Penny Schafer, Economist and Civic Leader, Dies at 76

Photo: Penny Schafer (family photo)

Penelope “Penny” Schafer, a well-respected environmental economist who lived most of her life on Lewis Road, was known by her family and friends for being “generous almost to a fault,” willingly providing her time and energy to the service of her church, community and civic groups in her hometown of Belmont.

Schafer – who always went by Penny – died on Aug. 26, 2020 in Portland, Me. She was 76. The cause was a stroke suffered at her vacation home in Jefferson, Me.

“She leaves behind a legacy of making the world a better place at both the national and local level,” remembered one of her clients who she worked with at Cambridge-based Abt Associates.

Schafer’s colleagues at Abt recalled her as an amazing mentor, smart, funny, and, most of all, wise. She had an amazing capacity for kindness, while pushing her colleagues to be better than they knew they could.

Schafer was nationally known for her work on the dangers of lead paint and their abatement, working principally with the US Environmental Protection Agency. She conducted risk assessments of the environmental impacts of lead and other pollutants such as mercury and asbestos on the environment, and performed impact and cost-benefit analyses of proposed environmental regulations. She also developed an early Web-based lead database which provided organizations and families with access to data on childhood lead poisoning and facilitated interdisciplinary collaboration in the effort to prevent childhood lead poisoning.

Although she never sought the spotlight, Schafer was dedicated to her community and invested great time and energy in making it a better place for all. She served as an elected Town Meeting Member for 38 years. In addition, she was on the town’s Warrant Committee, which oversees the town budget, including chairing the committee for a period. She also played a vital role on Belmont’s Senior Center Building Committee and the Council on Aging including being its president. 

Schafer was also a dedicated member and officer of the Belmont League of Women Voters, most recently serving on its board and as its treasurer. She also devoted serious time to the First Church in Belmont, serving in various roles since joining around 1978, including most recently on the Parish Board and a just completed six-year tenure as its treasurer. She was an active long-term member of her Radcliffe College Class Reunion Committee.

Schafer was born on April 10, 1944 and grew up in LaGrange, Ill. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1966 and earned a doctorate in Urban Planning with a concentration in Economics from Harvard University in 1976. 

While in graduate school she fell in love with Robert Schafer, and they were happily married for 50 years, celebrating their golden wedding anniversary on Aug. 23, three days before she died.

Schafer is survived by her husband, a son, Karl, and two brothers, Gale and Brad, and their families.

The family is establishing a Penny Schafer Memorial Fund at the First Church in Belmont, 404 Concord Ave., Belmont, MA 02478, to which contributions can be made in lieu of flowers or other gifts. A memorial service will be held once the Covid-19 virus subsides and in person gatherings are again possible.

‘Farewell and thank you, Belmont’ – Town Meeting Member Bids Adieu

Dear Precinct 1 Belmontians:

Thank you for the opportunity to serve on Town Meeting these past three years. I’m grateful to have worked with such intelligent and committed public servants, and for the tireless work and dedication of everyone who contributes to our town — and I’m proud of what we accomplished these past three years. I am graduating from college this May and may soon be moving out of Belmont, so I am not running for re-election.

I look back on the victories — whether it be the moment we stood up for undocumented immigrants with the overwhelming passage of the Welcoming Town resolution, the many votes we took to turn the new Belmont High from concept into reality, and smaller victories such as whenever Don Mercier moves a question. I’m proud to be born and raised Belmontian, and I’m grateful to have worked with such committed and passionate community servants to play a small role in moving our town forward.

Reflecting on the past three years as a Town Meeting Member, and my time involved in this community since childhood, I am proud of the direction our town has gone: From the corruption of the Monahan days to an increasingly diverse and forward-thinking town government, from underfunding our schools when I was in Chenery to 76% of voters approving the new Belmont High last fall.

Splitting this Town Meeting term between my teens and my twenties, I’m grateful to only once have had a Selectman mistake me for a custodian and tell me to throw out his trash. But in all seriousness, I’m glad to have brought a youth perspective to the table, whether in conversations regarding the future of Belmont schools, immigrant protections, affordable housing, or environmental policies — young voices form a perspective that’s needed now, more than ever, in our town and in our country, and I hope that Belmont expands opportunities for students to engage in local advocacy and town government.

I’d like to thank my Belmont Public School teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade. Their tireless work and dedication was fundamental in building my desire to engage in advocacy and public service, and in driving me to where I am today. I am proud to be part of a community that values and invests in its public schools.

I want to recognize the Belmontians who are no longer with us, but who mentored and shaped me growing up. I first met Dan Scharfman when he knocked on my door while running for School Committee when I was in 7th grade. No one had ever cared what I thought, but he took the time to ask and to listen — and in doing so, inspired me to start engaging in advocacy around town. That year, when my teachers were at risk of being laid off, I wrote a cringeworthy but well-intentioned Citizen-Herald op-ed about the 2010 override and held signs outside Precinct 1’s polling place for the first time. I would also like to thank Trish Lohmar, who mentored me about progressive advocacy and civic action as I grew up. I’m inspired by the dedication of Dan and Trish to bettering the Belmont community, and more importantly for being incredible welcoming and supportive people.

There have also been harder moments. When I was canvassing during my campaign for Town Meeting, a person first said they would vote for me, then asked me if I am Jewish, and then told me they would probably not vote for me because of my religion. That interaction demonstrates the importance of staying vigilant for antisemitism and other forms of prejudice and white supremacy in our community. Addressing complaints as a member of the Belmont Human Rights Commission and answering the civil rights complaint hotline for Attorney General Healey’s office provided reminders that antisemitism and racism are more common in our community than most people realize, and must be fought accordingly.

