The Select Board held its annual summer goals retreat last week and emerged with housing, climate and transportation issues as its top three priorities for the next 18 months and beyond.
The two-day goals process was facilitated by representatives of Raftelis, a national firm that provides management consulting services to municipalities.
The board reviewed an extensive list of initiatives generated by town departments during two three-hour public sessions Thursday and Friday. Those suggestions included previously established but not completed Select Board initiatives.
Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick said the process provided the chance for the town to be “bold on climate and bold on housing.” Board members did not let that opportunity pass, signaling their resolve to facilitate the creation of more housing options at “different price points” and to “prioritize and implement” recommendations that emerge from the work of the town’s Climate Action Plan Committee (CAPC).
Transportation issues also featured prominently on the list of goals. Multiple initiatives were assigned to the newly established Transportation Safety Committee, to evaluate and make recommendations to promote and improve the safety of the multimodal public ways in Needham and increase bike infrastructure in town.
Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley stated simply, “Home prices are too high.” Each board member expressed similar concerns about potential negative impacts of Needham becoming financially out of reach to all but those at the highest levels of wealth.
“The growing extremes in our housing stock (are) detrimental,” said member Kevin Keane.
Members expressed concern over limited housing options in town for seniors, town employees and employees of local businesses, as well as the town’s potential dearth of new homes that conform to any reasonable definition of “affordable” housing.
The efforts on housing reflect the board’s established commitment to comply with the state MBTA Communities Law and will coalesce around the work of the newly formed Housing Needham Advisory Group, or HoNe.
Keane and Heidi Frail are the Select Board’s representatives on the nine-member HoNe committee, a joint effort with the Planning Board. HoNe will lead an extensive community engagement process between now and the end of 2024, the town’s deadline to create multifamily zoning that complies with the state MBTA Communities law.
Under the state housing plan, Needham and 176 other communities with significant MBTA service are required to modify their zoning near MBTA stations, as the state tries to encourage developers to build more housing and ease the statewide housing crunch.
The board again showed unanimity on climate-related initiatives, supporting an aggressive approach toward reducing the town’s collective carbon footprint.
The town’s work will be driven by the CAPC, established at the Fall 2022 Town Meeting to “guide the Town in developing a plan that meets or exceeds the State’s climate mitigation and resilience goals.”
The nine-member committee, which includes Cooley and Keane, is charged with recommending a Climate Action Plan (CAP) to the Select Board. It will then either be dissolved or continue to serve as an advisory committee to oversee the implementation of the climate plan that the Select Board approves.
The board also stated it would be open to considering a change of town building code requirements from the current Stretch Code, which Needham adopted in 2018 as a Green Community.
Under the current code, stricter efficiency standards for residential buildings went into effect in Needham just this past January, including a requirement that renovations or additions that meet certain conditions would trigger higher efficiency ratings for the entire structure.
The state has created an opt-in specialized code with still higher efficiency standards for new residential and commercial construction. Town Meeting approval would be required for Needham to opt into the new code, which would require all new buildings to be designed with electric service and wiring sufficient for future electrification of space and water heating.
The board also committed to sponsoring a “tree summit,” an oft-proposed but yet to be scheduled formal discussion of overall town policies that have an impact on tree plantings and removals.
And everything else
It is common for the Select Board to maintain a list of dozens of goals that have timelines categorized as Now (0-18 months), Next (18-36 months) and Near (36 months and beyond).
The vast majority of these goals reside in the “NOW” category, with the expectation that many will migrate into the longer-duration boxes.
The goals are categorized by their intent to advance Needham’s standing in one of the seven attributes the board considers foundational. Each goal is intended to move Needham forward and improve the community in terms of being: livable, economically vital, accessible and connected, healthy and socially thriving, safe, responsibly governed, and environmentally sustainable.