Letter to the Editor: Planning Board Chaos Underscores Need for Accountability

Photo: The Planning Board

To the editor:

And then there were three. With the unexpected resignations this week of former Planning Board Chairwoman Liz Allison and Board member Barbara Fiacco, Belmont’s Planning Board has been reduced to just three members, having lost half its members to resignation in the past month – all three under clouds of controversy. 

The unraveling of this critical body as major projects, like Cushing Village, demand attention and others like Belmont High School loom poses a serious challenge to the Town’s leadership. It also offers a powerful argument in favor of a motion I have put before Town Meeting on Nov. 13 that will bring accountability and order to Planning Board by letting the town’s voters choose its members, as 35 of 39 other towns in Middlesex county already do.

For those readers who are hearing about this for the first time, I’ve taken the opportunity to answer some “frequently asked questions”. I hope this help inform you about this important, citizen-driven initiative. 

Why are you doing this? 

Amending our bylaws to have voters elect our Planning Board will bring transparency, accountability, and professionalism to a critical body whose jurisdiction extends to every private home and commercial property in town. Popular election of Planning Board will give voters the opportunity to evaluate all candidates for open positions on the Planning Board and to choose those who are best qualified and suited to represent the community’s interests. 

This critical change to our bylaws will also bring Planning Board in line with our Town’s other administrative boards and committees, namely: Selectmen, School Committee, Board of Assessors, Board of Library Trustees and the Board of Health, members of which are all elected by voters.

Do other communities elect their Planning Boards? 

Yes. If we consider Middlesex County of which we are a part, 35 of 39 (or 90 percent) of communities with Belmont’s form of government like Newton, Cambridge, Lowell, Somerville have opted for popularly elected Planning Boards. This list includes Winchester, Lexington, Lincoln, Sudbury, Weston, Natick, Sherborn, Stoneham, Wakefield, Westford, Holliston, Hopkinton, and on and on. Belmont is one of just four that still have Planning Boards that are appointed by the Board of Selectmen.  

Why Planning Board? Why now? 

Planning Board is one of the most critical public bodies in our town. It helps shape the town through its decisions concerning both residential and commercial development and has the power to shape public and private spaces within a town.  As it stands, however, there is no mechanism in Belmont’s bylaws to ensure that Planning Board is accountable to voters and the public in any way. This is a critical omission in Belmont’s bylaws that has directly contributed to the erratic and damaging behavior of our Planning Board in recent months. 

If elected, won’t Planning Board start kowtowing to voters instead of being independent?

Of course not. Elected Planning Board members, like other elected officials, will be expected to think independently and to use their best judgment and make decisions that they feel are in the best interest of the whole community. That’s no different than what we expect of appointed officials. 

Let’s face it: Planning Board is an unpaid, volunteer position. Election to Planning Board is no more likely to engender self-serving, short-term decision making by members than an election to other unpaid positions like Town Meeting or School Committee. Consider: the punishment for losing re-election to Planning Board for a decision that voters disagree with is that the individual is forced to volunteer less. That’s hardly the kind of punishment that will have members betraying their values and common sense.  

What’s wrong with an appointed Board? 

It is critical that voters in Belmont have a means to express their preferences for Planning Board as they do for other administrative bodies like School Committee or the Selectmen themselves.  Under our current bylaws, they do not. 

Consider: it is the Selectmen, not the public, who receive and review applications from community members who are interested in a seat on the Planning Board. Voters in Belmont are not privy to who has applied for open seats or their qualifications, nor are they given the benefit of the Board of Selectmen’s reasons for eliminating any particular candidate or ultimately appointing one over another. Yes, voters may appeal to the Board to choose a specific candidate, assuming they even know who has applied, but the Selectmen are under no obligation to heed the voters. 

Don’t we affect Planning Board with our choice of Selectman?  

It might be argued that voters can express their Planning Board preferences in their vote for a Selectman. As a practical matter, however, this never happens. Planning Board appointments are not an issue in Board of Selectman races nor have promised appointments been deciding factors – or even talking points – in selectman races. Our bylaws left unchanged will continue to shield the selection, decisions, and actions of the Planning Board from voters and any accountability. 

