Opinion: A disappointing performance by the Marion Planning Board

Mar 3, 2021

To the Editor:

Let me just say it. I was extremely disappointed in the performance of our Planning Board at the Monday, March 1, meeting with respect to its handling of Tabor’s proposed new campus center and library. Monday night, there were actually two Tabor related hearings, one regarding a Special Permit for the number of parking places and the second related to the continued site plan review for construction of the new campus center.

I have followed these Tabor hearings and I believe Monday night was the third of three nights of hearings which started in December. It appears that the Planning Board actually has no issues with the building, in fact, several members made positive comments about it. In addition, Tabor has satisfied any concerns raised by the Planning Board Peer Review engineer. Both our fire and police chiefs have reviewed the plans and are satisfied. However, throughout these hearings, certain Planning Board members have chosen to make an issue out of Tabor parking and to insist on a number of places for electric car chargers.

Tabor’s plans include increasing the number of parking places from 48 to 50. In response to an earlier question, the Building Commissioner identified the bylaw method for calculating the number parking spaces required for a building. Based on that method, it was determined that 58 spaces technically would be required for this new campus center. Monday night, Tabor was asking for a special permit to waive the need for the additional 8 spaces.

The debate focused almost exclusively on how Tabor could find room for 8 additional parking spaces. Their representatives explained several times why there was no room for good reasons such as pedestrian safety, moving a telephone pole, and the location of underground electrical and sewer utilities. It also was stated multiple times that the existing lot with 48 spaces was underutilized.

The question that needed to be asked and answered was: would there be a need for 8 additional parking spaces with given the uses of this new building? It never came up. Tabor is not adding students, faculty, or other employees as a consequence of building this campus center. Notably, most students and faculty, once on campus, will walk to it. Yes, the zoning bylaw technically requires 58 spaces, but there was absolutely no reason for the Planning Board not to issue Tabor a special permit waiving that requirement; there was no clearly identified need for eight additional spaces. Not one Planning Board member made that case that the 8 additional spaces were needed. 

Note that the Planning Board is down one member and Will Saltonstall recused himself because his firm is involved in designing the new campus center. A Special Permit requires under Massachusetts law a super majority to approve it. This means that all five Board members present last night needed to vote to approve the permit. On the first round of voting, four members voted in favor of approving the special permit for Tabor and one, Chris Collings, voted against. My recollection is that Chris gave the reason, “I am not seeing it.” He did not make the case that the 8 additional spaces were needed. Not passing the Special Permit meant that the Site Plan Review didn’t meet the parking space requirements.

The second point of debate was the number of spaces to be made available for electric car charging stations in the Site Plan Review. Apparently, SRPEDD recommends that 10% of parking spaces have electric car charges. Understand that in our bylaws, there is no requirement for Tabor (or anyone) to have any such spaces, but Tabor offered to have two spaces set up for electric car charging. Several members were hung up on this and determined to press Tabor for five spaces (10% of 50 spaces), in particular, Eileen Marum. As consequence, the Planning Board was effectively requiring Tabor to have five such spaces even though Town bylaws do not require it.

What makes last night so disappointing is that Tabor didn’t need the special permit. Under the exemption provided by the Dover Amendment, they could have simply gone forward with the 50 spaces. They came to the Planning Board voluntarily, as a courtesy, with what they thought was clearly a reasonable request.  

When they are treated as badly as they were last night, it will discourage them from voluntarily coming in the future. There clearly was no need for the 8 additional spaces identified  by any of the Planning Board members, but Tabor’s special permit was voted down any way.  

Actions like last night only provide evidence to Tabor executives that no matter how much they try to cooperate with the Town, it will never be enough and they can expect to continue to be treated poorly. This is a negative incentive to Tabor and its Board of Trustees to provide the Town any financial support in the future.

John P. Waterman

Marion Resident and Member of the Select Board