Photo: Mark Paolillo, chair of the Select Board
Mark Paolillo anticipated the Select Board he chairs would receive emails and phone calls related to the controversial plan by the Belmont Hill School to turn an acre-and-half of rare urban woodland into a parking lot for 150 vehicles and a facilities building.
What he didn’t expect was the increasing vitriol many of the messages carried. Strident demands for volunteers on committees to be removed, allegations of favoritism from the head of the Planning Board and calls for the Select Board to step in take control of the review process.
The next virtual meeting of the Planning Board in its discussion of the Belmont Hill School Parking Plan will be Tuesday, March 14 at 7 p.m. You can find the Zoom link here.
But it was an email that included a threat of ‘a riot’ if the board did not act that was a step too far. Paolillo decided it was time to read the “riot act” to the small number of critics who had been raising the heat on the controversial project.
“We’ve also gotten numbers of emails, and I think the recent tone the tenor of the emails has taken a direction that is totally unacceptable,” said Paolillo. “Perhaps such emails are not meant literally, but any comment that suggests or hints of violence in any way will not be tolerated by this board.”
While the Select Board agenda listed the as “Belmont Hill School update with the Chair of the Planning Board,” Paolillo said the board would not take public comment since that should only be directed to the Planning Board. Rather, he read a statement that clarified the Select Board position in relations to the tone of comments and the board’s involvement to the project.
“We have to respect one another civility in our public discourse and assume goodwill on the part of anyone who participates in our local government emails that threatened ‘a riot in the streets’ unless the planning board or the Select Board acts in a certain way are not acceptable contributions to our public dialogue,” he said. “Totally unacceptable.”
In his statement to the 20 residents at Town Hall and dozens attending via Zoom, Paolillo said while many residents and abutters to the project are asking for the Select Board to get involved in the deliberation, “we have no purview whatsoever to conduct any type of a hearing as it relates to site plan review. That falls under within our zoning bylaws and the planning board.”
Opponents to the school’s parking scheme are urging the Select Board to back a request by abutters to require a Development Impact Report for the project, in which a deep dive would commence to determine the scope of the report including environment, social, physical and infrastructure impact, at which time the town would issue a Request For Proposal that a professional development team would perform.
But Paolillo nixed that request as going beyond the Select Board’s purview.
“So folks, please, understand because I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of emails on this, that it’s not our responsibility as a Select Board to get involved in that,” said Paolillo. “While the board appoints the member to the planning board, its involvement ends there.”
Increasingly, the ire of critics has been directed at Matt Lowrie, who accepted the chair of the Planning Board after Steve Pinkerton suddenly resigned in September just as the Belmont Hill School application for the site plan review was submitted. (In an ironic sidebar, Lowrie was preparing to resign from the board with Pinkerton in October of 2022 as he is anticipating a move from Belmont.)
A growing number of abutters are seeking the Select Board to replace or dismiss Lowrie who they contend has shown by his actions since the start of the site review an overt bias in favor of the private school.
But as with refusing to inject themselves into the planning process, Paolillo said while the board does appoint the members of the Planning Board, there is no process of removing them.
Belmont’s Town Consul George Hall rendered his legal opinion on whether the select board can remove those they appoint, including planning board members. Hall’s answer was succinct: “No”, nowhere in existing state law indicates where the appointing agents also have the ability to “fire” members.
Even if such a mechanism were in place, Paolillo said the current Select Board sees no reason to seek the removal of Lowrie.
“I know you folks want us to remove him and threatened certain things for correct we don’t, we’re not going to remove him. We have confidence in the ability to serve,” said Paolillo.
“The Select Board has competence in the chair of the planning board, Matt Lowry and the other members of the planning board. It supports them in their work to reach decisions that are in the best interest of downline,”
“The Planning Board has what is sometimes an unenviable task amongst themselves. There may be different perspectives, and they do their best to fact that these perspectives in the opinions from the public into any final decision,” said Paolillo.
When an attendee asked what mechanism citizens can utilize to blue-pencil Lowrie from the Planning Board, a collective shrug of the shoulders was given. After the meeting, town officials and Select Board members theorized it would take a series of steps involving Town Meeting votes, receiving approval by the State Legislature and subsequent changes to town bylaws that would in all likelihood result in “a real s**tshow,” according to one participant.
“We understand support the right of residents, so I’m here tonight, you’re going to express their opinions and take passionate positions, but is essential to remember that thoughtful and caring residents may legitimately have different views on this,” said Paolillo.
Calling from the Orlando International Airport, Lowrie updated the Select Board on the parking plan. Planning Board is close to receiving the results of the two peer reviews’ on stormwater and traffic/congestion.
“Both of those changes were made by the Belmont Hill School at my initial suggestion, followed by extensive negotiations among the town administrator and abutters … [that] resulted in letters of support from people who had been quite vocally against it,” said Lowrie. He noted that peer review process have resulted removing parking spaces, extending a sidewalk and increasing the amount of impervious surfaces “[the Belmont Hill School] didn’t necessarily agree with them, but they certainly agreed to make the changes.”
“Because of those changes, the stormwater analysis is probably not impacted a whole lot, but it’s impacted a little. The traffic is probably not impacted a whole lot, but it could be impacted a little and so we’re waiting for final reports,” said Lowrie.
Lowrie said the Planning Board will receive the peer review at its March 14 meeting “and then, I think from there, we close the public hearing, have our vote and issue an opinion.” He said he is hopeful to have it done by the end of March.
Paolillo’s statement and clarification on the Select Board’s inability to involve itself in the process did not go over-well with many in the audience.
“The planning board is here for the community. And there are quite a lot of people in the community who wrote letters about Mr. Lowery’s behavior. Just because one person … wrote a nasty letter to [the board] doesn’t mean that no one should oversee Mr. Lowery’s behavior,” said a resident. “You’re giving him a free pass and saying ‘Thank you’ for being a jerk.”
Outside the board room, opponents of the project were disappointed that they could not express their concerns. Marina Popova who lives just across Route 2 in Arlington said “there are issues that were raised by the public and those issues should be addressed. They should be investigated and we should know the decision,” Popover said.
But with the Belmont Hill parking process, Lowrie’s decisions are “unquestionable. Whatever the one person does, that’s the law. But nobody is above the law. Everybody should be answerable to their peers, to the public, eventually, because that’s who they’re working for, Popover said.
For Courtney Hayes-Sturgeon of Common Street, Lowrie’s “one sided” leadership and long-standing opposition to a development impact report will have a powerful and detrimental effect on the long-standing trees and birds and wildlife that occupy the six total acres owned by Belmont Hill School.
“Lowrie won’t even let anyone talk about the flora and the fauna because he’s tired of hearing about it. It’s as if it doesn’t exist,” said Hayes-Sturgeon.
“People are attached to this area. It’s right next to their home safe watch the thoughts of owls and all these animals, and they know that you know every little piece of trees that we’ve chopped down, or it’s just one more assault on the environment,” she said.