Photo: The Board of Selectmen Monday.
A divided Belmont Board of Selectmen Monday added two members to the Planning Board seen as favorable to the board’s current leadership which was attacked by one selectman for exceeding its authority and fostering a ponderous permitting process.
“You’ll be sorry,” charged Selectman Adam Dash as the board voted 2-1 to re-appoint sitting member Raffi Manjikian and while selecting Dalton Road’s Stephen Pinkerton to replace Joseph DeStefano on the five-member board at the Selectmen’s meeting held Monday night, Sept. 11.
Dash, who backed Edward “Sandy” Sanderson for the board, said the town had missed the opportunity to change the direction the Planning Board which has come under withering criticism from residents and the elected Board of Library Trustees for advocating in July a proposal to move the Belmont Public Library to Waverley Square as part of a public/private partnership to revitalize the once vibrant business hub.
Pinkerton is one of the leaders of Belmont Citizens for Responsible Zoning which led the successful campaign to restrict the building of oversized single-family dwellings in the Shaw Estate in 2015.
Sanderson was a city planner for the City of Los Angeles and is currently an urban and transportation planner in the Boston office of a New York-based civil engineering firm.
“If you were posting this job and you got these applications … how do you not hire [Sanderson] for this job when he’s exactly perfectly qualified for this,” said Dash, adding that he would consider placing Pinkerton as an associate member “to get his feet wet” on the board.
Monday’s well-attended meeting, which set aside 15 minutes for several appointments on multiple boards, quickly became a surrogate of the ongoing dispute between the Planning Board and the Library Trustees, whose chair Kathleen Keohane and member Gail Mann attended the meeting.
Liz Allison, Planning Board chair, was in the audience as was Manjikian with a few supporters backing her. Nearby sat Planning Board member Chuck Clark, who last week sharply denounced both Allison and Manjikian for formulating the proposal to move the library – dubbed the “Big Idea” – without informing the entire board.
Before the vote, Dash spoke at length criticising the Planning Board calling for it to take a new direction which would have begun with Sanderson elected to the board.
“I get a lot of emails from people complaining about roads and sidewalks, parking and all of those emails complaints added up don’t equal the number I get complaining about the Planning Board,” said Dash.
Dash said while keeping an open mind to the proposed library transfer when it was initially presented; Dash said his major concerned was Allison’s unwillingness to cede to overwhelming public sentiment and abandon the scheme. Rather, Dash said he could see the Planning Board presenting the “Big Idea” at a future Town Meeting even if the Library Trustees – who are elected by residents to represent the interests of the library – were opposed to it.
“I get concerned that in the face of the facts … that moving the library to Waverley Square is DOA, there’s a continued push, push, push for that,” he said.
With some major projects coming before the Planning Board shortly – a new High School, revamping general residence zoning and commercial development proposals – Dash said too much emphasis had been placed on projects that are beyond the jurisdiction of the Planning Board.
“It’s taking up a lot of time when there are a lot of things on the plate that gets kicked down the road,” he said.
Also, Dash related that many applicants who have appeared before the Planning Board had expressed their frustration at the deliberative and overly bureaucratic nature of the board’s process. Critics point to the 18 months approval process for the formerly named Cushing Village development and the recent Boston Day School site and design review in which the applicant was required to resubmit documents and undergo delays on seemingly trivial matters.
While he said some of the problems facing applicants arise from the zoning code, Dash said the level of micromanagement from the Planning Board is akin to “death by a thousand cuts.”
“I feel bad about it because I served with [Planning Board members] and I like them. It’s not a personal thing. Just observing it and the way things are moving forward, [the Planning Board] is not working for the town,” said Dash.
“It just seems to me that it’s not going to change unless we make some changes and this is a place to start,” said Dash.
Asked by Selectmen Chair Jim Williams to speak on both Dash’s comments and who should be Allison came to the defense of her committee noting that in the past four years all the substantial articles it presented to Town Meeting have been approved. “You can’t pass major bylaw changes … if you are that unpopular.”
The chair also said the issue that has produced “by far” the most correspondence to the Planning Board over the past three months had concerned the Day School proposal, leaving the impression the library is not registering with the greater community.
“Do we get complaints? Yes, because … it is one of the committees where you have to balance the equities,” said Allison.
Allison told the board she was strongly in favor of reappointing Manjankian who has knowledge of environmental issues and is committed to civil and respectful processes while being able to tell people ‘no’ in respect of things people want to do.”
While not coming out in favor for the second selection, Allison did say Pinkerton had attended many planning board meeting as a zoning campaigner and would be as ready as anyone could be to step onto the board.
Clark reiterated his call for significant changes to the Planning Board. Rather than recall what he said a week earlier, Clark said it was time to “restore confidence in the Planning Board” which required a change in leadership. One avenue towards transforming the group would be not to reappoint Manjikian “because that would change the dynamics on the board and you’d have new leadership elected.”
“There is a lot of work that has to be done by the Planning Board, but we need to get past the problems of being distracted from the important issues,” said Clark, noting that the board has lost six months on moving forward on the future of Waverley Square and South Pleasant Street.
Selectman Mark Paolillo said he would seek to change the current bylaw to expand the number of board members from five to seven to allow a greater diversity of views
“Every year we have some qualified individuals,” said Paolillo, hoping opening up the board to a higher number of residents will allow for greater diversity of thought.
But as Williams noted, an expanded planning board that would be constituted next year “doesn’t help us now.”
In the end, Williams and Paolillo selected Manjikian and Pinkerton with the promise to have Sanderson on a short list of candidates to fill the next opening on the board.