What happens in Town Meeting doesn’t necessarily stay in Town Meeting

Last evening I attended my first Acton Town meeting and I was rewarded with a great show. I witnessed, first hand, Democracy in action in Acton I was edified and uplifted. It was a thrilling demonstration of the inner workings of our local government in both positive and negative characteristics.

The evening began with the handing out of awards to two town employees being acknowledged by the Town for their years of service. The first was an attractive woman who apparently served as Human Resources Director for several Departments. She was accompanied by a rather large number of relatives, obviously proud of the matriarch of the family. The second was an extremely large man dressed in his full Police regalia also accompanied by his proud family. With these celebrations concluded the business of the town began.

The details of the minutia involved are far too staid to warrant repeating here, I will however take the time to write my account of a more dramatic episode that occurred during the meeting. It began simply enough with the moderator, a dignified older gentleman with mostly white hair and a kind but stern looking face that brooked no dalliance, announced the Article up for discussion and subsequent vote. Article 27, Amend Zoning Map, was an initiative to amend the Zoning Bylaw, Map Number 1, by changing the zoning district designation for Town Atlas parcel F4-37 ( 145-149 Great Road ) from Residence 8 (R-8 ) to Limited Business ( LB ), or take any other action relative thereto.

My host and driver for the evening, Danny Factor, a tireless advocate for the underdog and a truly good man, explained the back story for me. Apparently this parcel of land had been developed over thirteen years ago on the last remaining working farm in Acton. The land was owned by the heirs of the now deceased original farmers. The heirs, apparently motivated by avarice, desired to sell the property to developers who planned on building a Strip Mall on the site. The surrounding neighborhood had been developed  with residential homes and populated by families years prior; I’m sure attracted by the bucolic scenery of peaceful farmland and the quiet natural beauty of old Acton. Shorty after the Shops now leasing the space within the strip mall opened for business the trouble began in the form of Public Disturbances.

Back in the Acton High School auditorium the Acton Town Meeting progressed on Article 27 but with a ‘Hold’ being called on the discussion, much to the obvious chagrin of the Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee, and the Moderator. This action of calling a hold triggered several subsequent actions. The motion to amend the Zoning Map would proceed to a Pro versus Con discussion then followed by a vote. I was fascinated by what occurred next. A group a homeowners  whose property was adjacent or abutting the strip mall brought forth a request for a permanent hold on changing the Zoning Map. These residential neighbors were complaining that the Shop owners were in violation of the original contract signed by the developers and property managers of the Strip mall businesses. It boiled down  to noise, early morning noise generated by the trash disposal company hired by the shops to empty the dumpsters and the delivery trucks dropping off merchandise at late night hours disrupting the sleep of the neighborhood. The neighborhood group had a fairly sophisticated PowerPoint presentation that detailed the transgressions perpetrated on the little community, replete with B&W photos of the offending vehicles. These families were requesting that the Town place a permanent hold on changing the Zoning Map until and unless the Property Managers for the Shopping Mall complied with restricting the hours of operations for trash removal and deliveries to no earlier than 06:30 A.M. and deliveries no later than 10:00 P.M. This sounded more than reasonable to me but from the consternating frowns on the Town Officer’s faces, they did not.

The Town official currently making the case for the zoning change, a well dressed lawyer-ish   looking young man ceased his presentation and was forced to play defense. He argued that the Town was well aware of the issue and addressed the problem by requiring the Management company to plant noise abating trees (not sure how trees abate noise) and cameras installed to photograph the offending truckers as they commit their offenses (not sure how that would abate noise either).

I could only sympathize with what must have been a horrible thirteen year sentence of pre-dawn awakenings and late night disturbances all in violation of earlier agreements prohibiting such rude diurnal beginnings and endings. The corporate looking Town Council, packed with individuals whose sympathies clearly lay more with the needs of businesses than with the families who are their constituents, tried intimidation and dismissive rhetoric to negate the case before them but fortunately this decision would be decided by a two-thirds vote of those present, emphasis on the word Present. When it comes to the things that matter in our lives it is often decided by those who take part in what’s going on and take the time to be present. Several people in attendance spoke on behalf of the little residential group of the offended; one woman, Ms Terra Friedrichs, who I recently met at a Pass Mass Amendment planning meeting spoke bravely concerning where our priorities should lay, with corporations or with individuals. I admire Ms Friedrichs’ passionate advocacy and activism on behalf of us all.

The conclusion to this little drama came quickly and without much fanfare. First the moderator called for a straight ‘Ye’ vote followed by a ‘Ney’ vote. It was too close to call, there being many business owners present, so the moderator called for all those ‘in favor’ of placing a permanent hold on changing the Zoning Map until the Management Company was in compliance with the original agreement to please stand up, and we did. Then the opposition were asked to do likewise. The Ney’s didn’t have the necessary 2/3’s majority so the motion remains on hold, no changes to the Zoning Map, until next year’s meeting when we get to do it all over again. I hope the management company lowers the boom on the transgressing trucking companies if for no other reason than the restful sleep of their neighbors.

The Town meeting continued on to the next item on the agenda, I will spare you the full recounting of what transpired next except to say that Town Meeting is a thrilling experience that I highly recommend because you never know who is going to be Present and just what the outcome might be without you there to make a difference.

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