I hope you will support this citizen-driven effort to make an important change to Belmont’s bylaws and inject democratic accountability to this critical body. I urge you to contact Town Meeting members from your precinct and ask them to support the Planning Board article. 

Paul Roberts

Town Meeting Member, Precinct 8

Selectmen Considering Feb Special Town Meeting To Tackle Transfer Loophole

Photo: Alcohol transfer on the agenda.

The Belmont Board of Selectmen is considering calling a February Special Town Meeting to resolve the controversal inability of the town to control the transfer of alcohol and liquor licenses.

“We want to tackle the non-transferability of [alcohol] licenses sooner than later,” Mark Paolillo, selectmen chair told the Belmontonian at the end of the board’s meeting on Monday, Dec. 19.

“There’s a lot of folks in town that are concerned about … these licenses,” he said. “And there is unanimity on the board to follow that recommendation,” said Paolillo.

When asked when the meeting could be held, Paolillo said: “it would be in the February time frame.”

The proposed action comes on the heels of a controversial 2-1 vote by the Selectmen approving the transfer in October of a full-retail alcohol license from the Loading Dock to Star Market for a $400,000 fee. It was discovered during the public hearings that legislation from 2013 increasing the number of liquor licenses in town did not have the same limiting language on transferring licenses as in the first retail liquor licenses approved in 2006. 

Paolillo said a memo to the board from Town Counsel George Hall recommended moving forward with a special home rule petition that would request the Massachusetts legislature to approve a Town Meeting article creating “an umbrella” bylaw covering regulations including transfer limitation overall alcohol licenses including full, pour, retail, and wine and beer.

A home rule petition would be required as the town is taking action that will effect liquor licenses which are granted by the state to municipalities.

The Selectmen can call a Special Town Meeting at any of its public meetings with the agenda posted with minimum 48 hours notice to the public.

Selectmen must then sign and or post the warrant with at least 14 calendar days notice to the public before the Special Town Meeting. For instance, if it signs the order on a Monday, Tuesday is day 1 of 14. There is no requirement that the warrant stays open for any amount of time – it can open it and close it right away – and it does not have to accept another article a resident or Town Meeting member may want to add to the warrant.

The estimated cost of a three hour, one night Special Town Meeting would cost approximately $2,776, according to the Town Clerk’s Office.

Paolillo acknowledged the expense of holding a meeting but deemed the issue important enough to push for an early resolution.

“We certainly appreciate the cost of having a Special Town Meeting, and we will take that into consideration,” said Paolillo. “We have to weigh that against the expense of a possibility of another transfer happening before the [annual Town Meeting which begins in May 2017].”

“Lots of folks have expressed concern that legislation in 2013 didn’t have a non-transferability provision within it and they want to see that reinstated,” said Paolillo.

As Town Meeting Ponders Bolting Minuteman, Belmont Prepares ‘Pathway’ for Voc Students

Photo: Roy Epstein, chair of the Belmont Warrant Committee

As the Belmont Town Meeting prepares to vote on the future of the town’s four decades partnership with the Minuteman Regional School District – the home of Minuteman Vocational Tech High School – the educator in charge of Belmont’s own district is already preparing a set of “pathways” to provide students seeking a vocational education “access to quality” classes if two-thirds of Town Meeting ultimately votes no. 

While many Town Meeting members and residents who attended this Monday’s warrant briefing – co-sponsored by the Warrant Committee and the Belmont League of Women Voter at the Chenery Middle School – were seeking more information on the financial pros and cons of remaining or leaving the district, Belmont’s School Superintendent John Phelan has begun cobbling together plans to use the three-year “window of time” where Belmont students are guaranteed a place at Minuteman to “research, review and analyze” options so by the second year in 2018, the town can prepare for the cost and logistics of setting the plans in motion.

According to Phelan, the “pathways” provide the town steps to satisfy the state requirement, known as Chapter 74, of providing approved vocational technical education. 

The first, and most straightforward, is the “Minuteman” pathway in which Belmont continues to send students to the Lexington-based school as pupils from non-member communities.

During the three years leading up to the opening of the new Minuteman building in 2020, Belmont would “closely monitor” the number of non-member students and any changes in state law so that it can ensure students aren’t squeezed out of the school if it reaches capacity.

