Belmont Town Meeting: Putting Minuteman on Hold; Singles Over Doubles

Welcome to the second and likely final night of the 2014 annual Belmont Town Meeting at the Chenery Middle School’s auditorium on Wednesday, June 4.
The articles will be read (discussed) in the following order: articles 24, 25, 26, 27, 14 and 3.
On Monday, the fiscal 2015 budgets were approved and tonight there are just a few more budgetary issues left to resolve as well as a pair of articles that could see some fierce debate.
But one of the two, amending the nearly 50 year old contractional agreement between Belmont and the other members of the Minuteman Regional Tech School will immediately be tabled once it has been introduced. And THANK GOODNESS for that! The complexity of the issue, how big the next Minuteman school will be and who will pay for it, reads like a Byzantine mystery with every one of the 16 towns and cities in this agreement trying to made deals. It hurts the head just recalling it!
The other, the final article of Town Meeting, is the zoning codification by the Planning Board of last year’s citizen’s petition that placed a moratorium on the tearing down of single family homes to build two or more family structures in the general residence parts of town. Basically, the new rewritten zoning bylaw will make it difficult to do a “tear down/build up” as it will be permitted only by a special permit (which will allow public hearings) and within strict specific perimeters.
7:08 p.m.: Moderator Mike Widmer says that tonight will be the final night and, noting that the proposed amendment to the Town’s Zoning By- Law could go on and on and on … PLEASE BE CONCISE!
And before business at hand, an update on electronic voting by Town Clerk Ellen Cushman. A lot of her comments is a bit of housekeeping and how to find your name on the big screen.
First on tonight’s docket is Article 24: the Other Post Employee Benefits (“OPEB”) Stabilization Fund in which the town will spend $264,882 on what critics say is a drop in the bucket towards resolving the approximately $190 million in unfunded liability facing the town. Even supporters say that the state will have to resolve similar debt in most other cities and towns in the Commonwealth. The town only has $1.7 million in the trust.
But the town treasurer, Floyd Carman, holds somewhat a trump card as he says the bond rating agencies (such as Moody’s) – which ranks Belmont’s municipal debt as AAA, the best around – expect even the smallest of continued payments for the town to keep the high rating which will allow Belmont to save money in the near future on the debt it sells.
Even in the depth of the financial downturn, investors were lining up to purchase the AAA bonds from the town to finance the Wellington School, said Carman. Selectman Chair Andy Rojas said that OPEB will be discussed at the precinct level to go over its impact on the town with the idea of possibly having a revised policy that comes from an informed Town Meeting.
Two-thirds vote needed for passage.
Vincent Stanton, pct. 3, said he supports the article however he wanted to discuss state reform that was introduced in 2013 but it will likely die in this year’s legislative year. Town Meeting members should be more proactive by passing a measure supporting reform measures by the state, said Stanton. “Our voice should be heard as loud as possible,” he said.
Jim Williams from pct 1 question whether voting for the article is support the town’s strategy of having a policy, steady funding on OPEB. Carman said the funding policy was approved by the Selectmen, Warrant Committee and Capital Budget in 2013. Selectmen Sami Baghdady said a yes vote is just supporting the appropriation. Williams asked if this does not get the 2/3 vote, where does the money go? Back to the town’s coffers. Williams said that the policy is beyond the capability of the town’s financial model, which got cheers.
It passes with a few now votes.
7:40 p.m.: Next is Article 25 which reauthorizes revolving accounts such as money – usually from fees – set aside for the senior center and sports. Typically non controversial. You see this article at each Town Meeting, said Baghdady.
A few questions but no challenges to the accounts. 215 to 2 yes thanks to the tally via e-voting.
Article 26 is to reimburse a school building revolving account with insurance proceeds due to the cost of repairing a burst pipe at the High School. “This is an easy one,” said Anne Marie Mahoney. And it is. A yes vote.
And the final budgetary article this year, number 27 is to rescind unused borrowing authority for $57,000. I would be surprised that anyone would speak against this “standard” article, said Carman. Yes with no discussion.
And we get to the tear-down citizen’s petition being codified before 8 p.m. Widmer said the procedure of the article can be a bit confusing due to the number of amendments on top of the reading of a long zoning article.
Mike Baptista, the chair of the Planning Board, is reading and explaining the document. Widmer also advised that everyone declare any financial interest before speaking on the issue. Nearly 40 small lots in the general residence zone have been bought by developers to build a two-family that’s too large for the lot. Some residents “had enough” and passed at the 2013 annual Town Meeting a moratorium on such “tear down/build up” with the Planning Board given the task of making changes to the zoning bylaw to support the residents concerns. “Is it perfect? No. It is subjective” but the area is so diverse that its hard to make an all encompassing bylaw. But it will be revamped by the time the bylaw is sunset in June 2018. What Town Meeting is voting on is a philosophical matter: do you want these “behemoths” in our town? asked Baptista.
Raffi Manjikian, of the Warrant Committee and Pct 3, speaks elegantly on why this measure is needed, quoting US UN Ambassador Samantha Power on how democracy works to fix themselves.
Judith Sarno, pct. 3, who led the effort to create the moratorium, said that this zoning bylaw will give everyone in town a “voice” in determining what is built in their neighborhood.
Now the amendments are being voted on: the first four from the Planning Board are minor corrections to the larger bylaw to clarify what it was trying to say. Set backs, making specific where the bylaw takes effect …
A bit of comedy as the banter between Sue Bass and Planning Coordinator Jeffrey Wheeler on set backs has Widmer if he is watching an episode of “Saturday Night Live.”
All four Planning Board amendments pass easily.
Now up is the first of three (really two) citizen amendments. Roger Colton, pct. 6, is asking that the storm water management permit be required by any developer though the Office of Community Development. Article 14 has three tests to determine if it complies with the bylaw. Colton points out that these are not the three steps that are under the existing storm water management bylaw. This is simply a technical amendment to take out “duplicate” language, he said.
Rojas has Glenn Clancy, the director of Community Development, come up to tell them how this amendment will effect his job determining if the developer is in compliance with the storm water management bylaw. He said it wouldn’t effect how he does his job. Baghdady said the articles’ disclosement measure is important to give developers a “heads up” so they understand its important to have. Jim Stanton, asked if the dueling language will have legal consequences. Town consul George Hall doesn’t think so. Kimberly Becker, pct. 6, said if Colton points out that the language is different between Article 14 and the storm water management, why are we repeating ourselves and the bylaws are not collaborative. David Webster, pct 4. who also works at the EPA, said yes the storm water management bylaw is more complex and the article’s “heads up” is “dangerous” by paraphrasing what they have to do. The best way to simplify it is to have one common language. Anne-Marie Lambert said she doesn’t find any compelling reason not to vote on the amendment. Finally, David Powell of pct. 4 asked that the entire amendment be placed on the screen and ask a simple question: why not just strike the language in the article with the duplicate language? The light bulb goes off over the Town Meeting. That works. Colton’s amendment is quickly adopted.
Now the amendment by Bill Dillon’s amendment that would allow for the front door to be on the side yard. The reason? Because it allows side-by-side two families rather than an up-and-down twos like on Grant Avenue. This is good for entry-level housing (and they sell for more money). “I don’t find side-entry doors distasteful,” said Dillion, who said he just wants to have the chance to go before the Planning Board (which is already hostile to this sort of housing) and say, “This can work in my neighborhood.”

