After 17 Years, Sue Zacharias Stepping Down from Planning Board
After 17 years on the Planning Board, Sue Zacharias is not running for re-election this spring, leaving big shoes to fill. The Owl caught up with Sue while she was visiting with grandchildren this weekend.
Why did you join the Planning Board?
In 2004, I was asked by then-Chairman, Al Aydelott, and then-town planner Susan Haber, to join the Planning Board because of the unexpected death of a Board member. It was to be an interim position until the upcoming town election.
I told them I had zero experience in what I thought a PB member did or any necessary personal background. And they said that I had all the experience I needed: I was a citizen of the town and had been a resident for years. I also had significant experience with gardening and landscaping. In reality, I knew less than nothing about what the Planning Board did or even its purpose.
Fortunately, I learned quickly. I just sat wide-eyed at meetings and listened and tried to make sense of what was going on. The other committee members were patient and knowledgeable. I will always remember what Susan [Haber] told me: “It takes about 6 months for a new member to find their voice.””
What does it mean to be on Planning Board?
Eventually, I felt I was on firmer ground when weighing in on PB issues. It turns out the most important requirement is being interested in the Town, knowing how residents feel about PB issues and being able to apply common sense. The position is one where you will make decisions that will not satisfy all the participants involved. To quote Al Aydelott, “we know we have done our job well when no one goes away completely happy.”
I would say it a bit differently: everyone has to give up something and everyone gains something. It’s a process of give and take.
When the election rolled around, I decided I really enjoyed the board, the Board members and the vital work they did. I ran for the office and was elected.
What were the pressing issues of the day 17 years ago?
The pressing issue of the day was exactly what it is today: the size of the homes being built. Nowadays, that issue is compounded by the desire to remove any trace of the natural landscape and impact every inch of the area with man-made structures. I’m talking about the play courts, the large parking areas, accessory outbuildings, pools and highly manicured and formalized gardens.
How do we keep Weston Semi-Rural?
Weston, in the form of its zoning by-laws, has a stated goal of maintaining a semi-rural look. We are not known for gated formal estates. We try to maintain our country road appeal. Folks always tell us they want to move to the town because they love the trees, the vistas and the low density.
As a quick tutorial for those who are unaware, Weston’s By-Laws state that plans for homes that cover more than 10% of the lot must come before the PB for review. Under state law, the Town can not limit the size of the dwelling unit, but we can review and subsequently mandate changes be made to mitigate the impact upon the neighborhood, the Town and the environment.
Beyond By-Laws, I truly feel that we, as citizens of the World, need to be very concerned with stewardship of our own private properties. We need to honor and protect the unique ecosystem that was here for eons and is being displaced today.
What is your favorite part of being on the Planning Board?
My favorite part of the role that the Planning Board plays is in addressing the impact that the larger homes have on the town and the environment.
My personal findings have been that when the applicant is the future occupant of the land, they are usually very easy to work with. People simply are not aware of many of the issues that the building will create. Most respond quickly when educated to the benefits they, their neighbors and the Town will reap upon instituting our changes to their plans.
What is the most challenging part of being on the Planning Board?
The most challenging part of the job is working with some of the professional developers who have little reason to want to work with the Board. Their interest is purely monetary.
A completely unintended consequence of the 1969 State 40B law that states “you may not limit the size of a dwelling” is that it works both ways. Initially, the State found that Towns were limiting small homes to prevent builders from putting up smaller inexpensive homes as a way to get around the 10% affordable requirements. Now with size limitations in place the developers have found it is even more lucrative to buy any small house on a large lot, tear it down and replace it with a new very large house.
This obviously has decimated the number of smaller homes that were previously affordable throughout Massachusetts and especially in desirable suburbs of Boston. And has led to the issues we face today of not meeting the State goal of affordable units, and the need to build dense developments.
How intense is Planning Board work?
The Planning Board is not overly time-intensive. We do have site walks as well as open meetings with the entire Board. Regular meetings are scheduled twice monthly and site walks can be weekly on Tuesday mornings. We are fortunate to be supported by our Town Planner who is a prodigious worker keeping our schedule, publications, creating all our written decisions, and myriad other functions behind the scene as well as being our available representative to the Town of Weston.
Board members do review all written decisions. We also can be appointed to represent the Planning Board at various meetings and committees (for example, CPC, various building committees, various by-law review committees). The good news is that we do take a one-month recess for the month of August!
What’s next for Sue Zacharias?
What’s next for me is a lot more time with my adult family. My kids were in college and unmarried when I joined the Board. Now I have 3 grandkids.
I also want to be able to spend more time working in Weston on various committees that are focusing on our environment. I want to learn how and be part of encouraging all of the citizens to be better Global citizens.
We as humans have a limited window of time to try and rectify all the damage we have done to our Earth. It’s very encouraging to see the Select Board of Weston and other elected officials recognizing and supporting that goal. I will continue to help in any way I can.