Give And Take On Pleasant Church Cell Antennae Debate

[Editor’s note: With the successful citizen’s petition, a Special Town Meeting – the date sometime in June to be determined by the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday, May 4 – will be convened to debate changing the zoning bylaw to require the installation of interior wireless telecommunication antennae to obtain a special permit rather than the current zoning distinction of an “as of right.” This change would specifically place a greater burden on the attempt by Verizon to place a cell antennae inside the steeple of the Plymouth Congregational Church on Pleasant Street. Currently, a significant number of neighbors to the church are protesting the partnership and the communications device. Belmont are two opinions on the matter, both from Pleasant Street.]

Some comments were shortened.

John Beaty

I write to my neighbors, the Plymouth Congregational Church, and the Belmont community after watching and reading our neighborhood protest for almost six months. It is important to me to write a note that all three groups can read. 

With a little bit discussion with experts and reading, it is easy to come to the conclusion that cell towers provide less exposure to microwaves than cell phones, about 5 to 10 times less, and the World Health Organization and the American Cancer Society think there is very little evidence to support the idea that living, working, or going to school near a cell phone tower might increase the risk of cancer or other health problems. 

But these facts are not relevant, my neighbors are afraid, and do not want any additional microwave exposure. In opposition to my neighbor’s fear and concern are the needs of Plymouth Congregational Church. The Church needs the income from the Verizon cell tower to continue its existence and mission. Neither group has communicated with the other effectively.

It appears to me that the tone of protest has become increasingly acrimonious without cause. The fear, acrimony, and misunderstanding can be reduced by meeting and talking. The time to sit on the sidelines has passed. The Pleasant Street neighborhood and the Plymouth Congregational Church need to put their fears aside, talk with one another and work toward a resolution of the respective issues.

The following note will address four issues in more detail. I am going to start with my understanding of the physics and the health issues, “The Science;” then move on to a discussion of “My Neighbors Are Angry and Afraid;” followed by “The Church Is Stuck;” and lastly present “My Position.” 

The Science

My conclusion from the science is that we have little to fear from having a cell phone transmitter in the Church steeple. More importantly, the American Cancer Society also thinks so. There is very little evidence to support the idea that living, working, or going to school near a cell phone tower might increase the risk of cancer or other health problems. 

Although the science and rational thinking are important, the facts on the ground are more often governed by feelings and politics, so let’s talk about the Pleasant Street neighborhood and the Plymouth Congregation Church parish.

My Neighbors Are Angry and Afraid

Again, from my point of view, my friends and neighbors are genuinely frightened of the consequences of the exposure to cell tower radiation. The science and rational approach be dammed, this is an unwanted excess exposure and they are afraid of the consequences. The duration and vigor of the neighborhood protest is a testament to the anger and fear.

The protest has been going on for about six months that I know about, but I was told that it started almost a year ago. The neighbors have communicated in many ways. The Pleasant Street residents have:

  1. Written articles that were printed in the Belmont newspaper about the Church and its intent to host a Verizon cell tower in its steeple.
  2. Written about the Church parish and its clergy and management.
  3. Campaigned within the extended Pleasant Street community to consolidate a common position against the Verizon cell tower.
  4. Posted a Facebook page about the cell tower, church, and potential effects.
  5. Printed and posted a variety of signs, some printed, some individual handiwork.
  6. Written and distributed flyers.

It has been a vigorous, vociferous, extended, and sometimes unkind campaign. Yet to my knowledge there has been no direct contact between the Pleasant Street neighbors and the Plymouth Congregational Church (parishioners, managers, or clergy). Neither have I heard, read, or seen the voice of the church community as an advocate for the Verizon cell tower, but they are continuing to move forward with their effort to obtain cell tower approval.

The Church is Stuck

The other half of the equation is the neighborhood Plymouth Congregational Church parish. I do not know, but I think that the parish is in financial decline. It must use its physical plant to keep itself financially viable. Tithing and additional donations from the parishioners is insufficient to keep it in good financial order. So, it rents space for daycare, education, and social events that apparently is not enough. I was told by a parishioner that the parish was approached by Verizon with a cell tower contract offer that would provide an additional revenue stream for the length of the contract. This extra-parochial revenue may or may not be enough to keep the Church in good order, but it would help. I speculate that the contract with Verizon is probably between $2,000 and $3,000 a month for 12 months for 15 years which amounts to more than $360,000. The money from the contract would be available for any parish expense and would probably solve their cash flow issues.

The Church is stuck. It lives in a community that it wants to serve. It has insufficient resources to take care of the Church plant and the activities of the parish. It is trying to do good work; trying to survive: serve it parish, neighborhood and the Belmont community. It is hunkered down, but continuing to move forward toward its objective.

