Debate grew heated during a virtual Mashpee Planning Board meeting on Wednesday, April 21, over a proposal by the Mashpee Commons, which is seeking a large-scale expansion, to appoint two board members to a subcommittee.
The board voted 3-2 against the proposal for the subcommittee as a three-party development agreement process to negotiate the proposed expansion among the planning board, the Cape Cod Commission and the Commons entered its earliest stages.
Eliza Cox, an attorney representing the Mashpee Commons, asked that the board appoint two members to a subcommittee for discussions over the proposed language of a zoning amendment that would create a Community Activity Center Overlay District.
Last month, the Commons provided the planning board with a map outlining a proposed overlay district that incorporates 187 contiguous acres, including the existing mixed-use development at the Commons as well as land stretching east of the rotary, west of Job’s Fishing Road and south as far as Donna’s Lane.
The proposed zoning overlay would include three different subzones: a “core” area with 450 dwelling units and the existing commercial density expanded from about 350,000 to 890,000 square feet; a “transition” area with about 1,075 dwelling units and 330,000 square feet of commercial density; and an “edge” area, with about 185 dwelling units.
“A community activity center as designated by the [Cape Cod] Commission is an area with a concentration of business activity, community activity and a compact built environment; this site is that,” Ms. Cox said on Wednesday. “We thought it would be really helpful in the process if the planning board were to appoint two board members who would be available to meet with us together with your town planner, all at public meetings in accordance with the Open Meeting Law, to engage in more detailed discussions about the proposed language and concept of the zoning overlay.”
Town Planner Evan Lehrer said that about 10 members of the public called into the planning board meeting, which did not take individual public comment and aired with audio but no video, to express concern “specifically on the matter of appointing two members of the board.”
“It is common practice and best practice to refine working groups to deliver proposals and get them game-ready for the public. I think it is shortsighted to do otherwise,” Mr. Lehrer said. “Ultimately, it is the consensus and the majority of the board who wins out here, but my recommendation is to proceed with a subcommittee.”
Planning board member Dennis Balzarini noted the scope of the proposed project and questioned why the whole board would not be involved, at least at first.
“This ain’t just a zoning change; this is a change to Mashpee. It’s going to change the character of Mashpee as we know it,” Mr. Balzarini said. “We’ve got to make sure everybody in town feels like they’re involved, and I got elected because people want me to be involved in the planning board, so I don’t understand why we don’t just go with the whole board.”
He added that the planning board could reduce the number of members attending subsequent meetings if it felt comfortable doing so as the process progresses.
Planning board member Mary Waygan also objected to the subcommittee.
“I am tremendously disappointed to see that the first action of this applicant to us is to go from a board of six—a group of six—to a group of two,” Ms. Waygan said, referencing a 2019 proposal to include a member of the board of selectmen in addition to the five planning board members in expansion discussions with the Commons. “If I’m not one of those appointed people and any [board member] who wants to be appointed, isn’t appointed, that’s being cut out; you don’t have the authority to do that.”
John Phelan, the chairman of the planning board, said he saw the proposal for the two-member subcommittee as a way to “streamline” the process and did not believe the intent of the proposal by the Commons was to cut any board members out of the process.
“The more people you have on a committee, it is my experience—and I’ve been involved in public service as well—it’s my sense and my experience that it tends to slow the process down, Mr. Phelan said.
The chairman, however, voted against the formation of the subcommittee and in favor of starting the process with the whole board.
“I think for that first meeting, even for the first couple of meetings, I think the whole board should be invited to attend,” he said.
Planning board member John Fulone and the vice chairman of the board, Joseph Callahan, said they were in favor of the two-member subcommittee and voted against moving forward with the entire board.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to move this ball down the field,” Mr. Callahan said. “But if that is how everyone feels, that slower is better, let’s do slower.”
Mr. Fulone said the subcommittee would be “more efficient” for the purpose of refining zoning language.
“This is pretty standard that it is broken into pieces, and subcommittees go away. They do work, they bring it back to the full committee...and it’s debated,” he said. “Then the subcommittee may go away and work it again and come back.”
Toward the end of the sometimes heated discussion, Mr. Lehrer, the town planner, said “we are on the cusp and the precipice of a massive opportunity here.”
“I would just want to urge staff, myself, my colleagues, the board, the Mashpee Commons to keep in mind that light of collaboration because ultimately we all have a very similar end goal here and it’s to develop something for the betterment of future generations and this town and the region,” he said.
The proposed zoning overlay amendment would have to be approved by Town Meeting after vetting by the planning board and is just one step in the development agreement process.