Saugus Town Meeting took a decisive and, to some people, bewildering stance Monday on large-scale housing development in the town.
Monday’s vote sets the stage for an addition to town bylaws prohibiting new building permits for residential construction totaling three or more units.
The Town Meeting warrant described the two-year moratorium as follows: “… the town is experiencing an unanticipated increase in the construction of multi-family dwellings.”
It wasn’t even two years ago when Route 1 started seeing a transformation from iconic landmarks like the orange dinosaur and the giant Hilltop Steakhouse cactus sign to big residential developments.
The change appeared to be turning a page on a new chapter in the roadway’s history and offer good news for Saugus’ property tax revenue.
Three projects with a combined 775 residential units are under development on Route 1 and the 300-unit Prankers Pond project is awaiting approval. Saugus town officials have taken an even-handed approach to reviewing these projects and weighing their merits against any concerns raised by town residents.
They refocused town development oversight, shifting from economic development to planning expertise in part to ensure careful reviews of proposed developments.
Planning Board members prior to Town Meeting voted, 3-1, against the moratorium. Although members are not strictly opposed to the moratorium, Peter Rossetti, as wise a town father as any in Saugus, questioned the wisdom of the moratorium when applied to big residential developments being built in phases in town.
Town Meeting addressed that concern by unanimously passing an amendment authored by member Michael Serino exempting current projects being built in phases from the moratorium.
But Rossetti’s line of questioning shines a light on the bigger question of how Saugus approaches development proposals or, by extension, ongoing trends in housing.
It’s interesting to note that Town Meeting on Monday also effectively shut down short-term residential rentals such as Airbnb in Saugus by limiting them to commercial areas in town.
About a dozen properties in town available for rent under Airbnb are potentially affected by the ban. Saugus officials are always consistent in adopting policies preserving neighborhood integrity and restricting encroachments in the form of unwelcome businesses or added traffic.
But the building moratorium should be counterbalanced by sound long-term town planning that, perhaps, embraces the residential overlay district concept Peabody appears to be embracing for its stretch of Route 1.