The second avenue is the “Alternative” path, where Belmont would reach out to five nearby school districts – Waltham, Newton (Newton North), Cambridge, Medford, and Somerville – that proved state-approved vocational classes to inquire whether they are willing to take in Belmont students. 

Phelan told the meeting Monday the districts have been contacted and while only Cambridge and Medford “are in the business of taking in students,” the other three said they are open to talking about a partnership with Belmont.

Phelan said he would hold talks with the towns and present the School Committee with a “program of studies” by May 2017. A task force would be created to analyze the program options and how they relate to the classes Minuteman provide. 

By March 2018, more than two years before the new Minuteman school is scheduled to open, Belmont’s School Committee would meet with the Board of Selectmen to decide which of the pathways would address the needs of 8th graders who would option to a vocational program. 

Final agreements would be signed between Belmont and the nearby schools by the 2018/2019 school year; guidance staff would prepare students for a change and final implementation of the alternative pathway would take place in September 2020.

When asked his “central thought” of staying with Minuteman as part of the two pathways, Phelan said most people would rather be part of a regional school.

“We have a long relationship” with Minuteman, said Phelan. But since past votes – including two this year – have shown a strong preference in town to leave the district, “it’s our job” to find vocational classes and put together a “range of offerings … and provide a “quality menu” for students if the vote to leave the district is approved.

But several Town Meeting members agreed with Edward Bouquillon, Minuteman’s superintendent, who questioned whether just providing classes in a relative subject is the equivalent of Minuteman’s comprehensive educational approach.

“Minuteman and other schools are different,” said Bouquillon, saying that students in Lexington spend 630 hours exploring careers by spending time in all subjects while in Somerville the time is limited to 165 hours. And while Medford and Cambridge students are taught by licensed professionals for a bit over 1,000 hours, Minuteman students are instructed for 2,205 hours.

“There are distinct differences that should be considered before the vote rather than after,” he said.

For the bulk of the meeting, newly-appointed Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein walked the audience of Town Meeting members through the article’s highlights noting it will take a 2/3 majority vote of Town Meeting to approve the withdrawal.

A “yes” vote will change the status of the town to a non-member community which will relieve Belmont of the debt building a new $145 million building set to open in September 2020. With state subsidies, the debt to member towns will be $100 million. The new facility will have room for 628 students.

Epstein said even if the town votes to leave the district, Belmont can still send new students to Minuteman until the school opens, after which Belmont pupils can attend if there is space.

Turning to finances, the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education this summer allowed Minuteman to assess a capital charge of $9,500 per student to member town and non-member communities such as Belmont which does not have any vocational training in the district.

But Epstein said it remains uncertain if Minuteman will implement the add-on cost since it retains the ability to “make deals” to attract and retain students by reducing the assessment.

“That’s just conjecture but take it for what it’s worth,” said Epstein.

Epstein crunched the numbers on the cost of staying or leaving. In the next three years after the vote, a “yes” to remain would result in the town an additional $232,000 in debt service if the current level of students remains constant while withdrawing would keep charges at their current amounts. 

Once the school opens, the yearly cost – tuition, capital charge, transportation and Special Education – per Belmont student reaches approximately $33,000. Multiply that by 29 students now enrolled and Belmont’s tab will be $957,000. 

Using Epstein’s calculations, by remaining in the district, Belmont would be obligated to pay the remaining operating and capital expenses after payments by non-members. Epstein said the cost per student annually would be in a range of $42,000 to nearly $50,000. Those charges would add between $311,000 to $436,000 to the town’s bottom line, requiring the town to seek an override or find a source of funds in the budget to pay for it, said Selectman Mark Paolillio to those in attendance. 

Epstein said after analyzing data and enrollment projections from the Minuteman administration and those advocating for withdrawal, the Warrant Committee believes there will be a significant cost gap between a student coming from member and non-member towns, even if the Minuteman school is fully enrolled. 

While the Minuteman administration is confident it can boost enrollment from the current 576 to 628 – most newly built schools experience a rush of students and vocational education is increasing in popularity – the new high school will need to attract a much greater percentage of higher paying member town students than it does today, a number Epstein isn’t quite ready to accept.

After the meeting, the Warrant Committee voted 11 to 2 for leaving the district.