My Position

My neighbors are important to me. As I get older, it is increasingly important to be surrounded by a community of friends and well-meaning neighbors. My spouse and I are acquainted with everyone in the neighborhood and know many of them well enough to call them friends. But we are not afraid of cell phones or cell towers and find ourselves misaligned with the protest and much of the communication.

To add to our misalignment, we know some of the parishioners and have been neighbors with the Plymouth Congregational Church for 30 years. We know about some of the good works the parish has done over those years and view the church as a good neighbor.

The time has come to state my position. I believe in science and public policy based on scientific facts and rational thinking. I believe in direct communication. I believe in civil (sometimes you have to shout to be heard) and respectful discourse. To be more direct: I think the Church and the Pleasant Street neighborhood should talk to one another. The two groups need to figure out a pathway forward with the cell tower.

Glenn Herosian

We all appreciate your desire to promote a resolution of the dispute in our neighborhood. However, your timely commentary reads more like a well-coached spin from a political consultant hired by the church rather than an appeal from a concerned neighbor. Why would you write this sincere appeal to the local press? 

Your neighbors are understandably fearful of the ill-defined and involuntary Radiofrequency (RF) radiation about to be thrust into our kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms. But we are far from ignorant about Verizon’s plans for its steeple. Rather, we are outraged by the church’s insensitivity to its neighbors and use of its non-profit status to transform a place of worship into a cell phone tower ”business.” Between congregation donations, probable Community Preservation Act funding, and current monthly rents from numerous tenants, the church’s financial needs could be satisfied without creating controversy and discord in its own neighborhood. 

Unfortunately, we continue to see mischief from Verizon as it submits misleading applications and times its actions to avoid public discussion. 

Your treatise on “the Science” mentions the appropriate RF formulas but also echoes the inaccurate mantra of the church that our occasional use of cell phones is more harmful than the continuous exposure from high powered antennas. Your example underestimates the impact of these antennas as well as the actual duration and cumulative effect on those 23 families within the red zone. The one key difference between a cell phone and base station emissions is that we can all turn off our cell phones to limit our exposure. We do not have that option to control the output of a continuously-radiating cluster of antennas hidden less than 100 feet from our childrens’ bedrooms. 

Despite your assurances, parents of children in the neighborhood take a precautionary approach to the radiation emitting from the cell phone antennas much as they would with any other danger to their children. Not one of the church’s congregation lives within the high exposure range of the Plymouth Church’s antennas. 

On January 15, eight of us stood outside the church and politely shared information about the availability of CPA funds and our willingness to work with the church. I do not believe that the church is “stuck,” nor would I generalize without facts about its financial condition. The church has some prominent members who could have guided their congregation toward CPA funding to preserve its building, leaving its other income to support its ministry. Unfortunately, church leaders have demonstrated little interest in CPA funds or restoring harmony in the neighborhood. 

Let’s remember to consider the financial impact on the town. With Belmont financially “stuck’ by the long term funding for a new high school and library, putting the cell tower on town property and receiving Verizon’s monthly cell tower fee would help a far greater number of Belmont citizens than just those attending the church. Cell phone base stations also devalue neighboring property. The combined property devaluation and loss in real estate tax revenue could total millions and hurt the town even more. 

Our group’s position is that the church should continue doing its “good work” and be a place of worship rather than becoming a cell phone business that disregards the legitimate concerns of the families living around it. We understand the “science” of our cell phones, but cannot blindly trust incomplete scientific research distorted by powerful cell phone lobbies. The win-win solution is for the Church to obtain CPA funds and Verizon to locate the antennas in a less-dense residential area to help restore harmony to our neighborhood.

Citizen Petition Triggers Special Town Meeting Targeting Wireless Antennae at Plymouth Church

Photo: The Plymouth Congregational Church.

A group of residents, many who have led the effort to halt the installation of cellular antennae inside the steeple of Plymouth Congregational Church on Pleasant Street, have successfully filed a citizen’s petition that now requires the town to hold a Special Town Meeting in June aimed at placing a steep roadblock to the plans by the church and its telecommunication giant partner.

As the petitioners are pushing to add more stringent requirements on this and other future wireless projects, church leaders told the Belmontonian they are moving forward with a revised plan they anticipate will pass muster before a small governmental commission that is hearing the proposal.

The Special Town Meeting, which Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman said will likely take place on June 8 during the budget session of the annual Town Meeting, will ask Members to change the town’s bylaw on the installation of internal wireless telecommunications facilities.

The language of the petition – signed by 242 residents – seeks to modify the town’s current zoning bylaws in which smaller cell installations are currently “allowed by right” – in which no town oversight is needed to obtain a building permit – to requiring property owners to get a “special permit” before commencing work, “giving interested Belmont residents an opportunity to provide input to the deliberations of the Zoning Board of Appeal.”

