Town Meeting Says ‘Yes,’ But Question Methods and Facts

October 31, 2023
• Fifteen articles on Monday’s Special Town Meeting warrant passed, but not without some lengthy discussion.

Most of the nearly three-and-a-half hour meeting centered around the municipal opt-in specialized energy code and a non-binding vote on potential future zoning of the Foster Property at 484 Charles River St.

Specialized energy code

Now adopted, the energy code will dictate that all new homes and municipal buildings be pre-wired for electric energy or be all-electric systems, and those which are run on fossil fuels must install solar panels. The bylaw change aims to move toward a greener, more sustainable future while trying to meet Massachusetts guidelines for emissions. It will take effect July 2024.

Debate on the article began on a confusing note, as officials seemed to contradict each other on how Town Meeting previously voted on a climate emergency resolution at the 2021 Special Town Meeting. Moderator Michael Fee introduced the article stating Town Meeting representatives did not declare such an emergency itself, but instead recommended the Select Board do so.

Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley speaks on an article at Special Town Meeting Oct. 30, 2023. (Cameron Morsberger)

Immediately after, Chair Marianne Cooley started her remarks by noting that Town Meeting actually did pass the 2021 resolution — which, in part, “recognizes that we are in a Climate and Ecological Emergency that threatens our town, state, nation and all of humanity.”

There was a motion to refer the resolution back to the Select Board at the 2021 meeting, but that failed.

The Select Board urged the town to approve the new code.

“We know from our town-wide inventory of greenhouse gasses that our buildings are the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions,” Cooley said. “To decrease the town’s carbon footprint, we must make a difference in this area. There’s a great deal of built inventory, so the one place we can make an impact is new housing.”

The Finance Committee, however, unanimously opposed the article due to lingering questions around its potential consequences, Chair Louise Miller said. She acknowledged the reality of climate change and state climate goals but said there still too many unknowns, including the cost to residents, for affordable housing, economic development and more.

“We’re told today that it only applies to certain residential and commercial new construction, but that’s today,” Miller said. “What is the state’s plan for future updates? We’ve asked that question. We don’t know right now.”

As the planet continues to uncontrollably warm irreversibly, Town Meeting member Stephen Frail said it’s time for action. Speaking in support of the article, Frail said data shows that the cost of such an energy code is actually minimal, but “fear, uncertainty and doubt” are driving the article’s opposition.

Artie Crocker, a Town Meeting representative and Planning Board member, said the article gives residents a choice to go electric or go net-zero.

“Needham is an educated and intelligent community,” Crocker said. “The time to act for climate change was yesterday.”

Realtor and Town Meeting Rep. Alison Borrelli speaks on the specialized energy code at Special Town Meeting Oct. 30, 2023. (Cameron Morsberger)

Meanwhile, Town Meeting member Alison Borrelli said other research shows that, should the code be adopted, it could make homeownership harder to achieve.

Borrelli voiced her belief that the town was moving too quickly on the code and expressed concern over the potential impact on infrastructure, consumer choice and affordable housing. Developers could also find ways to circumvent the new code or just build somewhere else, Borrelli said.

“As a realtor, I sell a lot of new construction. both buyers and representing sellers. I’ve never had a customer asking for an all-electric house,” Borrelli said. “One of the first questions asked when somebody comes into one of our homes is do we have gas, and if there isn’t gas in the home, the second question is if it’s on the street.”

A motion that would have referred the matter to the Select Board, who would conduct a study and report findings to a future Town Meeting, failed by a wide margin.

Foster Property

Though the warrant article to consider zoning a portion of Castle Farm — located next to the Charles River — was merely to gauge public interest and input, the idea sparked more than an hour of discourse.

Developer Northland Residential intends to build about 70 units of housing on part of the parcel, with at least 5% affordable units. The town voted to appropriate $2.5 million for 34 acres of open space at the parcel last year.

Needham passed 15 articles at Town Meeting. Article 3 was withdrawn by the proponents. (Cameron Morsberger)

Cooley reminded attendees that similar articles to field interest were presented at past Town Meetings, including one that launched the renovation of James Hugh Powers Hall, where they held Monday’s meeting. Needham would also not be accepting financial risk on the transaction — as Cooley put it, “we are the tip of the tail wagging the dog.”

But the Finance Committee took another hard stance against the proposal, with member John Connelly describing it as “inappropriate, unnecessary and unprecedented.” As it stands now, there are no binding agreements for the property, Connelly said, and the vote “is essentially a straw poll.” The state’s 10% affordable housing minimum also seems at odds with the developer’s planned 5%, and it’s unclear what those housing units will look like and offer, he said.