Minuteman Tech Holding ”Yes’ on New School’ Forum Thursday at 7PM

Photo: The new school rendered. KAESTLE BOOS ASSOCIATES

The Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical School District is sponsoring a public forum dubbed “Minuteman: Facts and Future,” on Thursday, Oct. 13 from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St.

The forum will include a presentation, panel discussion, and question and answer period to provide Town Meeting Members and citizens an opportunity to discuss the town’s upcoming vote to either stay or leave the District,

“We’ll outline the facts about our new building and the positive impact it will have on students in the member towns in our District,” said Ed Bouquillon, Minuteman’s superintendent. “And we’ll talk about what makes a Minuteman education unique, including the broad array of career and technical education programming that we offer.”

The forum is open to the public.  

On Sept. 20, voters in the Minuteman District voted 12,160 in favor to 5,321 opposed to supporting the construction of a new High School. Belmont voters rejected the offer by an equally large percentage margin.

Following the vote, the Belmont Selectmen called a Special Town Meeting on Oct. 19 to ask Belmont Town Meeting members to vote to withdraw from the Minuteman District. A two-thirds vote is required by the members to pull out of the district.

Selectmen Discuss Dates for Minuteman Vote And A Possible Escape

Photo: The possibility of an election and a Special Town Meeting.

With a vote in 16 communities to decide the future of the Minuteman Tech Regional High School less than two months away, the Belmont Board of Selectmen unveiled the tentative dates the town will discuss, vote and possibly severe its ties with the vocational school the town has sent its students for nearly five decades.

“This is a first step regarding coming to a conclusion of the Minuteman High School project and its financing,” David Kale, Belmont’s town administrator, told Selectmen on Monday, July 25.

In May, a Special Town Meeting voted against Minuteman’s $145 million financing plan as it was deemed too large for the limited number of students coming from district schools. 

• Monday, Sept. 12: The Belmont League of Women Voters and the town’s Warrant Committee will jointly hold an informational meeting at 7 p.m. at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St., where questions can be asked by voters to town and school officials. It could also be the date the Selectmen can make a recommendation on the plan’s passage or defeat. 

• Tuesday, Sept. 20: The district-wide vote on the project’s financing will take place between noon and 8 p.m. at Belmont’s seven polling stations. When the district-wide vote was first announced in mid-July, Minuteman officials – who are paying for the election – announced that each town would be voting at a single polling location (in Belmont at the High School’s field house) to keep expenses to approximately $11,000. 

But that plan was scuttled after both Arlington and Belmont protested the move, accusing it of an attempt to suppress voter turnout for no real cost savings.

“That was a good solution so not to cause disruptions at the high school,” which would be in session, said Kale. 

If Belmont votes against the bonding scheme, but the district-wide vote is in favor, the Selectmen will have 60 days to call and hold a Special Town Meeting to vote to withdraw from the district. 

• Monday, Sept. 26: 

“You’ll have to make some decisions depending what transpired in September,” said Kale at the first board meeting after the election. 

If the board does call for a Special Town Meeting, Town Meeting member can expect the following October dates to be put into play. 

• The week Monday, Oct. 10: The League of Women Voters will hold an informational and precinct meetings. 

• Wednesday, Oct. 19: Kale said the town has tentatively set the day for the Special Town Meeting, likely at the Chenery Middle School, as the first available date that it can be done. 

If the town votes to remove itself from the district but the other 15 voting member town refuse, Belmont will remain in the group but will not be responsible for the additional debt service, said Kale.

Currently, the town would be responsible for between $350,000 to $500,000 in annual assessments to build the new $145 million school. 

Mark Paolillo, Selectmen’s chair, said as part of the board’s deliberation, it will need to be informed by Belmont’s School Superintendent, John Phelan, “on alternatives for those students now attending Minuteman.”

Town Meeting Puts Kibosh On McMansions Passing Limits On Residential Homes

Photo: Peg Callanan speaking before Town Meeting on Monday. Steve Pinkerton is behind Callahan.

Late in 2014, Sargent Road’s Peg Callanan and Stephen Pinkerton of Dalton Road decided something had to be done to put a halt the sudden explosion of oversized structures – dubbed McMansions – being built in their neighborhood of single-family homes adjacent to the Grove Street Playground.

