Cary Hall with American flag
Next week's Town Meeting at Cary Hall will be Lexington's first fully in-person meeting since 2019. (Sophie Culpepper / LexObserver)

On Monday, Annual Town Meeting will convene in person for the first time since 2019 to make key decisions about Lexington’s budget, zoning and infrastructure. About 200 Town Meeting Members will crowd back into Cary Hall, accompanied by the traditional pomp of the community’s Fife and Drum Corps and Minute Men celebrating the distinctly New England exercise in hyperlocal democracy.

Town Meeting Members, including new members and incumbents voted into office during Lexington’s annual election just a couple of weeks ago, will debate and vote on 40 different articles that comprise the Town Meeting Warrant. Town Meeting Sessions will take place on Monday and Wednesday evenings beginning at 7:30 p.m. and usually continuing until between 10 and 11 p.m. Sessions are scheduled for four weeks, with the last week of April held in reserve, but will skip Wednesday, April 5, the first night of Passover, and the week of LPS spring break. (To learn more about what Town Meeting is and how it works, you can read our explainer from two years ago.)

Members of the public who want to see the sausage being made can watch Town Meeting virtually on LexMedia, or in person – about a third of balcony seats in Cary Hall will be reserved for members of the public who are not Town Meeting Members. 

You must attend in person to speak. Pre-COVID, community members would line up at a microphone designated for members of the public; to avoid lines of people bunched together out of consideration for pandemic precautions, this year community members wishing to speak will approach a staff person who will add them to a virtual queuing system also used by Town Meeting Members.

Town Moderator Deborah Brown released a draft schedule for taking up Town Meeting articles on Wednesday. The schedule is subject to change, but a few articles, including some that have already stimulated substantial public engagement, have a designated “date certain.”

In the first two sessions of Town Meeting next week, articles up for consideration include amending Lexington’s bylaws to adopt a lower-emission energy code, restricting trade in fur products, amending the Town’s Tree Bylaw and expanding the Central Business zoning district. 

Beyond next week, while all of the articles Town Meeting will consider affect life in Lexington, a few articles have generated outsize debate – especially zoning articles that address housing. 

Six articles to have on your radar

Article 34: Multi-Family Housing Zoning for MBTA Communities

Well ahead of Town Meeting, this Planning Board proposal to satisfy MBTA multi-family zoning requirements has sparked fierce debate throughout Lexington about the community’s small-town identity, obligations to the greater Massachusetts area in the context of a regional (and national) housing crisis and warring predictions about to what extent zoning translates to actual development. 

A recently passed state law requires communities served by public transit to zone for a certain amount of multi-family housing by right, or without a procedural barrier to development like a special permit. Lexington is required to create capacity for 1,231 units. It must zone a minimum of 50 acres to accommodate these units, or 82 acres with a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre, as previously reported.

The Planning Board’s article, unanimously supported by board members, identifies 227 acres throughout Lexington (about 2% of the Town’s total land area) to incorporate into zoning overlay districts, which are superimposed over existing zoning to create additional options without replacing the original zoning. Planning Board members have said they are embracing both the letter and the spirit of the law by zoning far more land than required for this purpose, and note that multi-family zoning aligns with townwide goals to create more diverse housing types identified in the recently approved Comprehensive Plan and last year’s townwide survey. While some community members agree, others have vehemently criticized the significant excess above the state-required acreage and expressed concern about how this sudden zoning change could translate to rapid growth and give developers too much leeway, though some town leaders have said their analysis suggests any development would occur gradually. 

The proposed overlay districts include Lexington’s Town Center, a choice the Planning Board and the Center Committee Chair have said align with Town goals and the local business needs of Lexington Center. Some residents have specifically questioned how the zoning change could unpredictably and abruptly transform the historic and small-town heart of Lexington, even after the Planning Board agreed to lower the height of buildings permitted in the Town Center under the proposed zoning in response to community feedback.

This week, Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell reinforced the message that this zoning is mandatory by stating in an advisory that noncompliant communities “risk liability under federal and state fair housing laws,” among other consequences. To comply, Lexington must amend its zoning by the end of 2024. 

Article 34 has a designated date certain of Monday, April 10 for discussion and a vote in Town Meeting. 

