Fall Special Town Meeting Likely A Multi-Night Affair, ‘They Know What They Signed Up For’

Photo: The Belmont Select Board

The first week in November is when the leaves in Belmont start to fall, the high school teams head into the playoffs, the sweaters come out of the armoire, and people begin preparing for Thanksgiving.

No one envisions spending countless autumn (late) nights in endless debates with 300 of your fellow residents at the fall Special Town Meeting. As the number of possible articles piles up and at least two – if not more – citizen’s petitions are making their way to the Town Clerk’s office by mid-September when the meeting warrant will be open.

But don’t go moaning to the newest member of the Select Board about this fall’s ever growing Special Town Meeting agenda. All you’ll get from Elizabeth Dionne is some tough love.

“They know what they signed up for,” Dionne said as the board discussed the articles to be presented over several November nights at the Belmont Middle and High School auditorium. “I think they care that we address pressing issues” which the board grudgingly agreed will take up three nights.

“These are substantive articles … and I support conducting substantive business [at this meeting].” said Board Member Mark Paolillo.

The 2023 Special Town Meeting’s tentative start date will be Nov. 6.

A draft list of warrant articles includes:

  • Transfer the undesignated fund balance (free cash) to the general stabilization fund and transfer new FY ’24 revenue to the generalization stabilization fund.
  • Pay the prior year’s bills
  • Current year supplemental budget for operating, capital, and Community Preservation Act
  • Removal of Civil Service for Belmont Police personnel
  • Change the Board of Assessors from an elected board to an appointed one
  • Amend Zoning Bylaw: Hotels as a permissible use
  • Amend Zoning Bylaw: business signage
  • Amend Zoning Bylaw: restaurants
  • Replace the general bylaw codifying the stretch code for construction with a Specialized Energy Code.

The citizens petitions include a home rule petition to the Massachusetts legislature that Belmont be exempted from Massachusetts General Law 61B regarding golf courses and specifically the 75 percent tax break course are granted. There is another that town officials have heard about which could also be related to zoning.

While the current number of articles, several such as Civil Service and rewriting zoning bylaws could, on their own, easily take several hours or a single night to debate and vote on, both the board, town and Town Moderator Mike Widmer would like to see a good number of them held off until the annual Town Meeting in either April or May 2024. One of those articles included removing Belmont Police from the state’s civil service law. A similar article during a special Town Meeting in September 2020 was withdrawn before it came to a vote.

A Special Civil Service Debate

Despite the heavy lifting expected to pass civil service reform, Board Member Mark Paolillo would like to schedule a public forum on civil service with the Belmont Police Chief James McIsaac and the town’s labor attorney in September. If there appears support for the measure, “we’ll move forward with it” in November.

“I’m just thinking how busy the spring [Town Meeting] will be, that would be a good step forward,” said Paolillo.

Patrice Garvin, Belmont Town Administrator, said the Vision 21 Committee will put its efforts into rewording the restaurant bylaw with the assistance of a town consultant for the November meeting, while the Planning Board said it will work on revamping the signage bylaw for the fall meeting “it’s not the highest or best use of their time,” said Dionne who spoke with the new Planning Board Chair Jeff Birenbaum. Roy Epstein, the board chair, said he can see a new sign bylaw before the special if the Planning Board is assisted by the bylaw consultant.

As for a new hotel bylaw, which would make those structures a permissible use in Belmont, Dionne said it would best for that measure to come before the annual town meeting. “We can’t afford that one to fail,” she said, referring to the multiple revenue sources it provides. Supporters will need time to “educate and advocate” on the benefits and disspell stereotypes the last time a small hotel came before the Planning Board in 2016.

“There were some arguments that I thought were ridiculous and specious made against hotels last time, but they will absolutely come back again” including attracting drug use and sex workers to the Town of Homes.

Along with the hotel bylaw, being shuffled off to the annual Town Meeting will be changing the Board of Assessors to an appointed committee. While there is no great public or town urgency to implement a Specialized Energy Code, the board agreed at the 2023 annual Town Meeting to bring the bylaw change before the meeting in the fall.

But Dionne is eager to get as many of the zoning and administrative changes done as soon as possible.

“Rome is burning,” said Dionne, speaking of the town’s chronic fiscal deficit that will require a multi-million dollar override vote in April 2024.

“So we are in for three nights,” said Paolillo. “Maybe four.”

“Really, really, really late the third night,” added Dionne.

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