Nearly 18 months since they formed the Belmont Citizens for Responsible Zoning (BCRZ) to bring attention to what they called “a threat to the character of our community,” Callanan and Pinkerton were present to see their concerns answered when Belmont Town Meeting on Monday, June 6, overwhelmingly approved major changes to the zoning bylaw that places permanent restrictions on the size of new construction or major renovations in seven of Belmont’s eight precincts.

“The vote shows that you can change what some said was too complicated to do,” said Callanan, after the 195-32 vote to give its blessing to Article 6 which sets limits to the height and space around new homes.

The vote on the article – which took 15 minutes – came after nearly three hours of debate on four amendments that would allow the construction of a second floor by right, the placement of HVAC units and design issues. Each was defeated handily with the exception of the final amendment on another HVAC-related issue voted down by a margin of two votes, 114-112. 

While the overall article had overwhelming support, many Town Meeting members were dreading the prospect of up to nine amendments which would take time to debate and vote. Advantageously, many of the pending amendments were withdrawn before the meeting, and when Charles Hamann, chair of the Bylaw Review Committee removed three more at the last minute, he received a kiss in gratitude from Planning Board Chair Liz Allison.

See how the new bylaw effects the size and mass of single-family homes going forward in the SR-C district.

Among the new rules are:

  • An applicant that demolishes a house to build a larger home, and on a different foot print, or increases the original gross floor area by more than 30 percent during a renovation will now require obtaining a Special Permit.
  • New homes will be limited in height to 30 feet from the midpoint of the roof line and 34 feet at its highest.
  • The front set back must be the average footage of the abutting houses.
What the new bylaw does is close “two critical loop-holes” in town zoning, said Pinkerton: the lack of a total height limit and the absence of a Special Permit requirement for significant work in residential neighborhoods. 

The new bylaw expands on a one-year moratorium approved at last year’s Town Meeting placing restrictions on the total height (at 32 feet) on any new or reconstructed single-family dwelling unit in a small section of Precinct 7 that saw a rapid increase in demolitions and the construction of mega-homes.

Since that vote, the BCRZ began working with the town’s Planning Board to develop Zoning By-Law amendments to “help preserve the neighborhood’s distinctive character” by mitigating the effects of oversized construction throughout the Single Residence C Zoning District, according to a committee letter to Town Meeting.

“We pledged last year that we would work collaboratively, and that started right away and it just never stopped,” Callahan told the Belmontonian after the meeting.

“We believe that Article 6 is the best solution … that will balance the interests of today’s homeowners for larger homes while respecting the rights of its existing owners,” Callanan told Town Meeting before the vote. 

Pinkerton told Town Meeting members who were thinking of opposing the article as it does not allow “as right” the construction of a second floor or it appears to grants more power to the Planning Board, “not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

“Come to the Planning Board and work with them and with us. This has been a remarkable collaborative effort from all kinds of people,” said Pinkerton. 

There was some opposition, on forcing design parameters being placed on homeowners and builders, and whether new residents would be heard by the Planning Board, yet those issues were brushed aside allow the article to pass comfortably.

LIVE: Special Town Meeting, May 4

Photo: Proponents of the Minuteman Tech School funding out in force.

7:30 p.m.: It’s time to convene the Special Town Meeting in which members will discuss and vote on three articles:

  1. funding for a new Minuteman Regional High School,
  2. conveying $1.75 million from the sale of Woodfall Road to the Belmont High School Building Committee for a feasibility study
  3. Take $1.45 million out of free cash to pay for six modular classrooms to be placed at the Chenery.

But first recognition of Richard Betts’ contribution to the town.

The $144 million Minuteman funding project is not finding any love among town committees: voted unfavorably by the Board of Selectmen, Warrant Committee, and the Capital Budget Committee. 

The articles will be heard in reverse order with Minuteman to end the night. 

7:42 p.m.: The proclamation for Dick Betts, “Mr. Belmont.”Passionate of Belmont’s history, author of several books on this town, and Town Engineer. 

7:47 p.m.: Article 3 is up, the modular classrooms. Selectmen, Warrant, and Capital Budget all unanimously approves the transfer. Superintendent John Phelan explains that enrollment continues to skyrocket, and it was decided that modular will relieve pressure on the school where rooms not built for learning are being used. 

