeared at the Planning Board’s public hearing on April 9?

On this night of Town Meeting, just four were present to support the article with their vote.

What if the sixteen absent petition signers had attended Town Meeting and voted YES? That’s 16 more YES votes…but also 16 more voters. 99/165 = 60.0%. Still fails.

What if the sixteen absentees had attended — and each had brought a friend — and they all had voted YES? 32 more YES votes, 32 more voters. 115/181 = 63.5%. Still fails.

What if the sixteen absentees had attended — and each had brought, not one, but two friends — and they all had voted YES? 48 more YES votes, 48 more voters. 131/197 = 66.5%.

As close as that looks — 66.5% — it’s still on the wrong side of 2/3. Still fails. By one vote.

From the original tally of 83 YES, 66 NO, 49 more voters, all YES, are needed to reach a 2/3 majority — 132/198 is 2/3 exactly — and pass the article.

49 more voters is a 1/3 increase over the original number of 149 total voters.

49 more YES votes is more than half the original number of 83 YES votes.

Was it close? No. It wasn’t even close to close.

**

The Planning Board has reexamined the issue, and this year is bringing forward the bylaw amendment it considered but declined to bring forward last year. The amendment simply deletes the waiver clause, and omits the other changes proposed by last year’s citizen petition.