Bob McGaw, pct. 1, said the language being used in this amendment does not conform with existing Planning Board language which could lead to legal challenges. The comments on this amendment revolve around how they don’t like the look of a side entry, not neighborly, not esthetic. But two residents asked if the Planning Board is asking for subjectivity on their amendments, why not with this independent amendment? “We need rules,” said Baptista.

The vote on the amendment. By 46 to 180, Dillon’s amendment is defeated.

Now discussion on Article 14. Christen McVay, Pct. 3, said the design review process is necessary to keep the character of the town.

Bryce Armstrong, pct 7, a renter of Grove Street, asked how this amendment will impact tax revenue in the town. Liz Allison, of the Planning Board, said if there is a family who has two children, unless they live in a house valued at $1.8 million, they do not bring in enough taxes to pay for the children in the schools.

Anthony Ferrante, pct. 8, said peeling paint, ugly vinyl siding and other issues have greater design “problems” then some of what the Planning Board is attempting to do.

Vincent Stanton, pct 1, did the research and of the nine tear downs to build of two families cost 30 percent higher so the issue that the two families are bringing in affordable units is false.

William Messanger, pct. 4, said this amendment is discriminatory as it only effects two-family homes and it will prevent the only method of affordable housing being introduced to Belmont. The home he lived in, circa 1895, could never be built today and that would have prevented him from coming to Belmont.

Mr. Mercier moved the question to great acclaim. “What a moment of surprise,” said Widmer to laughter.

It’s an electronic vote.  Article 14 passes 206 to 16.

10:40 p.m.: Finally, the Minuteman High School Regional agreement, the new contract, is up and Bob McLaughlin is delivering it. Wouldn’t we all love to hear this article in detail, it’s going to be tabled (postpone) by Andy Rojas. Why vote on this when we don’t have enough information, said Rojas, and the town can wait. McLaughlin who helped write the agreement said even at its best, it’s only marginally better than the current agreement due to a great deal of compromise.

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