Mike Lebinson, chair of the Warrant Committee, gives a talk about free cash. The town should have on hand about three percent of the last year’s budget or about $3 million. The town has about $7.6 million of free cash as of July 1, 15. So in June during the budget Town Meeting, the town is looking to spend $1.45 million on the modular, $1.7  on fiscal ’17 budget allocation and $317,000 for OPEB, which leaves $4.1 million, well above the recommended amount. 

Chris Doyle, Pct. 1, with nothing said about a permanent fix, are modular a long-range solution. Phelan said with the building of the new high school; it will give an opportunity to find a long-term solution throughout the system. David Alper, Pct. 6, said this will not increase the number of teachers, just make learning easier.

The vote is taken and … the article passes 237-5.

8:02 p.m.: Now Article 2: This will give the $1.75 million that came from the sale of town-owned property off Woodfall Road to the BHS Building Committee so it can have a feasibility study performed. Selectmen, Warrant, and Capital Budget all voted unanimously to pass the article. William Lovallo, the chair of the BHSBC, gives an overview of what the committee will be doing over the next two years. The amendment, by Selectmen Jim Williams, would change the funding source to the Kendall Insurance Fund. Williams said there were three options to fund the feasibility study with a short-term bond, free cash or the Kendall fund which is from the insurance settlement from the Kendall school. The Woodfall Road money would go into free cash. Williams said the article was only presented to allow Town Meeting a choice what to use.

Mark Paolillo, selectman chair, said the $1.75 million is one-time money which would have been placed into a Capital Stabilization Fund, which supports capital needs of four major capital needs: the new High School, DPW, Police, and Library. Back a year ago, Ann Marie Mahoney, chair of the CBC, said the Woodfall Road money would be going into these funds anyway. Paul Roberts, Pct. 1, said since there are two accounts performing the same task, why not take funds from Kendall fund and place it in the Capital Stabilization Fund. Paolillo likes that idea. 

Back a year ago, Ann Marie Mahoney, chair of the CBC, said the Woodfall Road money would be going into these funds anyway. Paul Roberts, Pct. 1, said since there are two accounts performing the same task, why not take funds from Kendall fund and place it in the Capital Stabilization Fund. Paolillo likes that idea. 

Paul Roberts, Pct. 1, said since two accounts are performing the same task, why not take funds from Kendall fund and place it in the Capital Stabilization Fund. Paolillo likes that idea.

Julie Crockett, Pct. 5, said why not pay for the feasibility study with the Kendall fund and then place the Woodfall Road money into the Debt Stabilization Fund. 

Williams once again reiterates that we wanted to give the Town Meeting the chance to decide and place the Woodfall Road money into free cash. 

Jack Weis, Pct. 1, said by placing in the money into free cash, it preserves how the fund is used in an aggregate way.

The vote of the amendment by Williams is taken, and it is defeated 176 to 76. 

Back to the main motion. Chris Doyle, Pct. 1, asks what is the scope of the feasibility study; can it include eighth graders in a new school. Phelan said the study would have the opportunity to ask for several architectural plans that will ask those questions.

The vote of the main motion takes place and passes, 237-7.

Now the Minuteman vote: buckle up and let’s go. 

Jack Weis, Pct. 1, who is Belmont’s rep on the Minuteman School Committee, said he will make a neutral presentation “so you can decide.” Weis said the reason for a new building is due to age – it was built in 1974 – and overuse. The condition of the building could force the school to lose its accreditation. Since 2010, the school has been undergoing a feasibility study since 2010. One thing that it will not do is build for less than 600 students. While Weis believes that the building is too big, “but I get tripped up” when asking himself “will be better off if we vote no.” The better path, said Weis, is to seek approval of a new school. 

“But this is the wrong school at the wrong time” said Mark Paolillo. “The building is too big.” 

“I just can’t get to yes with a $144 million building for 630 students,” said Paolillo, who suggested taking “option 2” which is taking a second look at the project.

Bob McLaughlin, Pct 2, makes a passionate plea against the new school, noting that there are too many questions left unanswered.

Now the questions and opinions from the members. 