I said this when I first ran for Town Meeting, and it is still just as true as I finish my term: Never be satisfied with the status quo. Question, innovate, and embrace bold ideas. These past few years have reinforced my belief in the importance of never listening to the tired arguments that “Belmont isn’t ready” or “it’s too difficult” or “it’s too controversial, people will be angry.” I’ll be the first to acknowledge the many issues facing our town — but local government has reminded me to never be deterred by entrenched institutions. Particularly in the Trump era, local government has enormous power to lead the way, stand up for our values, and fight for justice and progress.

Belmont’s successes leave gaps that must be addressed by thinking big and acting bold. With federal inaction and a state legislature that has failed consistently to pass adequate climate legislation, it’s up to local government to lead the way on addressing the climate crisis by adhering to and expanding on the emission reductions in the Belmont Climate Action Plan. Watertown, for instance, just became the first city to mandate solar panels on all new commercial buildings. Belmont could send a bold message of climate leadership by being the second. We must face the reality that single family zoning in affluent suburbs like Belmont has consistently facilitated socioeconomic inequality and racial disparity, and contributes to the region’s affordable housing crisis. We must support lower-income residents by continuing to build safeguards for those who cannot afford the increasing tax burden, and ensuring adequate affordable housing through zoning reform to allow for increased density. We must increase awareness of issues of racial justice and immigrant justice in a relatively homogenous environment that is conducive to facilitating ignorance about race and inequity. To grow and strengthen our town, it’s important to face these hard truths by acknowledging and then tackling them head on.

There’s a lot of work to do, but I’m confident that we have a strong group of Town Meeting Members and a strong Selectboard, and I look forward to both bodies continuing to become more forward-thinking, diverse and representative of our community in the coming years. The choices on April 2nd are clear.

And to Belmont’s students and young people: this is your town, too. Raise your voices, demand they be heard, and ensure that our generation has a seat at the table. Get involved in town government and advocacy. Run for office. Not only do your voices matter, it’s critical that your voices are heard and elevated in decisions on town and school policy.

It has been my honor to serve Precinct 1 in Town Meeting these past three years, and to be part of the Belmont community while growing up. One thing is certain: I’ll always be grateful for everything I’ve learned from our town community these past 21 years, and I will fight for racial justice, economic justice, environmental justice, and education justice wherever I end up.

Thank you, Precinct 1, for the opportunity to serve you these past three years. Thank you, Belmont.

Daniel Vernick

Town Meeting Member – Precinct 1

Q&A: For Spirited Owner, Transferring License Usurps Residents Wishes [VIDEO]

Photo: Chris Benoit, owner of The Spirited Gourmet in Cushing Square.

You can not tell the tale of bringing alcohol to Belmont without talking about The Spirited Gourmet and the Benoits, as it was Chris and his then wife Elena who were at the forefront of turning Belmont from one of the last “dry” towns in the Commonwealth into one where a residents could buy a beer or bottle of wine within the borders of the “Town of Homes.” 

“My ex-wife and I were responsible for bringing licenses to town,” said Chris Benoit, who worked in high tech before creating stores in Winchester in 2004 and Belmont in 2007. 

“Customers from Belmont would come to our store in Winchester and say, ‘What a great place. I’d be nice to have something like this in Belmont.'” The selectmen visited the store, his ex-wife made a presentation at the 2006 Town Meeting, the town voters in 2007 approved three licenses, and the Benoit’s got the all-alcohol license.

“Pretty straight forward,” he said.

And for the past decade, Benoit has devoted his life to the busy street front store at 448 Common St. in Cushing Square which led the early revitalization of one of Belmont’s four commercial centers.

“We have seen ourselves as being an anchor attracting business to this area. Compare the square today compared to when we first opened, it’s radically different,” he said. “So we kept our promise with the residents to spur economic activity.”

But it has been far from smooth sailing since opening the store.

“I’m here Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., invested a tremendous amount of money as well as my time. I’ve had to use a good chunk of my 401K to get past cash flow issues. It’s terrible because not only is it your retirement, you get penalized for taking the money,” he said.

“But you do what you have to do to stay in business,” said Benoit.

But in the past week, Benoit believes his business and the residents are facing a challenge to the cozy environment of local alcohol sales with the attempt by the owner of The Loading Dock retail store and restaurant to sell his all-alcohol license for $400,000 in compensation to Star Market which is looking to add a 2,000 sq.-ft. “liquor operation” to its Waverley Square store. 

The Board of Selectmen which heard the request on Sept. 19 postponed a possible vote until Oct. 6

“When I first heard about this from one of my managers, I thought he got the details wrong. It just seemed to come out of nowhere,” said Benoit. But it took only a few hours for the Somerville residents to set fingers to keyboard.

In an email letter sent to customers and the public, Benoit wrote a statement he believes reflects the feeling of the majority of residents and business owners in Belmont. 

“Allowing the license transfer to Shaws/Star Market will hurt this business financially and would not be in the spirit of why these licenses were created, for economic development,” said Benoit. (See the complete letter below)

“I’m not a cold-hearted person, and feel for Mr. [Faud] Mukarker [owner of The Loading Dock], but why should current license holders be penalized for his lack of planning and/or financial resources?” wrote Benoit.

It takes a while to build your business and become profitable especially with alcohol sales, and I don’t think the Loading Dock thought he could lose money selling liquor, said Benoit.

“Being successful doesn’t come overnight and just because someone gives you a license,” said Benoit.

Benoit has asked his store’s customers and local businesses and residents who question the transfer to attend Thursday’s Board of Selectmen meeting (7 p.m., Town Hall)

The Belmontonian interviewed Benoit at this store in Cushing Square. 

