WEST NEWBURY — Selectmen have unanimously agreed to support a recommendation by the Finance Committee to increase the salary and expenses for the harbormaster program in next year's operating budget.
Voters will consider 29 warrant requests, including the $10.6 million line-item budget at the Annual Town Meeting tonight.
A quorum of 90 is needed for the meeting, which opens at 7:30 p.m. in the Old Town Hall, 491 Main St. Transportation via the Council on Aging van can be scheduled by calling 978-363-1104.
Among some of the issues voters will consider are a citizen's petition to change the way the Finance Committee is appointed, new wording on grade configuration in the Pentucket Regional Agreement, an increase in lease law violation fines, three proposals for using Community Preservation funds and several amendments to the zoning bylaws.
The town moderator plans to temporarily adjourn the annual meeting at 7:45 p.m. so voters can take up a special Town Meeting warrant that includes a proposal by the Community Housing Committee for use of the 34-acre Mullen property.
The CHC will recommend selling the parcel to a developer for the purpose of creating a 40-unit intergenerational housing development that would provide reasonably priced housing for senior citizens as well as a much needed increase to the town's affordable housing stock.
Located near the town square, the intergenerational village would buy West Newbury two years of protection from what are termed "hostile Chapter 40B" projects in which developers are allowed to bypass local zoning laws and build what often are overly large or inappropriately designed developments in towns that have not met a state mandate that 10 percent of housing stock be reserved as affordable.
If a majority of Town Meeting voters agrees to surplus the land for development purposes, selectmen and a possible design committee would oversee the housing development.
Concerns have been voiced over whether the town should be promoting this so-called "friendly Chapter 40B" development on the Mullen land because it appears to conflict — if not legally, then at least in principle — with the town's existing septic regulations, something the Board of Health has said it cannot support. A decision to set the minimum bid for the land at $400,000 is also a concern for some opponents to the plan. The Mullen property was purchased for municipal use for $1.2 million in 2006.
Town leaders have agreed to take a "will of the town" vote on the request, which appears as the second-to-last article on the special warrant. Once the 14 articles on the special warrant are considered, the Annual Town Meeting will resume.
After Harbormaster James F. Riley met with the finance board earlier this month, it voted to recommend upgrading the harbormaster's salary line item to $2,500 and the expense line item to $800 in next year's budget.
Last month selectmen had reduced salary and expense lines for the harbormaster to $1 each. But after meeting with Riley on April 22, the board agreed to support the Finance Committee's increase on Town Meeting floor. In addition, they encouraged Riley to put together a more substantial proposal for next year.
With the state reimbursing 75 cents on every dollar spent, Riley argued that increasing funding for the harbormaster program in the next budget cycle would actually be a financial win for the town. West Newbury is already approved for a grant of up to $8,500 through the Federal Clean Vessels Act, but historically has only sought around $3,000 of those funds. The CVA grant — funded through tax surcharges on marine fuel and other fishing-related items — was established at the federal level in 1992 and adopted in Massachusetts in 1994.
"If we are pre-approved for $8,500 in reimbursement, then why is the harbormaster budget $3,000?" Riley asked.
"If the budget was $10,000, then at 25 percent the town's cost would be $2,500. We would be under the cap of $8,500 and $2,500 could be raised with boat excise tax and mooring fees," theharbormaster said.
The money would need to be fronted by the town, but ultimately "the general fund would pay zero toward the harbormaster's budget," he emphasized.
By law at least 50 percent of boat excise tax must go back to the waterways account; and according to Riley, the state's Department of Revenue authorizes Town Meeting voters to put up to 100 percent back into that account. However, Finance Director Tracy Blais said she is not aware of that provision from the DOR.
West Newbury's pump-out boat is one of two that service the Merrimack River from Haverhill to Newburyport by pumping out watercraft sanitary systems, providing emergency assistance to boats and boaters and controlling speeding on the river.