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111314i Teague petition kThe Ordinance Committee referred the Charles Teague zoning petition to the full City Council on Wednesday; the petition aims to “clarify existing ordinance” so it can be enforced. The committee said no, for now, to requiring permits comply with a master plan that does not yet exist; it offered “no recommendation” on changing the rules for certain permits from “will normally be granted” to “may be granted.” It voted for the uncontroversial change to align zoning petition expiration dates with state law, which fixes a long-standing annoyance of Cambridge zoning.

Councillor Craig Kelley joined the freshman councillors – Dennis Benzan, Dennis Carlone, Nadeem Mazen and Marc McGovern – for the evening meeting. Other experienced councillors and the mayor did not attend the meeting. Those present seemed frustrated by the non-attendance of their colleagues and that influenced their decision to refer the controversial portions to the full council, they said, rather than keeping them in committee and discussing them at a future meeting. Councillors Cheung, Simmons, Toomey and Mayer Maher regularly attend council meetings and are part of the Ordinance Committee, though frequently do not attend the committee’s meetings.

Teague’s petition sought three changes to city law:

bullet-gray-small Part 1 is an uncontroversial alignment of the expiration date of zoning petitions to that of state law to 90 days after a council hearing on the petition, rather than 90 days after a Planning Board hearing.

bullet-gray-small Part 2 would change language on special permits to say they “may be granted” rather than “will normally be granted.”

bullet-gray-small Part 3 would require building permits, special permits, variances and other permits to comply with the master plan for the city.

The meeting began with a presentation by Teague; continued with a response by Jeff Roberts of the city’s planning staff and Nancy Glowa, the city solicitor; discussion by the committee; public comment by five members of the public; and closed with motions by the committee.

Teague’s presentation referred to a legal opinion from his lawyer, Adam J. Costa of Blatman, Bobrowski & Mead, who encouraged adoption of Teague’s Part 2, but cautioned that the council should adjust its zoning to remove vague standards such as “public interest” and “integrity of the district,” and noted that while the Planning Board “has the full range of discretion in rendering a decision on a special permit application and, in doing so, may consider the wide-ranging interests of the city and its residents, the board does not have unfettered discretion to do as it pleases.” Costa’s firm also represents a group of East Cambridge neighbors who will be appealing the board’s decision on the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse.

Cambridge planning staff released a memo by Roberts on their website at around 3 p.m., but did not share it with the council until immediately before the 5:30 p.m. meeting, and councillors had not seen it. The memo said that the Part 2 language change “might not be helpful because it would provide less clarity to the permit-granting authority in deciding whether a special permit should be granted or denied. If an alternative standard is desired, it would be preferable for that standard to set expectations that are as clear as possible.”

Regarding compliance with a master plan, the memo said that “A new citywide master plan, when it is completed, would be incorporated into [special permit] criteria either implicitly or explicitly. However, if explicit reference is made, it would be best to make that change after the plan is completed, so that it can be referenced more precisely.”

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City Solicitor: Master plan not required

The Teague petition refers to a master plan section of state law – Chapter 41, Section 81D –that discusses the requirements of a planning board to create one.

But Glowa said there were two ways to create a planning board under state law, only one of which imposes the master plan 81D requirement. Because Cambridge’s Planning Board was created before 1936 – in fact, in 1913 – it is not subject to that requirement. Glowa said she had not completed her legal analysis, but thought the city could elect to follow the newer master plan law if it wished.

Glowa also noted a section that does apply to Cambridge requiring the board to produce an annual report “giving information regarding the condition of the town and any plans or proposals for its development and estimates of the cost thereof.”

Glowa also expressed a concern about Teague’s “may be granted” proposal, saying the actual language in the law is “may be issued only for …” and that “may only” is very different from “may.”

Floor discussion

The committee dispensed quickly with the deadline change, voting to refer it favorably to the full council, with McGovern suggesting it should move forward expeditiously, not be held up by the rest of the petition.

Carlone, Mazen, and Kelley supported the Part 2 language change to “may,” though Kelley noted he didn’t “think it’ll make much difference.” On a motion from Mazen, the committee directed the city solicitor to evaluate whether there was a legal problem with a switch to that language.

Members of the committee were generally uncomfortable with the idea of mandating the master plan as part of the law without seeing the results of the master plan process the city is embarking upon, which could be several years down the road. Combined with the observation by Roberts that the city’s planning reports are typically accompanied by zoning changes, most of the committee was prepared to defer action on Part 3. Carlone remained in favor, however.

Mazen expressed concern that the council lacks a good way to provide needed direction to the Planning Board. He introduced a motion asking the planning department to “provide us a skeleton” for changes to the zoning ordinance that the council could use to guide the board. The committee passed the motion unanimously.

On the topic of referral of parts 2 and 3 to the full council, vice mayor Benzan, who was chairing the meeting, suggested that they remain in committee – with more input from the city’s planners and lawyers and after the Planning Board held a scheduled hearing next week. Benzan said the petition was filed in mid-September and the Ordinance Committee’s meeting in mid-November was “timely” action.

But McGovern’s sentiment swayed the committee: “I just think these are very important decisions and conversations really need to involve all members. If the way to have discussion with all nine members is to bring it to the full council so all nine members will be present, then that’s what we should do.”