Q: When you heard about the proposed transfer?

A: The first time I heard about it was Tuesday evening, the day after the meeting. I had no knowledge of this transfer up until then. The town isn’t obligated to inform licensees that this is going on although they are required to post a notice in the ‘paper. I never saw it, and likely the reason is that [the newspaper] don’t typically put it in place where everyone can find it.

Q: And what was your initial reaction?

A: I was not very happy (laughing). When you read that a major supermarket chain wants to take 2,000 sq.-ft. of their space dedicated to a liquor store and invest $2.4 million and they are less than a mile from you, that’s pretty scary as every other license holder.

Q: How would a license at Star Market effect your business?

A: As I said to many people, the issue is that there’s only so much business to be had when you are offering alcohol sales. So there’s a certain financial pie and that pie isn’t getting any bigger for people who shop locally. Let’s say someone from the South Shore were to come by here and say, ‘What a beautiful store’ but they are not coming back because they have something close to them. So when you put something in your backyard, customers are going to be interested and shop there.

I took a hit when a small guy like Art’s Specialties (across Trapelo Road from the Studio Cinema) or when a store opened in Waltham, it’s just more competition in an already saturated market. So at a certain point, the little guys won’t be able to withstand that level of competition and they’ll go out of business while the chains that can sustain it with their financial resources will be the only ones left standing.

Q: What wrong with a transfer? 

A: The whole point of licenses was to promote small businesses. Town Meeting didn’t want chains or liquor stores. That’s why when they were first handed out, we got one, the Craft Beer Cellars got the beer and wine license and Vintages [in Belmont Center] the other wine license. And for that time, the three of us work off one another because we emphasize our differences. So we could co-exist and it worked out very well and we brought a lot to the community. 

Now the town has added Foodies [a three-store chain based in Boston’s South End that is slated to open in the summer of 2017 in the former Filene’s site in Belmont Center] to the mix. You know that will affect Craft Beer’s sales and Vintages was just sold so the original owner saw the writing on the wall. 

I think when Foodies was awarded the license, the board looked at this big empty space since Macy’s moved out which was an eyesore. So putting in a Foodies is sort of economic development, it’s coming at the expense of other license holders within spitting distance of the store. But it’s something where you’re helping to beautify the Town Center and adding value to the residents by giving them another grocery option then just Star or Shaws.  

Q: Do you believe your argument against a license transfer to Star has been made more difficult to make since the town granted one to a small chain in Foodies?

A: When the Loading Dock went to get its license, one of the other applicants was D&L Liquors. Part of the reason it was denied is because it had three liquor stores and wanted a fourth. You said no to a chain once, but the next year when Foodies – while a small chain with three stores, it’s still a chain – comes in gets the license.

Unfortunately, a precedent was set last year by giving Foodies a license. This has created a loophole that Star Market is trying to exploit. And with their financial resources and legal team, they can make it difficult for the town.

Q: Two days after the meeting, you wrote an open email letter to your customers and residents which was critical of the attempted transfer. What are you attempting to achieve?

A: Initially I was unaware of the meeting and I don’t think many in town understood what was happening. The Loading Dock’s owner brought his supporters and rallied behind him at the hearing and I totally respect and appreciate what they’re doing. They like the owner and are supporting him. I hope my customers do the same for me.

But the letter was more to let people know what is going on and it seems that no one knows this is happening. These licenses were never intended to go to a store like Star Market. As the Town Meeting and selectmen all said; if Star Market applied, it would be denied a license.

People need to know this because a transfer would have a really big impact. If the town gives Star Market a license, the whole landscape of the town with respect to alcohol purchases is going to be different. Five years from now, all the small stores will be gone, my store could very easily be gone and you’ll be looking at Star Market and Foodies as your two options.

Is that what the people want? I know for a fact that Town Meeting both times didn’t vote to have that kind of thing. They never wanted chains or for supermarkets to have licenses. That is the wish of the residents through Town Meeting. If you give the license to Star Market, that goes against the will of the people and you are heading down a slippery slope. People should be able to come to the meeting saying, “This isn’t right.”

Q: What has been the reaction to your email letter?

A: People are pretty heated about it. The most comments I’ve got is how does someone who doesn’t own the license and has only held it for 18 months could be allowed to make $400,000 off it. That’s what people are scratching their heads about.

I pay $4,000 to the town to operate my business. I don’t own the license. It’s a public good. If I sold this store, the license would stay with it because the operation would lose value. But to be able to take a license and just sell it on its own, that’s just crazy. How do you profit from something that you don’t own just doesn’t make any sense.

