Town Meeting Tackles Solar Energy, Linden/Chambers Funding

May 9, 2024
• Town Meeting approved six articles in its second session, allocating $5.5 million to Linden Chambers, supporting the Pollard Middle feasibility study and more.

After adjourning Monday night mid-discussion, Town Meeting returned Wednesday to consider the zoning bylaw amendment that would create an affordable housing district, located at the site of Linden/Chambers, an affordable housing property owned by the Needham Housing Authority.

A prior motion to postpone the article until Town Meeting considers three other project-related motions failed, allowing some members able to voice their concern for the adjacent wetlands on the site and parking availability.

Planning Board Chair Adam Block said the wetlands helped to inform the zoning and promised residents the development would need to go through the Conservation Commission as a step in the process. Commission Chair Dave Herer spoke in favor of the article, as the project would increase the existing buffer zone with the wetlands.

In the affordable housing district, a minimum of 0.5 parking spaces per dwelling would be required. In response to parking-related concerns, Block said the board could charge the developer to add additional parking, should there be a demonstrated need. A parking analysis helped determine that minimum requirement, Block said.

Town Meeting member Rhonda Spector, who works in real estate, called the affordable housing project “one of the greatest opportunities in Needham.”

Jill Rutherford, a former treasurer of the Linden/Chambers’ tenants association, said residents frequently complained about maintenance issues, and many seem supportive of the zoning article. Prior to Town Meeting, the NHA hosted five community meetings on the project to gain feedback, Chair Reg Foster said.

A Town Meeting member reads over the warrant during the second session May 8, 2024. (Cameron Morsberger)

Linden Street resident and Town Meeting member Joe Leghorn has lived in Needham for 42 years, and in that time, he’s watched as the nearby complex has changed. He said he fully supports the zoning change.

“Over those 42 years, that physical plant has deteriorated,” Leghorn said. “We need to look at the common good and act in the common good.”

Water seeping through the walls and from the roof “is encouraging the growth of mold” at the buildings, said Ed Cosgrove, a member of the Needham Board of Health. Given the unhealthy conditions residents are faced with, Cosgrove said the buildings need to be replaced.

If the article hadn’t passed, Cosgrove said the board might have had to “condemn those units, one by one.”

The zoning amendment passed by a simple majority. The subsequent map change for the affordable housing district passed unanimously without discussion.

$5.5 million for Linden/Chambers

Linden/Chambers will receive $5.5 million after Town Meeting unanimously approved the funding later in the evening. About $3.6 million will come from the community housing reserve, while about $1.85 million will be transferred from Community Preservation Act free cash.

The funding will go toward redeveloping 72 of its existing units with 136 new ones. Should the project move forward, the other buildings would also be redeveloped, for a total of 247 units.

Community Preservation Committee Co-Chair Laura Dorfman said the housing has reached “the end of its useful life” and fails to fully accommodate residents with mobility issues, among other problems. Every $1 in CPA funding will have the power of $11, she added.

While residency would be restricted to those earning less than 80% of the area median income, Finance Committee member Jim Healy said there will be an additional requirement that the tenancy average will be no more than 60% of the AMI.

The $5.5 million is just a fraction of the projected $84 million cost of the redevelopment. More than a dozen other funding sources will be tapped during the process. Town Meeting will likely take up a final item on the project next week, when they may also decide whether to remove restrictions on who can live at the housing.

Solar Energy Systems

Moderator Michael Fee, right, confers with town counsel and members of the Planning Board during a recess at Town Meeting May 8, 2024. (Cameron Morsberger)

A detailed zoning amendment regarding solar energy maps out if and how residents and businesses can capture solar energy and the restrictions that apply. The motion passed by a two-thirds majority.

The Planning Board’s Artie Crocker, an engineer in the solar industry, introduced the article, but after a short recess, it was decided his professional ties posed a conflict of interest. Block finished the presentation and answered questions.

Much of the discussion centered around the aesthetics of the solar panels and their visibility to abutting neighbors in residential districts. Precinct B’s Liz Grimes spoke out against the article for its lack of site plan review in certain cases. Town Meeting member Bill Paulson, of Precinct E, said he supports solar energy but feels the motion is “a bad idea” for the Single Residence B zoning district.

“You’re going to have neighbors that are going to be sitting on their deck, looking into your backyard at your solar system that’s out there in the yard,” Paulson said. “No matter what you do, with screening, these are not going to be attractive.”

Attractiveness aside, Block said the bylaw change will “meet the moment” and address ongoing climate issues.

In support of the article, Town Meeting member Rob Dangel said he feels the visual impact will be minimal, as most people with small yards won’t set up solar panels. He said the town should support more solar usage “for the greater good.”

“Living in (Single Residence B), if I wanted to put a statue of Rocky Balboa arm wrestling Spongebob Squarepants, I could do it,” Dangel said, “and you as a neighbor would have no say over what goes in my yard.”

A motion to reduce the maximum height of small and medium-scale ground-mounted systems — from eight feet to four feet — was shot down, as was a motion to refer the matter back to the Planning Board. A simple grammatical amendment was passed, and the amended motion for the zoning passed.

Pollard Feasibility Study

Needham will also move forward with the feasibility study at Pollard Middle School at a cost of $2.75 million from free cash. Plumbing and heating pose problems at the school, and just last year, the modular classrooms flooded, School Committee Chair Liz Lee said. There are also “overcrowding and programmatic deficiencies,” Lee said.

By conducting the study, the town is hoping to save $62 million on the future renovation through the Massachusetts School Building Authority, Lee said. Though a potential vote on the project is expected in the fall of 2026, the total cost of the project is estimated at $313 million.

That large sum alarmed some residents, prompting a Town Meeting member to make a motion to amend the article calling for cost-reduction strategies. The effort failed, however, after Lee informed attendees the article can’t be modified because the MSBA already approved the language. If changed, the MSBA would bar Needham from participating, she added.

The article was supported by both the Select Board and Finance Committee.

“This project is three times larger than (Sunita Williams Elementary) is. It is a middle school building rather than an elementary school building. It will have wet labs and science labs in it. It’s a different creature,” Select Board member Marianne Cooley said. “So, people just need to understand it will be different. It’s going to be an expensive building.”

A $417,000 allotment from the CPA will go toward improving the fencing at the DeFazio Complex. Construction should start in the late summer or early fall.

Fourteen articles remain on the annual warrant. Town Meeting meets again on Monday at 7:30 p.m. in Powers Hall, first to vote on the seven articles on the Special Town Meeting warrant.

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