Town Meeting Pushes Through Final Items

May 15, 2024
• Town Meeting burned the midnight oil, completing action on the remaining 14 articles on this spring’s warrant, as well as all seven items at Special Town Meeting.

“Good evening, fellow Town Meeting members” later turned into “Good morning” as residents worked past midnight to vote on the outstanding articles in the third session of Town Meeting on Monday.

At the start of the evening, six of the seven articles on the Special Town Meeting warrant passed with unanimous consent, followed by brief discussion on the $471,675 appropriation for programming for The Needham Channel, which produces Needham Local. Items on that warrant included about $350,000 for school auditorium improvements, an allocation for unpaid bills and amendments to the operating budget.

MBTA Quiet Zone Funding: passed

Residents approved $750,000 from Free Cash for design work around quiet zones at five of the six train-grade crossings in town — that’s where the road meets the tracks. The crossings include those at West Street, May Street, Rosemary Street, Oak Street and Great Plain Avenue, but the plan excludes the crossing at the Needham Golf Club, which town officials said requires further exploration.

Needham is home to four Commuter Rail stations, and since the pandemic, the trains arrive earlier in the morning and leave later at night, Select Board member Marianne Cooley said. On a typical weekday, trains approach Needham around 4:40 a.m. and leave the Heights around 12:40 a.m., she said.

The standard train horn reaches 96-100 decibels and sounds for about 15 seconds in a pattern, Cooley said.

Town Meeting member Phil Murray questioned whether the town’s working group considered alternatives and requested the matter be referred back to the Select Board for further review. His motion to refer later failed.

Town Meeting member Jeanne McKnight lived near the May Street crossing for nearly 25 years and remembers the train would pass by around 6:15 a.m. and 11 p.m. — essentially, the horn sound was her alarm clock in the morning and signal to turn in for the night.

The floor of Town Meeting in its third session May 13, 2024. (The Needham Channel)

That changed as the years went on and the train schedule changed. Now, living at Rosemary Ridge, McKnight is further from the crossing but said she still can’t keep her windows open due to the noise. She feels it’s a “public health” issue.

“Please don’t put this off, this study off, for another year to explore very far, long-term alternatives that are likely not occur in my lifetime,” McKnight said.

Board of Health Chair Stephen Epstein said sleep disturbance does have an impact on quality of life, and the horns could be restricted between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. The board recommended the article’s adoption.

With fewer train sounds, Town Meeting member Michael Niden voiced concern over possible safety issues with children near the tracks, and fellow member Lois Sockol referenced a past death of a young boy involving a train. Cooley reassured attendees that the crossings “will be required to be safer than it is today” and that train engineers would use their horn in emergency situations.

In support of the article, Town Meeting member Doug Fox equated quieting the train horns to the removal of “toxic waste,” suggesting it’s the residents’ responsibility to do what’s best for their neighbors.

“Go to The James patio at night. When the train goes through, you’ll see people holding their ears,” Fox said. “This is something that we could do away with, whether it bothers you or not. This is what’s best for the town.”

Floor Area Ratio Regulations: referred back to Planning Board

Currently, third floors and finished basements are “treated as if they don’t exist” in Needham, according to proponent Joe Matthews. Under his petition, he suggested both spaces — within certain parameters — be counted toward a home’s floor area ratio, which could prevent larger homes from being built in residential zoning districts.

Needham is facing a housing affordability and availability crisis, Matthews said, and more regulations around house sizes could address that. Small and medium-sized homes are routinely replaced in favor of bigger builds, thus creating fewer opportunities for young families to move to Needham, he said.

Town Meeting member John Bulian introduced a motion to refer the petition back to the Planning Board, as there are more issues at play: setbacks, stormwater management, lot coverage and height, to name a few. Bulian said he feels there should be “a robust, public process.”

Planning Board member Artie Crocker speaks on dimensional regulations for residences during the Annual Town Meeting May 13, 2024. (The Needham Channel)

Planning Board Chair Adam Block detailed the board’s various reasons for rejecting the petition, including the potential for existing properties to suddenly fall out of compliance under the new dimensional regulations. Block said the board hopes to create a committee on possible regulatory reform and report back at a future Town Meeting.

But McKnight, a former Planning Board member, as well as current member Artie Crocker supported the petition. While McKnight admired the article for its clarity and simplicity, Crocker said the effort is “a good start” that could be further refined, stressing the urgency of its passage.

While recently accompanying his daughter on house tours, Town Meeting member Ed Quinlan told a realtor he lived in Needham, which elicited a chuckle. The realtor apparently called the town “the wild, wild west of housing” because there are few restrictions around house sizes relative to the lot, Quinlan said.

“This warrant article does not prohibit tear downs, but it will preserve some perfectly nice smaller homes for moderate-income families that would otherwise be torn down,” Quinlan said. “What this warrant article does do is it prevents the construction of giant houses on postage-stamp-sized lots.”

With vocal advocates on both sides, the decision on the article came to a hand count, where the majority of members voted to refer the matter, thus voiding the main motion.

Removal of Linden/Chambers Occupancy Restrictions: passed

In the final Linden/Chambers-related article on the warrant, Town Meeting authorized the Select Board to remove restrictions for tenancy at the affordable housing complex, as the Needham Housing Authority looks to redevelop the units.

While elderly people would still be given priority, occupancy would now be available to more tenants and gives the NHA the “best chance” to secure competitive grant funding for the project, Select Board member Cathy Dowd said. Fewer conditions make the project more appealing for funding, she added.

Single-Use Plastics Ban: passed with amendments

After the passage of the single-use plastic bag ban last year, Green Needham continued its efforts by advocating for another plastics ban in town.

With the new bylaw, vendors will no longer be allowed to dispense foam-based polystyrene — like Styrofoam — as well as plastic splash guards and plastic stirrers in Needham. Businesses can not give out plastic straws unless the customer requests it. The bylaw will take effect Jan. 1, 2025.

In its original form, the petition also called for the ban of plastic water bottles, but after gathering feedback from business owners, Green Needham found that that could have a harmful financial impact. Proponent Kathy Raiz also noted that, with that stipulation, they worried the article may not pass at Town Meeting. An amendment to remove the bottles, as well as to redefine polystyrene, both passed.

Several residents expressed dismay that the water bottle condition was removed and that the article itself does not go far enough to address plastic pollution and climate concerns.

Other Items

A citizen’s petition seeking $150,000 to fund a consultant on the MBTA Communities Law failed. The effort did not have support from the Finance Committee or the Select Board.

Town Meeting also approved the following funding allocations:

  • $1.275 million from Free Cash for a new 2025 fire engine, replacing the department’s 2005 engine that will be auctioned off
  • $1.065 million for public works infrastructure, including $250,000 for a stormwater plan to study water movement and drainage across town
  • $2.3 million from Free Cash for the expansion of the Jack Cogswell Building
  • $13.6 million to replace and rehabilitate the 72-year-old sewer pipeline — the total cost of the project is estimated to be around $36 million
  • $1 million to remove and replace old water pipes and connectors

You can watch the full session of Town Meeting on The Needham Channel’s website here.

Previous post Town Meeting Catch-up: Budgeting, Housing and Schools
Next post Needham History: The Saga of “The Wounded Indian”