• • • • 

Chris Benoit’s email letter 
On Monday evening there was a meeting held by the Belmont Board of Selectmen and The Loading Dock. Unfortunately, the Town is not obligated to notify other license holders so we were unaware of the meeting. The owner of The Loading Dock is looking to transfer his all alcohol license to Shaws/Star Market in Waverly Square and collect $400,000.
This license, and two retail beer and wine licenses, were created at the 2013 Town Meeting, for the purpose of “economic development”. The Loading Dock was awarded the license in 2014 based on bringing economic development to the Brighton Street section of Belmont. At that hearing, then Selectman, and proponent of Town Meeting Article 15, [than Selectman] Andy Rojas, was quoted as saying “I believe this license would generate economic development in the spirit of why I supported a liquor license in town.” Within two years the owner has decided he needs to have an “off premise”, or restaurant/pouring, license to survive. 
The owner of The Loading Dock has discovered that having an all alcohol retail license isn’t the pot of gold he envisioned. Had my then wife, Elena, and I, who together opened The Spirited Gourmet in 2007, not planned well there would be no Spirited Gourmet. We knew, like for most businesses, that you’re likely going to sustain losses when you’re starting a business and it took us years to get in the black. We also knew that having a successful business would require having enough money to fund inventory, which, in our case is over $300,000. I’m not a cold-hearted person, and feel for Mr. Mukarker, but why should current license holders be penalized for his lack of planning and/or financial resources?
We try to have fun with what we do here but this is a difficult, competitive business. My living in a Somerville apartment and driving a 16-year-old car will attest to the fact I’m not getting rich from this business. There are currently 9 liquor stores within a 2.5-mile radius of The Spirited Gourmet. Foodies, which is scheduled to open in the fall, will make 10 stores. People shop local for this type of business so there’s a finite number of customers available to sustain a store. Allowing the license transfer to Shaws/Star Market will hurt this business financially and would not be in the spirit of why these licenses were created, for economic development. Had Mr. Rojas used Shaws/Star Market, and not this store, as an example of what these licenses would be used for I highly doubt they would have been approved. This is, unwittingly, turning into a bait and switch with a small food chain now holding a beer and wine license and a large conglomerate potentially being granted an all-alcohol license. 
Mr. Mukarker appeared with his supporters Monday evening. Elena and I have requested a meeting with the Board prior to their vote. We could really use the support of our customer base so that the Board understands that small business matters and stores like this add to a community. 

Minuteman To Hold District-Wide Vote Sept. 20 To OK $144M Building Project

Photo: Belmont may have voted no, but it could be on the hook for nearly $500,000 in annual costs to construct a new regional technical school.

Belmont may have voted “no” in May, but that hasn’t stopped the Minuteman School Committee from getting a second bite at the apple to approve a $100 million bonding issue to build a new regional technical school on the Lexington/Littleton town line.

On Monday, June 27, the school’s school committee voted 12-1 with one abstention to bring a referendum to build the school to the entire 14 community district.

The vote – funded by the Minuteman School Committee – will take place on Tuesday, Sept. 20 from noon to 8 p.m. 

“It’s a simple vote across all the [d]istrict towns,” said Edward Bouquillon, Minuteman’s Superintendent-Director in a statement issued on June 28.

“It’s done on the same day during the same hours. The votes are totaled. If there are more “yes” votes than “no” votes, the project is approved,” he said.

According to data from Minuteman Tech, renovations and repairs are projected to cost local taxpayers roughly $100 million and take six to ten years to complete. With the MSBA grant, the local share would be roughly the same amount, to be paid by local taxpayers and by out-of-district communities through a new capital fee assessed by the state.

The new vote comes about two months after a Special Town Meeting overwhelmingly rejected the bonding issue, the only Town Meeting to vote down the proposal that would saddled Belmont with an annual bill of $350,000 to $500,000 to pay for its portion of the nearly $100 million to build the school.

And despite Belmont having expressed its opinion on the issue and while many in town would like the town to commit its own “Brexit”-style departure from the district, “it has there really is no practical way for Belmont to leave the District before the vote is taken. It’s simply not possible,” said Jack Weis, Belmont’s representative to the Minuteman School Committee.

In the view of the Minuteman officials, they were left with only one option after Belmont’s legislative body rebuffed the proposal.

“We tried the traditional Town Meeting route and won by overwhelming margins just about everywhere,” said Bouquillon, winning approval in the other 13 Town Meetings. “But we were unable to make the case properly in one town [Belmont] and, given the rules of this process, that was enough to require going directly to citizens through a formal referendum.”

In hopes of saving a $44 million grant from the Massachusetts School Building Authority to build the school, said Bouquillon, the Minuteman School Committee will submit the issue directly to the voters of its member towns.

In a press release issued on Tuesday, June 28, Minuteman and officials from other communities in the Minuteman district met with Belmont officials on June 20 “to determine whether Minuteman should attempt to bring the matter back to Belmont Town Meeting or, alternatively, go to a referendum.”

Under the town meeting approval process, the project could only move forward if no member town voted to object. 

Belmont officials told the committee there was no indication that Town Meeting members would change their opposition to the project which it considers far too large for the number of students coming from district communities.

“[The] sensible course would be to proceed directly to referendum,” said Bouquillon. “Fortunately, state law gives multi-town districts such as Minuteman a second option for getting capital projects approved.”

“Under the new Regional Agreement, any community can petition to leave the District at any time.  The first step is to have a Special Town Meeting and to have the two-thirds of the Town Meeting members vote in favor of leaving. But, the actual departure isn’t effective for three years after that. So, there is no way to leave the District before the vote is taken.

Even if Belmont could decamp from the district, “communities are still obligated for their share of any debt incurred prior to the withdrawal date,” said Weis.

Possible Policy Change Could See Money Heading for Sidewalk Repair

Photo: Sidewalk in need of repair.

Town Meeting member Catherine Bowen came to the microphone to ask a question on the Capital Budget at the annual gathering on Wednesday, June 3.

If the town was spending in fiscal 2016 the largest amount ever on road resurfacing at $2.55 million – so much so, said Capital Budget Chair Anne Marie Mahoney, that it couldn’t spend “one more penny” because it had met its construction limit – why not dedicate a few dollars over to repair and reconstruct several miles of dilapidated sidewalks rather than roads that service a few homes with little traffic?

“I have been in Belmont for a few years so if you told me that roads were being repaired, I would naturally assume that sidewalks were part of that [reconstruction],” Bowen told the Belmontonian.

“But when the roads were being repaired in precinct four, I discovered that was not the case,” said the Bartlett Avenue resident.

After a few seconds, Belmont Board of Selectmen chair Sami Baghdady answered Bowen’s query and made news at the same time.

It’s time the board looks at the town’s policy on funding sidewalks as part of the road resurfacing account; he told the body.