Precinct 4’s Judith Sarno – who with Karen Herosian, Danny Morris and Ron Creamer sponsored the petition – said the petition is a “modest amendment to bring the zoning for wireless telecommunications facilities into the 21st century and offer residents a voice,” and not an attempt to disallow these operations from operating in Belmont.

“[We] are simply asking Town Meeting to allow for more transparency and some notice to concerned neighbors, by simply changing [the bylaw] to a Special Permit,” said Sarno.

Under the special permit requirement, a property owner would be required to present its plan before the Zoning Board of Appeals to demonstrate that a cell tower would not place a burden on the neighboring community. The new requirement would also require notification of neighbors and allow for comments from residents before the ZBA.

In recent rulings, the ZBA has demonstrated a propensity to rule against commercial proposals, from some small day care operations to larger enterprises including a hotel, a Dunkin Donuts franchise and placing stringent restrictions on individual homeowners who put their properties on the popular Airbnb room sharing website.

There are nine existing wireless cell facilities in Belmont; in Belmont Center, a large tower adjacent to the new Highland Cemetery on Concord Avenue and on 125 Trapelo Rd. in Cushing Square, which handles four of the biggest cell providers: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint.

The suggested change to the zoning bylaws after the church finalized an agreement with the telecommunication giant Verizon, which is about to present a revised plan to the Historic District Commission, which must OK any exterior structural changes to the steeple before the major construction can take place.

“Verizon will be presenting a revised design plan to remove the air-conditioning compressors and to retain the wooden louvers, thus eliminating the noise concerns of neighbors and preserving the current appearance of the steeple, respectively,” said 

Verizon has begun preliminary work in the area in January after the Planning Board approved the design and site plan review to place the antenna inside the steeple.

“As of now the work is related solely to Verizon and does not require a building permit,” Glenn Clancy, director of the Office of Community Development, told the Belmontonian in February.

“The Verizon work is allowed as it would be for any private property owner” with the owner taking the “risk onto themselves” if the permit is ultimately not issued, said Clancy.

From the church’s view, a majority of town residents will benefit from better cell reception.

“Town officials and Town Meeting members should take the actions that are appropriate to providing better-quality and reliable cell service to improve the ability of all its residents, visitors and businesses, alike, to conduct business, education and social interactions,” said Chet Messer, chair of the Board of Trustees of Plymouth Church.

Live at Special Town Meeting: Minuteman Regional Agreement

Photo: Moderator Mike Widmer.

Hello, as the Town Meeting convenes for a special meeting to discuss and vote on a new Minuteman Regional Agreement,

7:11 p.m.: Moderator Mike Widmer begins the meeting as more than 100 members have arrived to reach a quorum. While the electronic voting was being checked, one of the members shouted out: “Slow it down!”

“Tough crowd,” said Jack Weis. Pct. 1.

7:18 p.m.: A remembrance of Dick Betts and a wonderful standing ovation for Becca Pizzi, the young woman who won the World Marathon Challenge.


7:28 p.m.: An update from School Committee Chair Laurie Slap and Superintendent John Phelan on the need for additional space for the schools.

7:34 p.m.: Slap will present Article 3 which will establish a building committee for the purpose of renovation and/or new construction of the high school.

All boards recommend favorable action.

Slap presents a brief presentation on the important dates coming forward during the beginning of the process of renovating the high school.

Marianne Scali is offering her amendment that would add a simple statement that would require the school building committee to take special attention of hazardous waste that may be in the soil where the renovation is taking place. The area was once a town dump.

The selectmen vote unfavorable action but Sami Baghdady, Selectmen chair, said the board is for doing all it can to make sure the development is safe when children attend the site.

Phelan said the state required a complete review of the soil as part of the process of renovating the site. He said the School Committee is committed to the safety of the students and staff.

Bob McLaughlin, Pct. 2, said while it is unnecessary, he voting for the amendment because he does not want to headlines that say Town Meeting is against safety issues. “It will help alleviate the enrollment problem,” said McLaughlin, with a hardy laugh.

7:52 p.m.: Baghdady said tinkering with the language at this early date could foul up the process with the state which only wants simple language establishing a building committee. The more appropriate time for this amendment is when the building committee is adequately staffed and financed.

David Kale, the town administrator, explains that the process will require testing, and if something is found to be unsafe, a more in-depth study will be required.

Members appear skeptical of just relying on the state process.

Mark Paolillo, Board of Selectmen, said have heard people concerns of possible safety issues, but there is nothing that can be done now as this measure precedes the time for environmental inspection.

