Special Town Meeting to tackle specialized energy code, fate of Foster Property

October 25, 2023
• With Special Town Meeting on the horizon, Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick offered insight and perspective into this year’s warrant and procedure.

Town representatives will vote on 16 articles, ranging from standard budget adjustments and roadway improvements to more substantial projects, including the possible adoption of a specialized energy code and support for future rezoning of nearly 60 acres of land.

Foster Property

At Castle Farm, the Foster Property, a developer would construct about 70 housing units — about four of which would be affordable — and in return, Needham would receive roughly 34 acres of the “stunning property,” Fitzpatrick said. That includes access to the Charles River.

At last year’s fall Town Meeting, residents approved $2.5 million to purchase the land cooperatively, but under new state rules, the developer couldn’t advance the project. At issue was the amount of affordable housing — the project plans to contain 5% affordable units, but state law dictates it must include 25% affordable units for approval as a “friendly 40B.”

In order to move forward with the project, Fitzpatrick said the town could rezone the property, which is a significant undertaking that requires public hearings, public input, staff effort and resources. Before delving into that, Fitzpatrick said they’ll look to gauge community support to see if it’s worth pursuing.

“If this project doesn’t go through, there is a (plan) that the seller has looked at that would allow 25 single family homes there,” she said. “The hope would be that we can keep the land for the public to use while also creating housing.”

Specialized energy code

Under the proposed municipal opt-in specialized stretch energy code, new commercial buildings that use fossil fuels, as well as certain new low-rise residential buildings and multi-family buildings, would need to either be all-electric or pre-wired to become all-electric. New homes powered by fossil fuels would also be required to install solar panels.

The Select Board voiced support for the specialized energy code at its Tuesday night meeting, countering the Finance Committee’s opposition to the article. Chair Marianne Cooley addressed the committee’s concerns, which include the timing of the article — during Special Town Meeting, which has historically been reserved for “clean-up articles” and time-sensitive initiatives — and their preparedness to approve such an effort.

Cooley said she believes “Town Meeting has changed” and the code should be on this upcoming warrant. If the town were to wait until the spring to vote on the article, Cooley said 50-60 additional homes would not be included under the code.

“I think we have permission to conduct business that can be completed in one evening,” Cooley said.

Needham has just one annual Town Meeting in the spring as opposed to a second in the fall. Fitzpatrick said some items require a higher vote threshold at a Special Town Meeting as opposed to the annual one, while others — including setting an elected official’s salary — must be brought to an annual Town Meeting.

Other members acknowledged the current climate crisis, and the town previously passed a climate resolution at Town Meeting in 2021.

For more information on the specialized energy code and its expected impacts, watch the Needham Channel’s previous reporting here and here.

Boston Children’s Hospital

The expansion of Boston Children’s Hospital into Needham — with its expected outpatient surgical center on First Avenue — will grant the town access to $200,000 annually, as outlined in a community host agreement. Before its anticipated opening in December 2025, the hospital gave Needham $200,000 for a building permit and will offer an additional $200,000 once it completes 50% of its construction. After establishing occupancy, it will give $200,000 each year.

Next week, the town will decide whether to approve that first $400,000 for youth health initiatives, specifically for two full-time staffers with Needham’s Youth & Family Services — a community training coordinator and an outreach clinician.

“There’s a crisis in youth mental health in the country, and Needham is not immune to that,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re trying to devote even more resources to that.”

Also included in the hospital’s special permit is $30,000 in funding to mitigate traffic congestion at the intersection of Kendrick Street and Third Avenue. Fitzpatrick said the area will likely be impacted due to the addition of the center.

Additional spending articles

After repairing the natural gas main and boosting capacity at Webster Street, Eversource provided Needham $205,000 for roadway improvements on the street. That would include “full gutter to gutter road pavement,” according to the warrant. Town Meeting representatives are required to vote on the allocation, as the funds are technically general fund receipts.

Due to rising prices, Needham will vote to fund new town vehicles by reallocating $96,200 from previously general fund cash capital approvals in 2018, 2019 and 2020. The majority of that spending — $69,117 — would be used to replace the Solid Waste Division’s swap loader packer truck, while nearly $20,000 would finance increased costs for previously approved vehicles at last spring’s Town Meeting.

“Since the money was appropriated, the cost of those vehicles has gone up significantly in some cases, in (other) cases, just moderately,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s because of supply chain. Anybody who’s tried to buy a car knows how hard it is.”

Setting new schedule for fines

After the Select Board reevaluated the town’s system of fines, representatives will vote on the newly proposed non-criminal dispositions, which has simplified the fine structure depending on the severity of the violation.

The warrant article stems from a bylaw change made at a previous Town Meeting that prohibited people from putting their residential trash in public barrels, Fitzpatrick said. At that meeting, she said some people questioned why some violations carry heavier fines than others, which prompted this upcoming vote.

Fitzpatrick said the fines aim to be “deterrents.”

“In state law, all of the bylaws can be enforced criminally, but nobody really wants to take somebody to court for the trash, right?” Fitzpatrick said. “There’s this whole section called non-criminal disposition, so what the state does is it allows you to fine up to $300 per event for a violation of the bylaw, and that’s to keep it away from the criminal court. Essentially, it’s a ticket.”

The October Special Town Meeting will be held Monday, Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m. in the James Hugh Powers Hall at the town hall.

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