And with that suggestion, Baghdady said the selectmen will soon debate possibly reintroducing an annual expenditure for sidewalks, reversing a decade-long practice of haphazard funding during the best of times.
“It was a good suggestion that came from the Town Meeting floor, and it is a policy that the board should discuss and reconsider,” said Baghdady.

With the rare exception of this and the coming fiscal years in which $200,000 in each year will be targeted for sidewalk repair using one-time funds, the town’s decade-old policy has been to forego sidewalk expenditures. As Mahoney stated earlier in the night, the need for road repair has been so pressing since the mid-2000s while money from state and local sources for resurfacing and reconstruction has dwindled over the years.

As a result, a walk on most Belmont sidewalks is interrupted by concrete slabs displaced by tree roots or broken by cars parking on them or by the weather. In all neighborhoods, the lack a well-defined sidewalk with curbing results in vehicles parking on the walkway.

The impact is that many residents – especially the aging or those pushing carriages – find the path daunting and will move in the roadway to walk.

As a member of Safe Routes to Schools at Butler Elementary and Sustainable Belmont, Bowen said as a “green” community the town should be interested in increasing transportation with a lower carbon footprint such as walking as well as encouraging healthy activities.

“There is an increasing awareness that people want to use their sidewalks, that we are using our sidewalks, but we don’t necessarily feel safe doing so,” said Bowen.

The call to review the current policy is due to the simple fact “that our sidewalks need repair,” Baghdady told the Belmontonian.

“Sidewalk replacement should be looked at at the same time. We are always looking for better practices and it seems personally that there might be some economies of scale if we do the work at the same time,” said Baghdady, saying that the board will be asking direction from the Department of Public Works and Community Development on writing a new policy.

“A practice should not survive just because it’s been there for years and years,” said Baghdady.

Williams ‘Wins’ Concessions, Withdrawing Petitions at Town Meeting

Photo: Jim Williams (left)

He’s been an elected officials for just about two months, but in that time, Selectman Jim Williams has sent Belmont’s thinking on town finances all topsy-turvy.

With his surprise election in April – the four-year resident defeated incumbent Andy Rojas by nearly 500 votes – Williams has used his time before and after his election seeking greater “transparency” on a number of financial issues facing Belmont’s future, specifically how the town views and manages long-term expenses related to pensions and other post-employment benefits (know as OPEB).

And it was likely that this month, the town’s legislative body – the nearly 290 member Town Meeting – would have encountered Williams’ goal of bringing those issues into the public forum as the Glenn Road resident filed four citizen petitions with the common goal of “opening the books” of town governance, Williams told the Belmontonian.

But Town Meeting members who were looking forward to several hours of debate and votes on the petitions will be disappointed to learn that Williams will withdraw his articles during the second night of June’s Town Meeting as town officials and members of the Warrant Committee – the financial watchdog for Town Meeting – have agreed to follow through with, at least, reporting on the ideas behind three of the four petitions.

“The selectmen [chair Sami Baghdady and Mark Paolillo] agreed to do the last three [petitions],” Williams told the Belmontonian on Monday, June 1 before Town Meeting reconvened.

The trio of petitions the selectmen agreed to be:

  • sending a quarterly report on the status of free cash to Town Meeting members,
  • the creation work sessions on the development and use of a 20-year financial forecast model for the town, and
  • the establishment of an in-house risk management policy which will make a lot easier because you can anticipate problems.

(The fourth petition would have required all reporting bodies – the selectmen and the warrant and capital budget committees – to provide in writing 48 hours before Town Meeting why they held either a favorable or unfavorable position on articles before the legislative body. It was decided that each body would have to decide on its own how to report this information.)

The other two selectmen’s deferring to William’s petition is somewhat of a surprise as both the Warrant Committee and the selectmen had or prepared to vote an “unfavorable recommendation” on each of the petitions. In the case of the Warrant Committee, the votes on the quartet of articles were nearly all unanimous.

Why the change of heart?

Williams said once he made his presentation to the selectmen, “they decided it was the right thing to do.” The former Wall Street banker said that all he has been asking the town for is “the same transparency any financial body is expected to provide. I don’t see how this is so revolutionary.”

Williams hopes that new information and vigorous debate will lead to what has been his clarion call of tackling the town’s fiscal obligations sooner than later.

As the selectmen are preparing to take a look at areas of debt, the Warrant Committee will take on a “summer project,” according to committee member Adam Dash, to review the town’s current pension payment plan with an attempt to mitigate the cost to town taxpayers.

For Baghdady, the purpose of the new long-range forecast committee “to look at our existing policy and see if there is anything more that can be done. We have a big obligation on paper [approximately $174 million] currently so the first question will be what more can we do as a fiscally-responsible community.”

Baghdady hopes that the efforts by the selectmen and the Warrant Committee on long-range debt “will come together as they really do go hand-in-hand” although pensions payments follow state policy while OPEB debt has not dictated.

While Williams believes the outcome of this new era of fiscal “glasnost” will lead to paying down OPEB debt early, Baghdady said that “it is possible that after the report is complete, it might tell us to ‘stay the course’.”

The current policy is for Belmont’s pension obligations to be paid down steadily – at an ever increasing amount annually – until 2027 and then focus on OPEB. Until that time, a token amount – this year about $366,000 in the next fiscal year – will be transferred into an OPEB stabilization fund.

Town Treasurer Floyd Carman has stated while small, the annual payment is seen by the bond rating agencies as a proactive step in facing its debt obligations, ultimately resulting in the town being one of only 30 or so communities with a stellar AAA bond rating.

“But I think we do owe it to ourselves to go through the process and the analysis,” Baghdady told the Belmontonian.