Scali said she is withdrawing her amendment, having highlighted the issue and declares victory. 

Kevin Cunningham, Pct. 4, asked Widmer who will be put on the school building committee. Widmer said the committee, about 15 people, will be working for 10 years and wants people who can put the time and has some expertise in building, construction, education, neighbors and parents. 

A number of people have reached out to him and he is taking names: send those names to

He will have the committee completed in three weeks, have names into him by this Friday.  

The vote is taken and is adopted unanimously. 

8:12 p.m.: Now the Minuteman Regional Agreement:

“This is a close call,” said Paolillo who will speak along with McLaughlin and Weis.

Back in the 1970s, the facility was full with 1,200 students, now 650 with little more than half from the 16 member towns.

“It no longer serves the district,” said Paolillo, noting the enrollment is declining while non-member towns are sending more students.

“We’re subsidizing the non-member students especially when it comes to capital costs,” said Paolillo.

Paolillo goes over the history and the dysfunctional nature of the agreement, needing unanimous votes (16-0) to amend and leave the district. It was a shared frustration with other board of selectmen that led to the new revised regional agreement that includes a “Belmont” provision that requires out-of-district students to pay a capital “fee.” 

While a tough call, a reconstituted agreement is the best for Belmont students said, Paolillo. 

8:30 p.m.: Jack Weis talks about the major reasons for vote yes for the amended agreement. Weis is going step by step through the changes from the old agreement.  

You can see what Jack is talking about here.

9 p.m.: Bob McLaughlin, Pct. 2 so that wrote my job is to clear away the fog. “It’s bad policy” but it’s the best that they can do. 

Leaning on the lecturn as if he was talking to a jury, McLaughlin – an attorney – told the members in a 10 minute speech to rally around the revised amendment as the best of a bad situation, noting that at least approving the measure would allow the town to have a vote in June concerning the debt and it allows the school to secure $44 million in state funding.

9;26 p.m.: Vincent Stanton, Pct. 3, asks if the school district can educate inhouse the vocational students now being sent to Minuteman. That was beyond the scope of the measure.

Quickly, Don Mercier, Pct. 8, called the question. Only a single question was asked. The calling was seconded and the measure passes easily 171-8. 

See you in May for the annual Town Meeting. 

Five Things To Know About the Special Town Meeting (Minuteman Edition)

Photo: Special Town Meeting 

Tonight’s Belmont Special Town Meeting – being held Monday, Feb. 22 at the Chenery Middle School – will include a vote to establish a Building Committee for the Belmont High School renovation and whether to include a site evaluation of the soil for contaminants at the high school before construction begins (even though that will occur as part of the building process.)

But those votes are just appetizers for the main course which comprises of the future of the Minuteman Career and Technical High School in Lexington, the location where a little more than two dozen Belmont students are taught in a vocational-technical environment. Belmont’s assessment to Minuteman fluctuates yearly from $830,000 in fiscal ’16 to $750,000 in the coming fiscal year. 

What the Special Town Meeting will not explore is the education being provided the Belmont residents, but the building where they are being taught and who’s going to pay for a new High School. 

According to Jack McLaughlin, the representative from Belmont’s Warrant Committee who helped shaped the new regional contract, the proposal before Town Meeting “is a terrible agreement until you see the alternative.” 

  1. Here’s a brief history leading up to the special town meeting:
  • In July 2014, the Lexington Fire Department came close to condemning the building, built in 1972, for lots of reasons.
  • Minuteman’s administration begins the process of building a new school with an expected population of roughly 700 kids. 
  • Towns such as Belmont and Arlington wanted to put the brakes on this deal because 1. a high percentage of students come from municipalities outside the district (Waltham, Malden and Watertown that sends double the kids from Belmont) and 2. under the current agreement those towns don’t have to pay a red penny towards the debt to build the new facility even though the school’s current freshman class is nearly 50/50, district/non-district students. 
  • Belmont said “enough” to the planned school, saying if a new school is built, then it should be constructed for 400 kids, the number of students from members towns. The Minuteman administration, saying they need a big school to offer a greater number of courses to draw in students, virtually ignores the opponents and pushes forward with a new, larger school.
  • Belmont – led by Belmont’s Minuteman School Committee member Jack Weis, the Warrant Committee’s Jack McLaughlin and Selectman Mark Paolillo – and Arlington told Minuteman unless they have a new regional agreement, you can expect a big fat NO when it comes time to approve issuing debt for the school. That would cause all sort of delays and chaos for the administration. 
  • In a surprise move, the Minuteman administration agrees in December to put up a regional agreement before the 16 municipalities for a vote. It must be a unanimous vote from the town meetings for it to pass. 
  • On the same day in January that Belmont received the state go-head from the Massachusetts School Building Authority to start the process of renovating and construction of Belmont High School, Minuteman was approved to begin the undertaking of building its new school. It will need to come back to the state by June 30, to demonstrate how they will pay for it. (i.e.,, the communities).