Article 33: Special Residential Developments

Another attempt to increase Lexington’s supply of diverse housing types separate from state requirements, this zoning proposal would amend a bylaw to try to incentivize developers to create alternatives to single-family homes. The Special Permit Residential Development Committee spent five years refining recommendations for changes to this bylaw, which include establishing more alternatives to single-family homes as options, mandating that a portion of developments be devoted to affordable housing and making the approval process less of a barrier to developers by changing it from special permit to site plan review, as previously reported. The Planning Board voted to recommend that Town Meeting approve this article.

Article 33 has a designated date certain of Monday, April 10 as well.

Article 40: Reduce Residential Gross Floor

This proposal put forward by Town Meeting Member Matt Daggett (P2) takes a different approach to the lack of small homes in Lexington. While Article 33 proposes changes to a zoning tool developers can use to choose to build alternatives to single-family homes, and Article 34 seeks to establish specific zoning districts for multi-family housing, Article 40 instead looks to rein in the size of single-family homes by setting limits on their maximum gross floor areas. 

The Planning Board unanimously recommended that Town Meeting refer this article back to the Planning Board for further consideration and refinement in conjunction with other board priorities, as previously reported. But some community members support passing the article now, as do a minority of Select Board members (though three of the five members also support referring the article back to the Planning Board).

Article 40 does not have a date certain, but is anticipated to be taken up Wednesday, April 12.

Article 16i: Police Solar Canopy & System

Last spring, Annual Town Meeting approved construction funds for the new police station now taking shape at 1575 Mass. Ave after nearly a decade of public process and delays. In keeping with the sustainability goals outlined in a building and construction policy approved by Town leaders in 2019, Town staff and consultants have designed the new building to be net-zero and solar-powered. But solar panels on the building roof alone would not generate adequate energy to power the building – so separate from the station itself, the project team has proposed an approximately 20-foot tall solar canopy over the parking lot adjacent to Fletcher Park.

Town Meeting will vote on Article 16i, a $3.4 million project to pay for that solar canopy and system, this year.

Since last year’s Town Meeting, the project team has refined the separate plan for the canopy through several public committee meetings, especially with the Historic Districts Commission, to make decisions about the structure’s aesthetics and mechanics. But over the past few weeks, abutters near Fletcher Park have voiced anger and frustration stemming from a sense that they did not have a say in the project. In particular, many nearby residents have expressed opposition to its height and scale, arguing that the canopy would change the character of the neighborhood, as reported here. Some abutters are calling on Town Meeting to postpone approving the canopy until neighbors can meaningfully weigh in and the design is altered.

Article 16i has a date certain of Wednesday, April 12.

Article 10a: Funding the Stone Building

The historic Ellen Stone Building in East Lexington, originally a lyceum and community gathering space and later a branch of the public library, has stood vacant since a burst pipe in 2007. But a committee released recommendations to transform the building into a modern-day lyceum last spring in a report to the Select Board that has galvanized efforts to restore the building to a usable state. 

Now, in the first of four project phases planned by the Town Manager under the direction of the Select Board, Town Meeting will consider appropriating $400,000 in community preservation funds toward design and unexpected repairs for this building. The preservation and reinventing of the old lyceum has generated an entire advocacy group in town.

The building’s elegant exterior belies the collapsing ceiling inside – one of multiple factors that have kept the building unusable without costly repairs. In a Town Meeting presentation, Town Manager Jim Malloy noted that some community members criticize the Town for moving forward with this project without having identified an ultimate user for the building, but he said he did not believe the Town could find a user without making progress on getting the building into a usable state.

Article 10a has a date certain of Wednesday, March 29.

Disclaimer: LexObserver has collaborated with the Lexington Lyceum Advocates in co-sponsoring a series of community conversation events. All reporting on Article 10a and the Stone Building is conducted independently of the Lyceum Advocates.

Article 4: Appropriate FY2024 Operating Budget

While the Town’s operating budget, typically refined and reviewed methodically over a series of several financial summits, has not stimulated much detail-oriented debate during Town Meeting for the past few years, the budget process this year has proved more challenging than usual. Both municipal and school departments struggled to balance their budgets while meeting community needs in a tight year, only for the Select Board to make a last-minute budget amendment this month when Lexington received more than $2 million in unexpected additional state aid. What’s more, the Lexington Education Association and School Committee have yet to resolve contract negotiations that have dragged on for a year, and educators continue to ask for additional compensation and support. The twists and turns in this year’s budget process mean this article to appropriate nearly $277 million for FY24 may draw more attention and discussion than most budget articles have in recent years.

Article 4 does not have a date certain, but is anticipated to be discussed and voted on Monday, March 27.

LexObserver will recap Town Meeting actions each week over the next several weeks.