Citizens for Cohasset’s Future Zoning Bylaw Change Info Session: Lessons Learned for our Group

Cohasset is Algonquin for “long rocky ledge,” but those rocky ledges are disappearing in the face of development. According to Lisey Good and Maryanne Wetherald, Cohasset residents who are part of the 11-person Citizens for Cohasset’s Future, developers are stripping natural features to create clean-slate, buildable lots. Enacting land clearing regulations was one of three zoning bylaws Citizens for Cohasset’s Future hopes to vote in at town meeting on May 1.

A couple of us from Citizens for Scituate’s Future went to an info session on April 12, 2017 to discuss these bylaws. The group hosted it at WorkStation on route 3A. Roughly 15 community members from Cohasset were present to ask clarifying questions and hear the backstory of these bylaws. Questions and comments implored the two presenters to think even more about how to talk about these bylaw changes. While Lisey and Maryanne presented, another cohort of Citizens for Cohasset’s Future was jumping their last hurdle to get on the town warrant: the Planning Board needed to review the land clearing bylaw. They passed it 3–1.

As our intrepid group is just beginning, we wanted to learn from the Cohasset group’s successes and challenges so far in proposing zoning bylaw changes. We listened to the suggestions they were sharing, but more importantly we heard about their process and how they are positioning these changes. We walked away with a few ideas of how we might consider our own methods of reviewing Scituate’s zoning bylaws.

The Bylaws up for Vote

Before we share some of these considerations, we want to share the bylaws Cohasset will be presenting at town meeting. Originally, they had four, but whittled it down to three after lengthy discussion. If an article is not passed at town meeting, then it takes another two years for it to appear on the ballot. This fourth bylaw pertains to proportional housing, which can be complicated and full of “what if” scenarios. They hope to present it on a future ballot.

First, the group propose Cohasset adopt a scenic road bylaw that would protect mature trees and stone walls on the public right-of-way. Scituate has had some recent discussion on the removal of stone walls on scenic roadways (0 Summer Street). The second proposed bylaw will be to provide some conditioning criteria for the large home review. Today, Cohasset has a large home review process (for homes over 3500 square feet), but it lacks specifics for the Planning Board to condition a special permit. The last bylaw change is the clearcutting bylaw. It would allow a certain percentage of land (trees, rocks, natural features) to be cleared for development, but would require a special permit for further clearing. Both presenters felt this was still not stringent enough to protect Cohasset’s look-and-feel, but that it was a good start.

Our Learnings for Citizens for Scituate’s Future

We walked away from the evening feeling a bit more optimistic about Scituate’s current bylaws, but were also reminded that zoning enforcement is key to enacting bylaws that would impact development practices. Having an effective Zoning Enforcement Officer is crucial.

Beyond that, we learned a bit about what we need to do to successfully press zoning changes forward. We look forward to doing this in the coming months, and to have successfully vetted zoning changes that are holistic and beneficial to all.

1 Avoid the NIMBY argument.

NIMBY means “not in my backyard.” Some of the people in Citizens for Cohasset’s Future were inspired to join this effort because they were directly impacted by development. Maryanne lives next to a property that was completely clear cut and it greatly impacted the privacy of her home and backyard. An acute moment can often be a driver to act, and to suggest specific changes to the bylaws. In Citizens for Scituate’s Future, we have several folks involved who have also experienced the developer-next-door. However, both their group and ours want to avoid these anecdotes in our messages; zoning bylaw changes must be holistic, not reactive and emotional.

Our holistic message at CFSF is smart growth and development. We aim to do this by avoiding specific moments as the driver to change in our town. We see complaints and frustrations on Facebook about development projects, McMansion homes, and clear cutting of open space, and oftentimes the response is “show up at the meetings.” While we agree that showing up at meetings is crucial, we also believe that having a vision for the town and enforced bylaws that protect it from unthoughtful development are key. As such, we are aiming to educate through Facebook (and eventually events!), to be present at all Zoning Board of Appeals, Economic Development Commission, Planning Board, Conservation Commission, and other public hearings.

2 Know the history of the laws.

Cohasset has very few bylaws in the books related that would condition development practices. Going back to the Algonquin name for the town (long rocky ledge), it was believed for a long time that the town possessed very little land that could be developed into anything. Rock outcroppings, vertical cliffs right along the water, and dense forest are no longer barriers to a developer with deep pockets. Cohasset also was once quite poor (unlike its persona today), which may explain why a large home review (which was brought up at a town meeting over a decade ago) may not have passed. The townspeople may have wanted to encourage new homes and bring a new face to the town.

We aim to learn about Scituate’s history with its own zoning bylaws to understand their intent and origin. Every bylaw has a backstory and is adopted (whether its enforced or not) for a reason, and we want to know.

3 Look to other towns as inspiration.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel. Many towns in Massachusetts have a similar history and character as Scituate, and we can model our zoning bylaw changes based on their lessons learned. Cohasset is looking at towns like Wellesley and Norwell as their aspirational target. They feel these towns possess the qualities that are Cohasset-like. According to the group, their current bylaws are more similar to the city of Quincy than either of these model towns.

Scituate can tap into outside resources that have thought deeply about ubiquitous issues impacting many New England cities and towns. The Cape Cod Commission is one example of an organization that has drafted model bylaw changes that might be useful for Scituate. We will be doing our homework on ideas and concepts that currently exist and have demonstrated to be successful prior to suggesting them to our residents.

4 We need more manpower.

Citizens for Cohasset’s Future is eleven-people strong. Not only that, it is comprised of people who have existed on “both sides” of the development argument. Their group has a former Board of Selectman, a real estate lawyer, an interior designer, a marketer, among others. They all tap into their strengths to ensure that their message is clear and communicated. They also have the numbers to appear at the many meetings it takes to know the current state of the bylaws and to propose changes.

Citizens for Scituate’s Future is just getting its feet wet. We are a group of seven, comprised of a landscape designer, software salesman, retired legal librarian and a dental hygienist, among others. What we all have in common is a love for the town and a concern about the current direction development is going. We have the right attitude and motivation, but still lack the force and fast-access knowledge of legal process to keep the charge going.

If you have an interest in contributing to our efforts to rethink Scituate’s zoning bylaws, please connect with us on Facebook or send us a message (also via Facebook). We would love to hear from you and learn about how you can help us in our efforts.

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