      2. So, is tonight’s meeting about how much the town will have to pay for a new Minuteman High School?

No, that decision, to approve a $144 million new building, will come before June 30. Tonight’s vote is all about adopting a new regional agreement between the 16 towns and cities that are in the “district” including Belmont.

     3. What’s in this new agreement?

A lot, specifically for Belmont.

  1. The new agreement jettisons the school committee’s “one-town, one-vote” and moves to a proportional board where those towns that send the most kids to the school have a greater weighted vote. 
  2. It will be a bit easier to draw new towns into the club – it’s a buy-in incentive – giving them four years of gradual increasing capital payments before reaching their full assessment.
  3. Communities can withdraw much more quickly from the district, no longer needing all 16 other towns to agree. And seven of the 16 municipalities will be attempting to do just that if the agreement passes. Why? The towns – nearly all with only a handful of students – would not have to pay their part of the long-term debt. But by doing so, they would be prevented from returning to the district for four years. 
  4. Cities and towns of out-of-district students will also be paying for the new school as each student will be assessed “a capital facilities fee” equal to at least the average member- town cost. That fee will need to be approved by the state, but Belmont reps said officials from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education didn’t make much of a fuss when presented with a draft agreement.
  5. Then there is the issuance of debt. All 16 (or 9, if the smaller communities leave) town meetings will still need to approve the $144 million building plan. [With state grants, the final price tag will be $100 million] Under the new agreement, if a town meeting rejects the debt plan, it can withdraw from the district before a second vote is called by the Minuteman administration. This way a portion of the $100 million debt can not be “crammed down on Belmont.” 

      4. The new agreement looks like a very good deal for Belmont; what could go wrong?

Plenty. Here’s one: legal action by Watertown and other communities for the state to throw out the capital facilities fee placed on their students. Malden and Watertown have some powerful friends in the legislature.

Here’s another, the school remains oversized for the number of students from the district, and that will not change. Belmont would see an additional $350,000 (increasing the average real estate tax bill by $38) added to its annual assessment bringing the town’s total yearly charge to a million dollars while Arlington would pay $1.5 million. 

Also, it’s unlikely that the state will approve the new agreement before a vote will take by the 16 towns to support the debt. It appears that despite voting for a new regional agreement, Belmont and the other towns will be required to play by the “old rules” which doesn’t allow for an escape clause for towns that don’t agree with the size of the building or other aspects of the new school.

 5. So why not just vote down the whole complex proposal?

Yes, that is an option. Only that there are consequences, the first is losing the Mass School Building Authority’s $45 million grant to build the new school. And since Belmont is a member of the district and under the old agreement can not leave without the approval of the other 15 member towns, it will be required to repair the building. That cost: $176.5 million over 10 years. 


Postponing Belmont’s Special Town Meeting Could Be A ‘Snow’-Day Decision

Photo: It will Town Moderator Mike Widmer’s (left) decision to postpone Monday’s Special Town Meeting.

The possibility of difficult traveling conditions and limited parking at the Chenery Middle School could put on hold Belmont’s Special Town Meeting scheduled to convene Monday night, Feb. 8. at 7 p.m.

With a Winter Storm Warning in effect for Eastern Massachusetts for all-day Monday and into Tuesday morning, Town Clerk Ellen Cushman has been in contact with Town Moderator Michael Widmer to advise him of state law regarding postponing Town Meeting due to inclement weather.

A new Massachusetts General Law from 2015 now allows the town moderator to declare “a continuation” of town meeting to a later date – within 14 days – after consultation with local public safety officials and members of the board of selectmen. 

“Mike is the one who will make the choice tomorrow [Monday],” said Cushman. “We will be in touch with Town Meeting Members and media tomorrow” after a decision is made, she said.

Even if the meeting is “postpone,” Widmer and Cushman must physically make their way to the Chenery Middle School – the site of the special Town Meeting – for the 7 p.m. “call the meeting,” so they can then vote to “recess” to a date certain.

Monday’s meeting is to discuss and vote on a new regional agreement with Minuteman Tech and vote to create a building committee for the high school renovation and new construction. 

Special Town Meeting on Minuteman, HS Building Committee Proposed for Feb. 8

Photo: Minuteman Regional HS

Belmont officials s selected a tentative date for Town Meeting to vote to approve or reject a new regional agreement for the Minuteman Career and Technical High School.

