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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.