With many members expressing a great amount of frustration with the process and the school’s administration, Belmont Special Town Meeting votes down the $144 million funding plan for a new Minuteman Career and Technical High School building, 81-141.


What’s In Store For Tonight’s Special Town Meeting, Wednesday, May 4

Photo: Rendering of the new Minuteman High School.

Three articles will be before the 290 Town Meeting Members as a Special Town Meeting convenes tonight, Wednesday, May 4 at 7:30 p.m. in the Belmont High School auditorium.                                                                                                              

Topping the agenda will be a vote to authorize the issuance of $144 million in bonds to finance the construction of a new Minuteman Technical High School. Last week both the Board of Selectmen and the Warrant Committee voted “unfavorable action” on the article, contending the building constructed to house approximately 630 students is far too big for the roughly 360 students who attend from the 10 district city and towns.

Last week both the Board of Selectmen and the Warrant Committee voted “unfavorable action” on the article, contending the building constructed to house approximately 630 students is far too big for the roughly 360 students who attend from the 10 district city and towns.

The Selectmen also noted Belmont would be required to pay between $350,000 to $500,000 annually to fund its share of the building’s cost, money that would require the town seek a debt exclusion to fund the building.

Supporters counter this “right-sized” building will quickly attract both students who are increasingly seeking practical educational options and towns that will join the school district to ensure their students will have a place at the table.

While the second article – taking the $1.7 million the town received from the sale of town-owned land adjacent to Woodfall Road to fund the feasibility study and other expense of the renovation/new construction at Belmont High School – appears straight forward, Selectman Jim Williams has filed an amendment. He is seeking a debate on whether there is a more appropriate funding source for this venture.

For example, Williams points to the approximately $3 million Kendell Fund – established with money from the insurance after the Kendell School building burned down – which was specifically created to pay for feasibility studies of municipal projects. Williams’ amendment received a 2-1 “unfavoriable action” vote from his fellow Selectmen. Williams had said he will support Article 2 whether his amendment is accepted.

The final article would appropriate $1.45 million in free cash – some call the line item the town’s “savings account” – to the purchase of six modular classrooms to be constructed on the tennis courts of the Chenery Middle School to help elevates the ongoing enrollment crunch.

State Readies Sale Of Incinerator Site to Town; Special Town Meeting To Accept Land

Photo: The entry to the former incinerator site. 

It’s been nearly two years in the works but this week, the state is preparing to hand over a former trash incinerator closed for the past five decades back to the town.

The Belmont Board of Selectmen will vote on a date, likely in June, to hold a Special Town Meeting where members will vote whether to accept or reject the conveyance from the state to the town of the nearly 16-acre parcel sitting adjacent upper Concord Avenue and Rock Meadow Conservation about 1,500 feet from the Lexington town line.

“We have received communication that this conveyance is in the process of being executed by [the state] depending on what we have to execute,” said David Kale, Belmont’s town administrator. 

IMG_3471 IMG_3473

Once accepted, the town is required by the state to remediate the site which includes removing or “capping” the contaminated soil polluted by the ash produced by the burned garbage. As part of the agreement, the state, through the Department of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance which is responsible for the disposition of state-owned property, will subtract the amount the town spends on remediation from the assessed value of the property.

Belmont in 2006 created a special stabilization account to fund the future “clean-up” of the site. There is currently $4.2 million in the account, according to Kale. 

“The total cost will also depend on post-closure uses,” he said.

The sale has been years in the making. In 2012, as it was considering using the site for athletic fields or other uses, the town discovered ownership of the site had reverted to the state once the incinerator was formally shut down in the early 1980s.

In January 2014, former Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation sponsored by State Rep. Dave Rogers  authorizing the sale of the state-owned land to the town at a “fair market value.” An important provision of the transfer is the land is limited to recreational or municipal use; it can not be sold or leased for commercial or business operations.

Built in 1959, the incinerator operated until 1975, then becoming the town’s transfer station for two decades. It is currently used by the Belmont DPW for equipment storage, leaf composting and debris.

In November 2014, the selectmen held a meeting with  Town Meeting members and the public on possible uses for the former incinerator which included a solar “farm,” sports fields, open space and a future home for Police headquarters or the DPW.

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.