The Board of Selectmen will discuss and vote for a Special Town Meeting on Monday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. in the Chenery Middle School’s auditorium at its Monday, Jan. 11 meeting.

That same night members will also decide to create a building committee to oversee a major renovation of Belmont High School. But this article comes with a big “if.” 

Along with accepting the date, Selectmen will open and close the Special Town Meeting warrant – at which time items can be put on Town Meetings agenda – during the discussion.

Town Meeting members will be asked to approve a series of fundamental changes to the existing agreement with the 15 other towns and cities in the Minuteman. 

Those alterations include the ability of members communities to withdrawal from the agreement (a number of towns with a handful of students have indicated they wished to depart the group) and requires out-of-district communities such as Watertown, Waltham and Medford which send nearly 40 percent of the new students to the school, to help pay a proportional share of capital costs of a new $144 million building.

In a last minute addition to the warrant, members will be asked to approve the creation of a Belmont High School Building Committee, which will direct the estimated $100 million renovations of the existing building and the construction of a science wing. 

The article was suggested by Pat Brusch of the Capital Budget Committee and former vice-chair of the Wellington Building Committees, who said the creation of a committee will give the group a several month head start on working with the state on the multi-year project and begin building public consensus for the project.

The town will likely vote in 2017 on a $65-$70 million debt exclusion to fund the project. 

The article’s big “if” is that its existence depends on the approval of the School District’s Statement of Interest by the Massachusetts School Building Authority which will fund close to a third of the renovation and construction costs.

The MSBA will select approximately half of the 25 projects currently on its “short” list at its Jan. 28 meeting.

Both Sides of Town Green Dispute Seeking Something Like A Compromise

Photo: Bonnie Friedman at the Board of Selectmen meeting, August 2015.

Where two months previous shouting, demands, and a Belmont Police officer were evident, on Monday, Aug. 17, the two sides of the “Town Green” dispute came together at Town Hall to start the process of finding a lasting compromise to a dispute in the $2.8 million Belmont Center Reconstruction Project one resident called “disappointing.”

The once warring sides – the Belmont Board of Selectmen opposed by a large group of citizen advocates who called for a Special Town Meeting two weeks ago – met during Monday’s Selectmen’s meeting speaking in largely conciliatory terms, having reached a rapprochement through the efforts of one of the selectmen’s former colleagues, Ralph Jones. 

According to both sides, Jones – who served as a selectman from 2008 to 2014 – has been working as a go-between to find if elements of the design the selectmen approved, known as Plan B, and the original blueprint, which won a non-binding vote at the Special Town Meeting, can be incorporated into a compromise design.

“The message I walked out [from Town Meeting] was that the Plan B we had approved fell short” in creating a safe pedestrian space for congregating, said Belmont Selectmen Chair Sami Baghdady, adding that the approved plan “needs to be made more inviting.”

“It’s my hope that we can achieve a balance” between the competing plans, “to bring people together.”

The dispute has its origins in a unanimous vote by the selectmen on May 28, approving changes to the project’s design around the small green “delta” in front of the Belmont Savings Bank. Already under construction, the original model called for a new “Town Green” that would require the removal of nine parallel parking spaces and the “cut through” path between Concord Avenue and Moore Street. 

That blueprint, which accompanied the financing for the project that a Special Town Meeting approved in November 2014, was the design in the bid contract. 

The alterations, prescribed in a petition written by Washington Street’s Lydia Ogilby, restore four parking spaces in front of the bank that supporters claimed the bank’s elderly customers need. Also, the modification would also preserve a “cut through,” allowing drivers to avoid Leonard Street.

The changes eliminate the creation of a new “town green” in front of the bank. Under the altered design, the green space would remain an island surrounded by vehicle traffic and parked cars.

The Board’s action brought a swift and, at times, confrontational response from residents who sought to establish an inviting green space in Belmont’s leading business center, and from residents who felt the process in which Town Meeting Members’ mandate in November – the result of a four-year planning task – was subverted by the selectmen at a single meeting.

The culmination of the dispute came at the Special Town Meeting on Aug. 6 where a non-binding article “urging” the selectmen to revert to the original design was approved 112-102. 

Monday’s meeting was an opportunity for the selectmen to muse publically about the Town Meeting vote and begin the exercise of finding something like a middle ground. 

Bonnie Friedman, who was a leader in the opposition and in holding the Special Town Meeting, said one thing she learned from attending Town Meeting “was to really listen to the other side.”

She said talking with Jones and others “has given me a perspective on what we might be able to do to reach a compromise and come with a plan that everybody in which a lot more people can be accepting of.”

The selectmen and Friedman acknowledged Jones’ leading a mediation effort “to find that middle ground.” 

