Town officials interpret Overlay District for Septic isn’t needed

by beth on January 26, 2017

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Above: Suppose there is a “soil absorption system” for septic hidden under grass and it’s in a residential district. Who cares if the sewage source is a business or residence? Apparently, not Town inspectors. (image posted to flickr by Ian Brown)

At October’s Special Town Meeting, the Planning Board had promised to look into drafting an Overlay District for Septic Systems bylaw. The proposal was to solve one of two problems some claimed would be caused by eliminating Use Variances. (And it was eliminated.)

A few weeks ago, I posted that Planning had yet to post a drafted Overlay District bylaw for Town Meeting. This week, I learned that the reason. It was dropped by the former Town Planner for a good reason. A Town official convinced her (and co-researcher Freddie Gillespie) that there is no real need for one.

Town Planner Jyothi Grama is no longer working for the board. (This week was new Town Planner Karina Quinn’s first meeting.) So, Gillespie followed up to share their findings with the board and “tie a nice little bow around the Use Variance. . . elimination”.

Grama and Gillespie were researching the needs behind the septic bylaw. The perceived need was to allow businesses to build septic systems on abutting residential land when the septic on their land fails. It was an example given of a “good use” allowed through past Use Variances.

They contacted the Town’s Health Inspector Paul Pisinski to get more details on that need. What they learned from Pisinski was that it is a non-issue.

Pisinski explained, and confirmed in writing, that he believed a Use Variance shouldn’t have been required for the issue in the past. An example that Use Variance supporters used to support their position was one that would have been treated differently by current Town Officials. 

Years ago, Building Inspector Peter Johnson determined that a leaching field that would partially fall within a residential district couldn’t be built under Town zoning codes.

At the time, Pisinski informed Johnson that in his years of working in numerous jurisdictions throughout the state this interpretation was “highly unusual”. (Septic is underground, state title laws don’t differentiate sewage waste by its source, and Johnson had confirmed Town bylaws were “silent” on the issue.)

The Health Inspector said Johnson told him he would be recommending the applicant seek an “administrative appeal” of his definition to the Zoning Board of Appeals. He hadn’t mentioned a Use Variance.

After Johnson retired, Pisinski followed up with the subsequent and then the current Building Inspector (David Gusmini and Mark Robidoux). Both told him that they would not have interpreted the bylaw the way Johnson had.

Based on Pisinski’s comments (and the purported interpretation of the Zoning Enforcement Officer), Gillespie and Grama determined no new bylaw appears necessary. It was a decision the Planning Board agreed with on Monday night.

The other “good use” for zoning relief that was advocated by Use Variance supporters was saving historic buildings by allowing additional uses. The Historic Commission partnered with the Planning Board to address that. The Adaptive Reuse for Historic Buildings Bylaw is headed to Annual Town Meeting this spring.

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