The public is invited to weigh in next week on proposed revisions to 30 sections of the Morristown zoning bylaws.
The town planning council is hosting a public hearing Tuesday, Sept. 27. The meeting is at Copley Country Club and starts at 5 p.m., an hour earlier than the council’s usual meeting time.
According to town planning director and zoning administrator Todd Thomas, the main topic of discussion will be short-term rentals, such as Airbnb. Although the topic hasn’t come up much during public discussions — especially compared to topics like development density, the encroachment of new construction on green space and the preservation of historic building standards — Thomas said he hears people talk about short-term rentals all the time.
“STRs are the topic of at least 80 percent of the zoning changes calls that I receive,” Thomas said in an email this week.
He said one of the proposed zoning bylaw changes would align the village’s and town’s short-term rental regulations — the two entities have had unified zoning bylaws since 1998. According to Thomas, short-term rentals in the village must be on owner-occupied property, but there is no such regulation outside the village.
“Since incredibly few people know where the village and town boundaries lines are, it makes sense to have the same short-term rental regulations in each community,” Thomas said.
The selectboard in 2018 voted to remove the owner-occupied clause.
Despite months of community concerns about proposed changes that would change the lower west side of Brooklyn Street from a medium- to high-density zoning district, Thomas said a group of people representing the condominium owners in the Brooklyn Heights development a month ago “went from opposing to supporting” the proposed zoning changes.
Thomas said most of the discussion with the Brooklyn Heights condo board took place in his office or over the phone, where he and the board members hashed out a compromise that the so-called Wickart apartment building at 41 Brooklyn Street would be moved out of the proposed high-density residential part of Brooklyn and placed in the neighboring central business zone.
The Wickart building abuts the rail trail, which is largely the border between the existing central business zone and the proposed high-density zone. According to Thomas’s meeting minutes from the last planning council meeting, Aug. 21, placing that building outside the proposed high-density zone will allow for less dense density throughout the whole zone on the lower west side of Brooklyn Street.
Predictions of which of the myriad proposed zoning changes will elicit the most comments aside, next week’s meeting is still a public hearing, and revisions both big and small to 30 sections of the bylaws are fair game.
Thomas said the council expects to give everyone who wants to weigh in on the changes a couple of minutes to do so, and he hopes to be able to get through the public hearing portion “within an hour or so.”
This is the 15th round of revisions to the town’s and village’s unified zoning and subdivision bylaws in as many years, with hundreds of individual revisions made during that time. Keeping up with what goes into and what goes out of a town’s bylaws isn’t always easy.
The town used to show its homework, including tracking changes like strikethroughs and sentences in different colored fonts to show with detailed narrative and rationale just what the changes meant in the greater zoning picture. Thomas was asked by a Morristown resident last week for a copy of the working document with proposed new portions “highlighted or typified,” but Thomas said such a document does not exist.
“I actually used to use track changes when I warned zoning changes, but people complained that all the proposed edits and strikethrough made the new proposed language too hard to read,” Thomas wrote. “So in recent years, I have simply presented the zoning changes in its final form for the sake of clarity (i.e. strike-all and replace).”
Town officials have come under increased pressure in recent months to record the planning council meetings, offer a remote option and bring back meetings from the country club to the town offices, where most of other town boards and commissions meet.
Some selectboard members have echoed those requests.
However, Thomas has said it’s too onerous and expensive to record and offer remote options, and he and planning council chair Etienne Hancock have credited increased meeting attendance since moving them to the country club during the first summer of the pandemic.
Tom Cloutier, one of the most vocal amid a growing chorus of people dissatisfied with government transparency, noted that time is literally running out on the council meeting at the country club.
“Average temperature that day will be 46 degrees to 62 degrees — under a tent with the possibility of rain of 33 percent,” Cloutier writes in a letter to the editor this week. He concludes, “The town offices and meeting room on Sept. 27 will at 5 p.m. will have the lights off, doors locked, thermostat turned down and Zoom turned off.”