 

 

Belmont Town Meeting: Night 1, May 4

Photo: Belmont Town Meeting.

Welcome to the first night of the 156 annual Belmont Town Meeting, Monday, May 4, 2014, the town’s legislative body in action.

So, what’s in store tonight? Likely we’ll get through the first nine articles in the warrant which includes a non-binding resolution on a solar power referendum (the debate on this could go one and on), a McMansion zoning article, storm water review, and other stuff.

And the meeting is on Belmont time, five minutes late.

7:08 p.m.: We’ve had the invocation, the flags were brought into the auditorium by the Boy and Cub scouts, the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the National Anthem by the Belmont High A Cappella. Very nice.

7:15 p.m.: I wonder when the Town Meeting will be comfortable with electronic voting that we don’t need a demonstration. I’m guessing a few more decades.

7:20 p.m.: New and recently re-elected members are given the oath of office by Town Clerk Ellen Cushman.

7:25 p.m.: Town Moderator Mike Widmer telling the members about the new rules; five minutes per speaker, one question and a follow up question, and direct questions through the moderator.

7:28 p.m.: Two proclamations to a pair residents “beloved by Belmont,” said Selectmen Chair Sami Baghdady; Anne Allen and Bob Dally.

7:35 p.m.: So we’re off – time to hear the order of the motions. The first nine articles will be debated in May, “hopefully within the first two nights,” said Baghdady.

“I am very upbeat on Belmont,” said Baghdady.

Anne Paulsen is giving an update on the new Underwood Pool. Everything is swimmingly. “Work is going on in a feverous pace” so the pool can be completed by August for a “short season.” So get passes at a discounted rate at the Recreation Department.

7:42 p.m.: Housecleaning articles up first.

7:44 p.m.: Up is Article 3, amending the Storm Water Management and Erosion bylaw to allow more updated rainfall data to apply to the bylaw. But the Conservation Commission uses the old data, which would be a mess as half the town would be using different data. The amendment would allow the ConCom to use the new data, while asking the Board of Selectmen to use the new data set. With a few questions, the article is adopted, with a single no vote. 

7:57 p.m.: Article 6, the citizens petition to control the building of McMansions in the Shaw Estates neighborhood. You can read what the beef of the residents here. Basically, the residents are seeking to limit the height of residential properties to 32 feet to the mid-point. This will sunset on June 30, 2016 unless extended at the next Town Meeting. The people, now called the Belmont Citizens for Responsible Zoning, live in single-family residence, hopes this moratorium will begin a discussion on these “oversized” homes that tower over neighboring homes, crowd out sunlight, and undermines the character of the “Town of Homes.” The current zoning bylaw requires existing homes to obtain a special permit but not for new construction.

Stephen Pinkerton, Pct. 7, said the town faces acceleration oversize construction, especially his neighborhood. Five new McMansions have gone up in the past few years. The before and after pictures of what was there and what is replaced has Town Meeting buzzing, especially the new house on Betts Road currently under construction. “Our neighborhood has been transformed,” said Peg Callahan, who is presenting the petition.

Pinkerton shows that new construction under current bylaw will allow the total height to be 40 feet tall. The 32 feet mid-point “is a compromise” so not to be overwhelming. Callahan said if approved, the new group will meet with Planning Board to construct town-wide limits. A good cheer at the end.

Jim Stanton, Pct. 3, said since the town approved a series of actions in the General Residence district (precinct 3 and 4), one argument against the moratorium is economic harm to seller and developers, but it turns out only the developers reap the great profit when a McMansion is built rather than a more sensible sized house.

Price Armstrong, Pct. 7, asked if the town as a town-wide master plan to come to these goals. He said Cambridge, Lexington and others have such a comprehensive plan. Baghdady said there was one five years ago (but that was killed – tabled – at the 2010 Town Meeting). 

Bob Kennedy, Pct 3, said he lives in Kendell Garden, a neighborhood of small homes, and he was effected when a McMansion was built there. Why would it not be better that the entire town be placed under the neighborhood, because then developers will go to other neighborhoods to beat a town wide change in the bylaw. Selectman Mark Paolillo said you can’t change the amendment but he’s worried about this. Mike Battista, chair of the Planning Board, said even if a town-wide bylaw is not approved, this moratorium can be extended. 

Marty Cohen, Pct. 3, said that this is a “wake-up call.” “Belmont needs a zoning bylaw that’s good for Belmont.”

8:33 p.m.: a voice vote on the article: clearly adopted to the moderator, but why not an electronic vote? And the vote is: 238 to 24.

Wow, only a half an hour to go thorough that amendment.

8:38 p.m.: Next up is Article 7 which is related to the rezoning of General Residences district which passed articles to give special tools to the Planning Board – special permits being one – to make for better housing that is consistent with the neighborhood. Planning Board member Liz Allison said the Board would like another tool. Under the current bylaw, the developer can build a big two-family with a special permit. So this amendment would allow the board to approve a developer with a large lot, 8,000 sq-ft and 90 feet of frontage, to build a pair of single families. 

8:46 p.m.: And the fire alarm goes off! And off we go to the parking lot!

9 p.m.: And we are back! That was delightful. I understand members who left through the music room were serenaded by a chorus. 

Now back to the article; the proponents are looking to “bring back the charm” of the single family (with limits to allow green space between the two buildings) back to the GR zone, said Joseph DeStefano of the Planning Board. 

Questions? Several interesting questions on position of the front door, hypothetical events, and other issues. The question is called and debate is ended. The vote on the article (requires 2/3 vote since it’s a zoning bylaw) is 235 to 10 and the article is adopted.

