Friday, December 22, 2006
A look at the Zoning Board of Appeals
[The following is the first in an occasional series of articles describing many of the town's boards and committees. The series, along with "Know Your Town" compiled in 2000 by Verna Gilbert, will be available on the web site at www.carlislemosquito.org. ] Want to build a new barn in your backyard five feet from the property line, or perhaps run a little craft store from your living room? Because zoning bylaws regulate Carlisle's business and residential districts — including building location, dimensions and uses — for projects such as these, you may find yourself coming before the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA.)
The Carlisle ZBA was established at a Town Meeting in 1937, and the following duties have endured through the decades: to hear and decide appeals by persons unable to obtain a permit under the Zoning bylaws; to hear requests for variances; and to handle applications for permits for removal of earth material.
Over the years, matters before the ZBA have grown increasingly more complex and demanding, namely the advent of cell tower proposals and 40B comprehensive permits. Under state statute Chapter 40B, housing developers bypass local zoning restrictions and instead file a comprehensive permit request with the ZBA as long as 25% of the units created are "affordable."
Town residents are appointed to the ZBA by the Board of Selectmen, typically for three-year terms. ZBA members volunteer their time to the town in addition to having other responsibilities such as full-time day jobs. The board meets once or twice a month, depending on pending applications.
Presently, the Coventry Woods 40B affordable housing development hearing, which has been open for over a year, is being heard by the ZBA and is expected to close for deliberation within the next several weeks. This particular affordable housing development, the largest in Carlisle's history, has generated controversy with its many complex dimensions, namely its size — 41 town homes with 12 units designated as "affordable,"— built on roughly 23 acres off of Concord Street — as well as the way in which it can potentially impact the water supply in the area.
Reorganization splits duties
The board consists of three full members and up to four associate members. Because of the increasing workload over the last few years, the ZBA recently underwent a reorganization of sorts: they decided to keep the number of full members at three, but added one associate position (currently vacant.) It was hoped this would provide a larger pool of people from which to pull in the event one of the regular members has to miss a meeting. Last June when some terms were up for reappointment, the affordable housing 40B project, "Coventry Woods" was well underway, so the board decided not to change the roles of any current members, but instead to split the workload and create two ZBA boards: a Coventry Woods 40B group chaired by Cindy Nock; and one for other types of application hearings, chaired by Ed Rolfe.
Rolf explains how associates help with voting: "If a regular full member is not in attendence, an associate member may be appointed by the chair to sit as a full member for the purposes of the hearing." He added, "We report all votes of the entire board in our minutes and written decision, but only the full (sitting) members sign the decision."
The current ZBA — members Cindy Nock, Ed Rolfe, Steve Kirk and associates Steve Hinton, Shann Kerner and Emmanuel Crespo — is a diverse group united together by the common goal: giving back to the town they love.
Cindy Nock, who is in her third house in town, has made Carlisle her home for 25 years. She raised two children here and has been involved with various committees in town, including the School Committee for six years. While constituents thought she was jumping from the proverbial frying pan of the School Committee into the fire of the ZBA, Nock maintains that she wants to continue her involvement in Carlisle because she has an interest in maintaining its small town feel. "In our small town, while you try to preserve what you have, you also want to preserve the people in town — the diversity and type."
Long time resident and former board member, Hal Sauer, had a hand in Ed Rolfe's and Steve Kirk's involvement with the board. "One day, I was at the Transfer Station and Hal Sauer simply asked me if I would consider joining." Rolfe, who has lived in Carlisle since 1999, recounted how he first became involved with the ZBA: "I think it would be fair to say that the Board and I were already well acquainted with each other, having spent the better part of what seemed like several years together on opposite sides of the bench [as an abutter] during the Carlisle Woods 40B hearings. I looked at Hal's offer as an opportunity to make amends and give something back to both the Board and town."
Not at the Transfer Station but the First Religious Society in town is where Sauer became acquainted with associate member Steve Kirk. "We both belonged to a men's group at church and got to know each other. I think he liked the way I thought," Kirk said.
Associate member Steve Hinton found his way to the ZBA through his experiences with the Conservation Commission and the Board of Health Water Subcommittee. "I thought those experiences might be helpful to the ZBA in dealing with the projected rise in 40B filings." Hinton, a professional engineer with experiences in waste treatment, water quality regulation, and large project economic studies, believes that 40B projects, particularly as they involve water supply, represent the greatest challenge to the current ZBA. Nock agrees, stating "40B is the huge challenge to the town and board and [it's] the wrong way to go about solving the affordable housing problem. We need to go about executing the [town's affordable housing] plan we have in place. Benfield is the first step in executing the plan. It has to be timed so we can keep the 40Bs in place."
Kirk also recognizes the challenges of the 40B applications, offering a different perspective: "We had more wiggle room in the past, allowing for broader interpretation of [the bylaws] — setbacks, for example. If the neighbors didn't object and it seems to be a reasonable request. But with 40Bs, you want to stay within the letter of the law. You need to know how far you can push on both sides."
While 40B applications do remain a critical challenge to the ZBA, Rolfe notes that contested hearings and hearings in which the ZBA must deny requests, too, produce difficulty for the board. "The ZBA must maintain its common sense of fairness and objectivity in its execution of the bylaws. Knowing that not everyone walks away from such hearings satisfied can be difficult."
But with the challenges are indeed rewards for serving on town boards. Meeting new people, working collaboratively to reach common goals, and, according to Kirk, "getting a mini-education of what it takes to make the town work." For Rolfe, "the most rewarding instances of serving are those uncontested hearings in which the ZBA is legally able to grant applicant[s] their request[s]. In such instances, everyone goes home happy."
People who are interested in serving the town, should, added Rolfe, "consider [themselves] asked. This is our communityFor town government to operate effectively and fairly, it requires all members of the public to participate and to understand the process."
© 2006 The