TRURO — Tensions between proponents of affordable housing and its detractors were on display at the annual town meeting Saturday, with the proponents ultimately winning the day. Voters approved all three of the affordable housing-related articles on the warrant and took significant steps to take power from the planning board, which some housing advocates say has obstructed affordable housing in town.
Despite the mandatory mask policy and beaming sun, 199 Truro residents showed up at the Truro Central School ballfield for the second-ever outdoor meeting to cast their votes. By 1 p.m., that number had dwindled to 149, still well above the quorum of 100.
All three petitioned articles on the warrant meant to address the housing crisis passed. The voters approved an article raising the local room occupancy and short-term rental tax from 4 to 6 percent. State Sen. Julian Cyr argued that raising the tax would provide a “pot of money” to address the housing crisis. Bob Panessiti, chair of the finance committee, said that the increase would likely generate $200,000 in additional revenue.
Immediately after approving the tax increase, more than two-thirds of the voters approved an article to establish an affordable housing stabilization fund and designate a third of the room and rental tax revenue for that fund. Later in the meeting, voters approved the creation of a year-round rental housing trust, similar to the trust created by the town of Provincetown, the first such body in the state.
Changing of the Boards
The verdict on how certain town boards will be chosen — by appointment or by election — was left for another day, as the town meeting voters chose to indefinitely postpone all three petitioned articles that would have changed the way boards were selected. One petition called for the planning board to be appointed rather than elected; two others, supported by citizens who are unhappy with plans for the Cloverleaf affordable housing development in North Truro, called for the zoning board of appeals and board of health to be elected rather than appointed.
Before the votes to indefinitely postpone, the debate was contentious. Rafael Richter argued that the planning board has blocked the will of Truro voters by delaying affordable housing developments with popular support. He also pointed out that the current members of the planning board all ran unopposed for their five-year terms; he argued that the process of seeking appointment from the select board would force candidates to more completely explain their views.
Planning board chair Anne Greenbaum fired back: “The planning board’s work is balance,” she said. “The members are intelligent. We don’t always agree.”
Greenbaum also questioned Richter’s reasoning about elected versus appointed boards. “It is true that currently no members of the planning board were elected in contested elections,” she said, “just as it is true that, as of Tuesday, no members of the select board will hold their positions as a result of contested elections. So that argument doesn’t quite work for me.”
While several voters voiced support for the article because they believed it would make town government more efficient and would pave the way for more affordable housing, others expressed concerns about placing more power in the hands of select board members. “The more power you concentrate in just three people [a select board majority], the more difficult it’s going to be to actually preserve the rural character of Truro,” said Joanne Barkan.
“When I was on the planning board,” said Curtis Hartman, “we often thought the select board had a tendency to be power-mad autocrats. When I was on the select board, we often thought the planning board was obstructionist. We were correct about the half the time in both cases.”
After charter review committee chair Bob Panessiti explained that his committee was currently reviewing all elected and appointed positions in town government, Paul Asher-Best moved to indefinitely postpone the article, arguing that voters should defer to the committee’s assessment. The vote to postpone, which essentially kills the article for the current meeting, was 114 to 83.
Later in the meeting, the articles about the zoning board of appeals and board of health were postponed without debate, in light of the vote on the planning board article.
An article to establish a child-care voucher pilot program for two-year-old children of Truro residents and town employees passed overwhelmingly. The program will fund up to $7,500 in tuition assistance for state-licensed child care and will cost the town $112,500, funded from the free cash account.
Multiple Truro residents with two-year-olds spoke in support of the article, arguing that the program will provide an incentive to keep young families in Truro. “I have not worked a full week since my children were born, largely because we don’t have child-care opportunities,” said Mara Glatzel. “Parents need this support.”
Morgan Clark referred to the undemocratic choice to have the annual town meeting on the Saturday before July 4th weekend, when young parents have to work and care for children. “I want to provide context,” she said. “There’s maybe two two-parent partnerships represented here today, because one parent has to take care of the kids. If this doesn’t pass, go home knowing you got to show up with your partner and we didn’t.”
The town meeting passed two bylaws aimed at curbing pollution in Truro with majority votes and no public comment. One bylaw banned the sale of single-use plastic water bottles on town property, and another banned the sale and use of balloons filled with “lighter-than-air gas” and mandated that balloons already in the community be disposed of in a plastic trash bag at the transfer station.