Planners pressure Tabor on Student Center parking spots

Mar 2, 2021

MARION — So close, and yet so far.

A procedural error at a March 1 Planning Board meeting led to confusion and frustration, after a decision to allow a special permit for Tabor Academy’s proposed student center parking lot was reversed later that same night.

The board first approved plans for a smaller parking lot at the student center, and then the site as a whole, before learning they needed a supermajority rather than a simple majority to approve the parking lot special permit.

Tristan DeBarros of Saltonstall Architects argued to the board that the project should be granted the special permit, which would allow Tabor to include fewer parking spots at the proposed 22,750 square foot student center and library than are required by town bylaws.

Marion law regulates the number of parking spaces required for different uses. As a multi-purpose building, the student center should by law have at least 74 parking spaces.

The Planning Board members agreed to instead calculate the minimum number of spaces based on the requirements for a library — the building's main use.

Libraries and similar gathering places are required to have one parking space for every eight occupants and for every two employees.

Under those regulations, the student center would be required to have 58 parking spaces. But DeBarros argued that adding ten spaces to the existing 48-car lot was not feasible, so developers applied for a special permit to allow 50 spots in the lot, which the architect argued was the highest reasonable number. In addition, DeBarros continually noted the current lot is underutilized by Tabor staff and students.

Board Member Chris Collings was not sympathetic to the developers’ plight, saying that even the reduction from 74 to 58 spaces was a big compromise.

He said the reduction from 74 to 58 “is, let’s be honest, is a little bit — well, not a little bit — but a significant bend to Tabor.”

Collings added that he was unsure what the difficulty was in finding somewhere to put the required eight parking spots.

“It’s not physically impossible, is it?” Collings asked. “It’s just not desirable.”

“It’s close to both,” DeBarros responded, saying that finding the spots wasn’t so simple when the areas immediately surrounding the lot aren’t easily alterable.

“We have paths here — and we’d like, for safety reasons, to keep this driveway away from space where people are walking,” DeBarros told Collings.

Following an argument in favor of flexibility from board member Norman Hills and a call for compromise of three or four extra spots by Andrew Daniel — who acted as chair in the discussion because Board Chair Will Saltonstall, founder of Saltonstall Architects, recused himself from the issue — the acting board voted 4-1 to approve the special permit for a smaller parking lot.

But that decision was reversed later in the meeting after the board learned they had misunderstood voting procedure, which requires a supermajority vote to pass a special permit. That means five of the seven board members had to approve the special permit. Because the board has a vacancy and Chair Saltonstall was recused, the vote had to be unanimous among the members present.

Before revisiting the parking lot special permit, the board held a public hearing about the overall site plan for the student center.

During the hearing, Planning Board members Collings and Eileen Marum argued for the inclusion of a large number of electric vehicle charging stations in the student center parking lot — a separate discussion from the special permit application.

DeBarros offered two charging stations in the lot, noting that the spots are a request from the town and not a legal requirement for the site. Tabor Interim President Julie Salit committed to that number later in the meeting.

But Marum, also a member of the Energy Management Committee, wanted the school to add four or five stations and act as a leader in converting to greener infrastructure.

“I think Tabor could be a little more flexible and a little more forward thinking in this request,” Marum said. “[Students are] the ones that are going to experience the major impacts of climate change. And I think that’s the least Tabor can do.”

The board ultimately voted to approve the overall site plans with nays from Collings and Marum, but that decision wouldn’t last, either.

Following the vote, Town Planner Gil Hilario informed the board that their earlier approval of the parking lot special permit was invalid.

When the special permit was reconsidered, both Collings and Marum both voted against it.

The decision also forced a reversal of the overall site plan approval because the site would have to include more parking spaces, for which the project’s engineers and architects had no plans.

After Robert Field of Field Engineering suggested — to warm reception from the board — that it was possible to add parking spaces disconnected from the lot, but still on the same parcel of land, the public hearing was continued until March 15.