Another former selectman, Andy Rojas – a leading landscape architect – could be brought in to assist with a compromise design, said Baghdady. 

Yet it appears that, in this early stage of an understanding, the sticking point is the cut through, called “an important aspect of Plan B” by Selectman Mark Paolillo but what Friedman said “I’m not here to accept a cut through that’s in Plan B. I believe there is another way to compromise.” 

Knowing the contractor had planned to have a majority of the project’s work completed by Labor Day and there is a limited amount of dollars available for a new design, Baghdady said he hopes to have meetings completed and a new blueprint ready for public viewing within 30 to 45 days.

Special Town Meeting Passes Article Urging Return of ‘Original’ Center Design

Photo: Gi Yoon Huang, Paul Roberts, Bonnie Friedman, Jack Weis and a resident celebrating the “yes” vote at Special Town Meeting. 

Setting aside concerns it was descending a “slippery slope” of interfering with town governance, the Belmont’s Town Meeting members declared Thursday night, Aug. 6, that its opinion would be heard.

At the end of the three-and-a-half hour session, the Special Town Meeting passed a citizen’s petition, 112 to 102 (with 4 abstentions) to “urge” the Board of Selectmen to reconsider its decision on May 28 making significant changes to the Belmont Center Reconstruction Project.

Those changes included the retention of a cut through road between Concord Avenue and Moore Street and including parking spaces to a location originally set aside for the creation of a new “Town Green” in front of the Belmont Savings Bank.

“We’re all thrilled and relieved that Town Meeting voted in favor of the original plan,” said Paul Roberts, who with Bonnie Friedman, led the petition effort.

“I think this was really a vote about respecting the process in how we do big projects in town,” he said.

While the article is non-binding – and there is an indication the selectmen will not change its earlier decision when they meet on Aug. 17 – those on both sides of the debate said the vote will almost certainly affect how Town Meeting takes up capital projects from now on.

“In the future, [Town Meeting is] going to be very clear that we are only funding a particular plan and if there are any major design changes, you have to come back to Town Meeting,” said Friedman.


Paul Roberts addressing Town Meeting.

With Belmont expected in the next few years encounter several large capital projects before Town Meeting and voters – including a skating rink, new high school and a Department of Public Works headquarters – the Board of Selectmen is not eager to see another confrontation with the members on design issues.

“The lesson we learned is that when we come to Town Meeting with a project, we should be as close to finalized as possible,” said Selectman Mark Paolillo.

“Appropriation is really based on a design because we are asking for the money for a specific plan. This project was 90 percent designed when the funding was attached and we kept hearing that we needed a meeting to address concerns of our seniors,” said Paolillo, who said he did not regret his vote making the late minute change to the project.

In 2014, incorporating the work of the Traffic Advisory Committee and other groups, the Board of Selectmen OK’d for the town’s Office of Community Development created plans making up the $2.8 million reconstruction project. At the Nov. 17, 2014, Special Town Meeting, the members approved by a margin of five votes a $2.8 million financing plan for the project based on the designs presented.

Several residents at the time had questions concerning the design, specifically the loss of nine existing parking spaces adjacent to the front of Belmont Savings Bank and the so-called access road running in front of the bank.

Despite a promise to have a community meeting to discuss the issues in the winter before bids were accepted, the gathering did not occur until the May 28th meeting after a petition from Washington Street’s Lydia Ogilby with 200 signatures was presented to the board asking to save a grove of trees (which had already been taken down) and the drive through.

Despite both the selectmen and public viewing the new plan that evening and with construction already underway, the Selectmen voted to re-establish the roadway and add four parallel parking spots as a courtesy to seniors.

The resulting change prompted angry supporters of the original design to circulate its petition – with nearly 400 residents – at first to secure a public meeting with the Selectmen before working towards calling a Special Town Meeting.

In a peace offering presented at the meeting, the petitioners sought to lower the temperature that the confrontation had produced in the past two months – Town Moderator Mike Widmer advised the members to “recognize and respect that we have honest difference and we honor those differences” by “taking a positive approach to our debate” – by swapping a single word from the original article, no longer “directed” but to “urged” the selectmen to reconsider its earlier vote since “nobody in this room wishes to rewrite the laws by which this town has long operated,” said Roberts.

Yet Roberts, in his opening remarks, said Town Meeting needed to be heard after weeks of laboring and lobbying to restore the original vision of the center.

“This Special Town Meeting is the last remaining option available to voters to make sure that a conversation that desperately needs to take place is not silenced,” he said.


Belmont Selectmen Chair Sami Baghdady.

In response, Selectmen Chair Sami Baghdady reiterated the board’s contention the changes were well within its rights to alter the design as the board, under the town bylaws, has oversight control over such capital projects.