Since the town voted to appropriate funds for the property last fall, Connelly said it’s now in Northland’s hands.

“The purpose of article 16 seems to be focused on the acquisition of open space without much focus on the details of the requested zoning,” Connelly said.

“I’m not advocating yes or no, but I want you to understand this is not a zoning article,” Town Meeting member Paul Alpert said. He also sits on the Needham Planning Board. “This is just letting the developer and the Foster family know whether or not they’re wasting their time.”

Questions regarding specific details, the amount of affordable housing and other intricacies should be addressed at a later date, Alpert said. Although his comments were made as an individual, he noted that both he and the board are neutral on the article.

Town Meeting member Aaron Pressman defended the Select Board’s stance, assuring that town zoning rules and procedures are not being “short-circuited whatsoever.”

Some requested the developer, the Fosters and the neighbors be more involved in determining the future of the land, while Town Meeting member Gary Ajamian speculated how Charles Henry Hank Foster himself may feel.

Town Moderator Michael Fee stands at the podium during Special Town Meeting Oct. 30, 2023. (Cameron Morsberger)

“If he was here now and speaking to us today, I believe he would have said there’s a process in place, one that he helped to shape, and that process must be followed,” Ajamian said. “He would want us to follow the established process rather than what currently feels like a very rushed decision with limited data.”

Earlier in the meeting, Cooley said the developer had signaled they would conduct a traffic study of the area, likely at the request of the Planning Board, but one attendee said a traffic study was already done, the results being 10 cars per minute.

“Right now, I feel like the Wizard of Oz looking at the man behind the curtain,” resident Fred Freketic said. “A thing cannot be and not be at the same time. A lot of what’s been said has been exaggerated to make it look like ‘Ho-hum, we’ll just get on with it.’”

Town Meeting member Andrea Dannenberg offered an amendment that would have changed the minimum affordable housing required from 5% to 12.5% and removed the estimated 70 townhomes to be built. When taken to a vote, the amendment failed.

The majority passed the resolution, though it was not unanimous.

Non-criminal dispositions

The town’s non-criminal dispositions will also be updated after a majority voted in favor of the changes Monday.

Previously, the town’s rules against certain minor infractions, such as obstructing sidewalks and picking up pet waste, were deemed inconsistent. The Select Board has since revised grammar, adjusted penalty fees and made changes to which activities are actually prohibited. The intent is to deter certain behaviors, not to raise revenue, Select Board member Cathy Dowd said.

Select Board member Cathy Dowd discusses the non-criminal dispositions article at Special Town Meeting Oct. 30, 2023. (Cameron Morsberger)

Dowd explained there was a good deal of “outdated language” and rules that needed updating.

“You will no longer be allowed to graze your cattle here. You will no longer be able to coast on the streets — we don’t know what that means, but you won’t be able to do it,” Dowd said. “You will not be able to sell cigarettes by machine. And there’s something about dogs in heat, but I don’t really want to go there.”

Other illicit activities, meanwhile, seemed “pretty draconian,” Precinct D representative Evan Rauch said. He pointed to the large penalty increase — from the current $25 to $300 — for “restraint of dogs,” which he said he views as out of place.

Proponents previously commented that the offenses were broken into three categories of fines, with the highest amount reserved for acts that could result in lasting damage or injury.

Mental health initiatives

Town Meeting members also approved $400,000 to fund two full-time mental health workers with Needham’s Youth and Family Services. The money comes from Boston Children’s Hospital, which is developing an outpatient surgery center set to open in December 2025.

As part of its host community agreement, the hospital will pay the town an annual, flat $200,000 after it receives an occupancy permit. Needham has already received $400,000 — $200,000 from the issuance of the building permit and another $200,000 after completing 50% of its construction.

The two new positions will be a community training coordinator, who will work on mental health programming, and an outreach clinician, who will work in town spaces to provide crisis intervention and case management.

Select Board Vice Chair Kevin Keane addressed the need to assist local youth, who are struggling post-pandemic with “depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.”

Needham Select Board Vice Chair Kevin Keane speaks during Special Town Meeting Oct. 30, 2023. (Cameron Morsberger)

“Needham is fortunate that we have funding through Children’s Hospital and that we can take the steps necessary to protect our children,” Keane said.

Finance Committee Vice Chair Carol Smith-Fachetti said Town Meeting will need to approve that appropriation yearly. She also warned that the flat payments will not be adjusted for inflation, meaning that in the future, additional funding might be needed if the positions were to continue indefinitely.

Roadway improvements at Webster Street, an amendment to the Fiscal 2024 operating budget and eight other financial items were bundled on a consent agenda, which was unanimously approved.

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