9:35 p.m.: Moderator Mike Widmer asks if the meeting will want to begin Article 9, the solar power non-binding resolution, debate it for an hour and suspend until Wednesday. Yes, says the meeting.

This is Article 9, the citizens petition on solar power. The Board of Selectmen voted 2-1 to oppose the article. (Jim Williams the lone yes vote). Roger Wrubel, Pct 5, speaks for the petition. Wrubel said this article will bring solar power to a wider audience. This isn’t really about a ballot question, but rather a request for the public utility, Belmont Light, not discriminate against solar owners with special fees. Wrubel explains net metering, required by most utilities which, it turns out, intensifies solar usage. Wrubel said he wants Belmont Light to provide the same retail net metering as 30 of 40 communities. How many Belmont household have solar arrays? 20. Not much. Wrubel said Belmont Light’s policy has punished residents who want to use solar. 

Ralph Jones, Pct 3, introduces Patty DiOrio, of the Belmont Municipal Light Advisory Board – which wrote the draft plan that is no longer being used, who said that the solar advocates will get a subsidy from other users. There is no discrimination to solar users, said DiOrio. This is about keeping local control on how the utility determines how to pay for solar power. 

Jones said its best to wait on the issue so Belmont can create its own standards. He said there are people at Town Meeting who are itching to do battle over the issue. “They want a fight to the death … a fight to the pain.” He proposes this amendment be postpone until a later date to allow emotions to  calm down. 

Fred Paulsen, Pct 1, said its critical Belmont has a strong independent utility. He said with the state task force on solar net metering coming out with a report, the Light Board (it’s made up of the Board of Selectmen) will come up with it’s own standards.

Suddenly the issue is getting people hot under the collar. Paul Roberts, Pct 8, is scolded rather loudly by the moderator for moving beyond the narrow scope of the question. 

Dan Nolan, Pct 2, wonders how long is “indefinite” as in “indefinitely postponed.” Baghdady said the draft buy back plan is off the boards and the Light Board will come up with a plan for Belmont “sooner than later.”

When asked by a speaker if DiOrio has a conflict of interest as she is employed by National Grid, a large utility that supplies Belmont Light with energy, she and Jones said no, this was irrelevant to this measure. For some reason, this is the final straw for Wrubel who goes to the speakers podium and accusing people of “being afraid” to discuss the article and the subject. Calls from the members ring out that Wrubel is “out of order.” Moderator Widmer has heard enough and sends Wrubel back to the bench.

Julie Crocket, Pct. 5, and Phil Thayer, Pct 6, support the measure and requests that the debate continue.

Bob McLaughlin, Pct. 2, questions the entire article, saying it’s far too “squishy” to vote on because it advises the town’s state legislators to vote for legislation that doesn’t exist. 

Then, of all people, Don Mercier, Pct. 8, asked that the questioned be moved, needed a 2/3 majority, it got it. Town Meeting is not in a mood to spend the rest of the night and Wednesday in a debating tournament. Article 9 is voted down by a healthy margin.

10:20 p.m.: Town Meeting will reconvene on Wednesday, May 6.

Town Meeting Articles Could Force Dog Kennel to ‘Take a Walk’

Sadie, a blue-nose bull dog, isn’t shy to say “hello” to anyone after spending a day at Crate Escape, Belmont’s “doggy day care” center at the corner of Brighton and Hittinger streets.

Her owner, Chris of Acton, said he has been taking his pet to the facility located hard by the commuter rail tracks for the past three years which is convenient as he works in neighboring Arlington.

“It’s awesome. She loves it here,” said Chris who has owned Sadie for the past five years.

“She runs around all day and comes home tired. He usually naps on the trip home,” he said, calling himself a “very satisfied” Crate Escape customer.

But Chris and Sadie along with approximately 300 customers and nearly 150 dogs on an average day will need to look for a new canine provider if next month Belmont’s Town Meeting passes a pair of articles forcing the six-year-old facility to shut down for exceeding the maximum amount of dogs a kennel can house under the new regulations.

“This will bankrupt me if this passes,” said Crate Escape’s owner Bradley Hastings, who opened his current Belmont facility last year after moving from his original location across Brighton Street on Flanders Road (which opened in 2008) that will be used for the new Belmont Light substation.IMG_3798

Chris was more succinct.

“It would [stink],” he said.

Hastings attended an informational meeting by the Board of Health Thursday, April 10 at Town Hall on the changes to the town’s health codes in Article 8 to amend the general bylaws effecting animals.

Hastings, who has 55 employees and a $1.2 million payroll at stake, said first heard about the meeting and the warrant articles that morning when clients spoke to him advising him to attend. What he heard was sobering for the Belmont resident.

“People don’t like services taken from them and this is what will happen. But it will also do such damage to a business that is successful and wants to do what’s right for everyone,” said Hastings to the Belmontonian.

Located in a 15,000 square foot single-floor commercial building, Crate Escape is a big open play space for your pooch. On a visit, some dogs were running around, others playing with plastic toys, a few napping and several extremely curious of a 35mm camera.IMG_3778

Dogs are segregated by temperament and social “skills” in one of the seven pens with a handler on hand so everyone “plays safe,” said Nikkilee Condon, Crate Escape’s general manager, who said there is also grooming and boarding at the facilities.

“There’s a lot of running around and mental stimulation for the dogs. They have to figure their way through a new hierarchy each day,” said Condon, who said their are 30 dogs in each enclosed area.

Calling the business’ clients “very loyal,” Condon said more most dogs, a half-hour walk “is not enough” activity and leaving them alone is troublesome for both pet and owner.

“We have the right balance here,” said Condon.

Yet for Hastings, the services he provides the community is just two votes away from being banned in Belmont.