“Our decision is what we think is best for Belmont, Belmont residents, and the Center,” said Baghdady.

Rather than debate the issues of the competing plans, “I urge you to support the authority of the Board of Selectmen to do its job,” said Baghdady.

For supporters of the petitioners, the debate was fought on two levels; design and process. For Gi Yoon Huang, a mother of two young children, the original blueprint would create a green space protected from traffic in which people could use for passive activities such as eating lunch, taking a break, relaxing; a community space that draws residents into the location.


Gi Yoon Huang.

“Plan A can become a vibrant and vital part of the community where people can spontaneously gather and provide energy … to the community. Plan B will be a dead space,” said Yoon Huang.

Jack Weis said while the board appears to have the authority to make the change from plan A to B, members was told at the November’s Special Town Meeting the design was “90 percent complete” with only inconsequential “nonmaterial modifications” remaining as it approved the financing.

“[T]o insert new traffic circulation and reduce the amount of green space that was a stated key objective, that now constitutes a material change,” said Weis, stating Town Meeting members would have voted that plan down back in November.

“Regardless, if you think Plan A or Plan B is better, it’s important to respect what Town Meeting approved … and we ought to give the benefit of the doubt to the plan that was the result of years of discussion and analysis as oppose to 90 minutes of discussion at a Board of Selectmen meeting,” said Weis.


Town Meeting.

For those supporting the alternative, the selectmen’s acceptance of Plan B was the culmination of a promise by the Board and Town Meeting to hear and judge the concerns from the a segment of Belmont’s elderly.

Resident Joel Semuels, who serves on the Council on Aging, said the council never had the opportunity since the November meeting to “raise the facts” of safety and accessibility that the COA felt was not fully investigated by town officials and committees.

Paolillo reiterated his support for the alternative plan as “being what’s best for the overall community. It’s not where or not I agree or disagree with Town Meeting.”

Other members, while amenable to either plan, protested the notion Town Meeting has the authority to press the Selectmen to alter their opinion.

“The process for me is far more important to me than [the selected plan],” said Bob McLaughlin.

“The Board of Selectmen get elected; they do their job. If you don’t like, talk to them in April [when Town Election is held],” he said.

“If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, what’s the horse going to look like if this is the way we run our town government?” asked McLaughlin.

When the vote was taken, and the outcome revealed, the petitioners felt Town Meeting had revealed to the selectmen the direction it wants the reconstruction to proceed.

“We wanted nothing more than to show that major changes can not be done without Town Meeting oversight,” said Roberts.

What You Need To Know Before the Special Town Meeting

From the Belmont Town Clerk’s Office:

All documents that have been distributed to Town Meeting Members are on the Town Clerk’s Town Meeting Information webpage of the Town website. 

Here is a link for your convenience: . 

Included on the Town Clerk’s website is:

  • Letter from the Board of Selectmen (1 page)
  • Moderator letter on Town Meeting Procedures (1 double-sided page)
  • Warrant for the Special Town Meeting (1 double-sided page)
  • Motion for the Special Town Meeting (1 page)
  • Two plans showing the delta in front of Belmont Savings Bank – one from January 2015 and one resulting from May 28, 2015.
  • Summary of warrant article provided by the sponsors of the Citizens’ Petition (1 double-sided page).



  • Three documents from Office of the Board of Selectmen in anticipation of Thursday’s Special Town Meeting:
  1. Belmont Center Improvement Fact Sheet (two pages)
  2. Response to Questions (four pages, including three topographical drawings)
  3. Plan Zero (one page drawing).
  • An amendment filed by Roy Epstein (Precinct 6) with three pages including two color drawings.
  • Amendments submitted by Yvette Tenney, Precinct 1, and Donald Mercier, Precinct 8.

The Special Town Meeting this Thursday, Aug. 6, at Chenery Middle School at 7 p.m. 

Letter to the Editor: Moderator Asks Town Meeting To Be ‘Positive and Constructive’

Town Meeting Members:

In my eight years as Town Moderator I can recall few if any issues that have so aroused the passions of Town Meeting Members as the subject of [today’s] Special Town Meeting. I have taken advice from many people and spent many hours seeking to plan the meeting in order to focus the discussion in the fairest and most civil way possible.

Given the emotions surrounding this issue, I am concerned that the debate could easily deteriorate into accusations and personal attacks. While I will not allow that, I am making a special plea to each of you to keep your remarks positive and constructive. There are opposing opinions, of course, which is the point of a healthy debate, but one can make a strong argument for one’s position while still being respectful of another person and point of view. How we conduct ourselves tomorrow night will be important in allowing us to work together on this and the many important issues facing the town.

I urge your cooperation. Thank you.

Mike Widmer