Town Laws Shift Along With New Government
Dozens of laws that govern different aspects of life in Braintree -- from gas station hours to the height of fences -- are under scrutiny during a transition resulting from the change in town government.
Michael Gardner Sr., owner of Eddie and Mike's Sunoco at 251 Union St., sat before the Board of Licensing Commissioners with his son last month and argued that his businesses' long years of 24-hour operation should exempt him from restrictions that may come with a new town ordinance.
"We have been open for 24 hours on that corner for longer than some of you in this room have been alive," Gardner said, to laughter and some consideration of whether that was true.
Gardner's business opened in 1969, and except for recent Christmas Eve shut-downs, has been open all day, every day since. He considers it a public service, and highlighted to the board his past experience helping town vehicles fuel up during snowstorms and other emergencies.
Russell Forsberg, Braintree's building inspector and a board member, agreed with Gardner, saying, "Our whole point in revising these was not to penalize businesses."
This scene was one small part of Braintree's ongoing effort to transition to a mayor and town council form of government. That switch involves reviewing each of the town's bylaws and turning them into ordinances. It is a long, difficult process involving several boards and departments, along with the approval of the council, and isn't likely to be completed until late next year.
The licensing board ultimately "grandfathered in" any gas stations currently open 24 hours per day in the ordinance they sent to the town council. All others would be restricted from opening between midnight and 6am, unless otherwise permitted.
At the same meeting, on Oct. 13, members of the board -- including the town clerk and the fire and police chiefs -- declined to provide a similar exemption for car repair shops that house outside more than six cars overnight. But in an illustration of the complicated nature of the transition, a week later the town council voted to eliminate the cap on car storage and instead use an inter-departmental study of the parking capacity of each business.
Joe Powers, Braintree's town clerk, said in an interview that the process is a "labyrinth" because not only are there 13 different general bylaw titles (Health and Safety, Traffic, Vehicles, etc.) that must be turned into ordinance chapters, each of those has many different sub-sections. There is also a separate book of zoning bylaws that will prove a challenging transition, Powers said, because of its high level of technicality.
"It's taking a long time, but I think the net result will be an extremely strong set of ordinances," Powers said. "As things become clearer, they get better."
Re-writing the laws is not a simple matter of substituting certain phrases for one another, like "Town Council" or "Mayor's Office" for "Board of Selectmen." Instead the process focuses on making sure the rules make sense in both the new government setup and the modern age.
When the licensing board, for example, examined the bylaw governing amusement devices -- a review of particular interest considering Dave & Buster's ongoing effort to move into the old Circuit City building -- the members found strange, out-dated wording in a reference to state law. The original bylaw pointed to a section of Massachusetts general law that regulated billiards, pool, bowling alleys and sippio tables. No one knew what a sippio table was.
After mostly fruitless searching, Powers finally came across a definition online in The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards. A sippio table is a pigeon-hole table, an offshoot of a modern-day pool table. In the end, the new ordinance kept the state law reference, but upped the cap on amusement devices and more broadly defined what an amusement device is, said Town Solicitor Carolyn Murray.
The process began when the Board of Selectmen, right after the town adopted a new charter in 2007, appointed a transition committee to detail which board, department or other agency would have jurisdiction over local regulations under the new government. Many items that were previously taken up by the selectmen would go before a variety of boards appointed by the mayor.
Then, when Mayor Sullivan took office, he selected a second commission to look more widely into how the bylaws were written and how they would be transferred into ordinances. That process continues, Murray said, with a loosely formed commission and most of the work being done by the boards and departments responsible for different aspects of the town's code.
So far only a handful of the bylaw chapters have gone all the way through the process, but several more are scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. After that, attention will turn to the zoning laws.
Staff with both the building department and the Department of Planning & Community Development have worked on proposed revisions, Forsberg said in an email. On Nov. 15, the Planning Board will consider the zoning changes proposed as part of redevelopment in East Braintree and Weymouth Landing. If approved, they will be included in the overall transition package.
"As with any new regulations, there will be a transition time," Forsberg said. "However, given the nature of the changes, I do not expect that this will be too long."
Braintree taxpayers have not been burdened by extra costs associated with the extensive reviews because town employees have carved out parts of their regular work schedules to participate in the process, Murray said.
The solicitor also said there is no drop-dead deadline for the transition's completion. Rather the town charter has a "catch-all" that allows for the lengthy process by saying only that it be finished in as timely a manner as possible.