On Thursday, the Board of Health’s vice-chair Dr. David Alper told the sparsely-attended meeting the language change to the existing bylaw was effectively mandated by the state’s Board of Health which issued language in 2012 in an effort to bring uniformity to the hodgepodge of hundreds of regulations existing in each of the Commonwealth’s approximately 350 municipalities.

Changing regulations, static numbers

Under the “tweaking” of the regulations, the town’s Health Department will only have the power to enforce the safety and welfare of the animals by inspection and licensing facilities; it is unable to determine where a facility can be located which is left up to the zoning bylaws, said Stefan Russakow, director of the town’s Health Department.

Yet in the proposed new bylaw, the town’s terminology for what is a “kennel” has been expanded and specified  to the determent of doggy day care facilities.

In addition to requirements on licensing pets and dealing with “dangerous” dogs, Article 8 states that “[n]0 Kennel may keep more than 25 dogs on the premises at any time.”

And under the language in Article 9, a kennel in Belmont will include “[a]n establishment used for boarding, holding, day care, overnight stays or training of animals.”IMG_3795

This regulatory double play would force Hastings’ facility to close down as he could not meet the drastically-altered licensing requirements.

“There is just no way we could do business here,” said Hastings.

Yet the new amendments were not being proposed to drive kennels out of Belmont, according to town officials, but rather an oversight when transforming existing bylaws and zoning regulations.

According to Jeffrey Wheeler, the town’s Planning Coordinator, the history of the current animal regulations goes back to 2003 when residents along Pleasant Street complained of noise coming from an animal clinic’s outdoor kennel and petitioned the town to regulate those facilities by limiting the number of dogs to 25 in any kennel.

Under the bylaw that has been in existence for the past decade, a “kennel” did not included a section for canine care facilities such as Hastings’ but will under the amendments.

“And the Board of Health did not change the number of animals in their regulations when the zoning changes were made,” said Wheeler.

If in the first week of May Town Meeting votes to amend the bylaw (Article 8) and the zoning code (Article 9 ), Create Escape will be forced to close.

Yet the articles are far from being death sentences to Hastings’ business, according to both the Board of Health and Wheeler. Crate Escape will need a little help to revise the articles with the stroke of the copy editor’s blue pencil.

One of two measures would need to take place to save Sadie’s daytime home: the submission of a so-called “amendment to the amendment” (the articles are, in fact, amendments; they do not create new bylaws or codes) doing one of two things: either excluding the terms “day care”; or change the number of dogs a specific facility can handle.

Those who hope to change the articles are required to submit an amendment to the amendment.

Town Clerk Ellen Cushman told the Belmontonian that one Town Meeting member can file the proposed amendment in writing with the Town Clerk by the close of the business three days prior to the session of Town Meeting the article is expected to be voted.

“Related to animals, [that is] expected to be heard and voted on May 5; amendments are due by 4 p.m. April 30. No additional signatures are required,” she said.

“It behoves you to go to the zoning, planning to discuss this,” said Alper to Hastings.

But for Hastings, the last-minute way and how he was informed of the two Town Meeting articles he said could do severe damage to a decade-old service with 4,000 current customers in three locations was deplorable.

“There has been this anti-business feel since I’ve been here. No one could think of calling me? I’m disappointed,” said Hastings.

To The Rescue: High School Auditorium’s ‘Worst’ Seats Under Repair

While Town Meeting representatives all across Massachusetts have the burden of sitting through endless committee explanations, Powerpoint presentations and public debate on the minutia of town governance, Belmont Town Meeting members have an additional hardship: the seats themselves.

With the majority of Town Meeting sessions held in the Belmont High School auditorium, reps had little option then to take their chances with the infamous seats in the hall.

Some of the seats – installed in 1970 – squeak, others poke, more twist lumbars into pretzel-like contours, most do all three at the same time.

“I don’t see how they expect us to conduct the business of the town in such conditions,” Nancy Reppucci, a Precinct 1 Town Meeting representative told the Belmontonian after speaking on the matter to the Belmont Board of Selectmen on March 31.

Reppucci said the five-decade old chairs, built on steel frames and secured to the floor in rows, have deteriorated to the point where it is impossible for many members with weak backs to attempt sitting on them.

It has gotten so bad, said Reppucci, that dozens of the approximately 300 representatives are requesting straight-back chairs for their use. But that number is limited due to the auditorium’s fire code.

Yet, as then-Selectman Chair Mark Paolillo noted to Reppucci, any attempt to replace the seats with new or used rows would be considered a major renovation and immediately require the town to make the auditorium compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act code, which would cost the town untold money it doesn’t have.

In addition, the town is seeking the renovation of the High School which would include the auditorium.

But since Reppucci’s plea, a temporary solution to sore backs and other body parts has been hatched to cushion the blow to high school students, parents who attend events at the school and, of course, Town Meeting members who are spending time in the auditorium.

In conjunction with Belmont Town Administrator David Kale and Belmont School Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston and under the leadership of Gerald Boyle, the town’s joint Facilities Manager, 222 of the worst of the worst chairs will be repaired in an attempt to resolve the “ongoing issue” that “has impacted the functionality of the auditorium,” said Boyle.

The town has received a bid from South Shore Upholstery Service to re-upholster a total of 222 seat cushions at the High School Auditorium, at a cost of approximately $72 each, explained Boyle, for a total of approximately $16,000.

“The total of 222 represents all the seats in the lower center section, but we will rearrange seat cushions from the entire auditorium so the “worst” 222 are re-upholstered. We will do them in three phases of about 75 each,” said Boyle.

And to Reppucci’s and many of the Town Meeting members relief, the work is expected to be completed prior to the first night of Town Meeting on May 6.