Justin McCullen, candidate for Planning Board/ Credit: Peter Coheno

Justin McCullen is leaning into the planning side of his emergency planning background as the uncontested candidate for the Planning Board. He will replace Jeanne McKnight, who is stepping down after 18 years of service. 

In the 10 years since he moved to Needham with his wife and then 1-year-old daughter, McCullen has served on several town boards and committees, including as chair of both the Transportation and Safety Committee and the Mobility, Planning and Coordination Committee. He served on the Local Emergency Planning Committee, the Biosafety Committee and the Quiet Zone working group. This is his second run for a seat on the Planning Board. 

McCullen said he hopes to make a long-term impact on the town and be a collaborator on a board that often finds itself in lengthy discussions with disparate viewpoints. 

“I think there are very strong personalities,” he said. “And I want to be able to harness those personalities and drive thoughtful, meaningful policy.” 

In his job at Novartis, McCullen works in emergency management and business continuity for their research and development division and is an efficiency expert in his field. He hopes to bring that skill to the historically long meetings and deliberations of the five-member board. He believes one way to accomplish this is to leverage the expertise of the planning staff, especially in more technical matters, which would allow the board to spend more time on actually planning. “There are opportunities to make the process more efficient,” he said. 

McCullen also believes in consensus building, especially around proposals that go before Town Meeting. He believes having a unified board is the best way to move the needle. “It’s OK to have diversity of opinion, but there should be a unanimous decision from the board at the end when presenting zoning articles at Town Meeting.” 

After two high school students were killed in a crosswalk by Needham High School in 2018, McCullen became passionate about traffic safety. “As a town we responded, but I still think we failed,” he said. “That’s why I do what I do and sit on all these safety committees to make sure we can avoid a tragedy like this in the future.” 

Viewing planning through the lens of traffic safety is something unique he brings to the table, which historically has not been part of the board’s expertise, whose members often come with legal and real estate backgrounds. He prides himself on reading traffic studies in his free time. 

His understanding of traffic impacts will be especially useful as the town considers major developments in the coming years, including the MBTA communities. “I want to bring my experience with traffic and transportation to ensure that the impact of these developments are minimal to the area around the development in terms of traffic,” he said. 

Planning Board Chair Adam Block said he’s worked with McCullen over the years when dealing with transportation planning, and believes his perspective will be meaningful in helping the board think through all impacts of development from specific projects to general zoning. 

“I’ve had questions about certain traffic issues in town, and I’ve sought his guidance,” said Block. “He’s really sensible and grounded and a very level-headed guy. He’s also very sensitive about stormwater management.” 

With significant planning decisions coming up in the next five years with affordable housing, the MBTA communities law, and commercial and mixed-use development, McCullen said a lot of the current zoning will need to be evaluated and refined. “The town, as a lot of people know, is going to be experiencing significant costs with regard to schools,” he said. “It’s really important that we try to incentivize certain development to offset the costs. We need to find ways to bring more businesses to the town to significantly contribute to the levy.” He sees development as a fiscal reality in order to keep residential taxes low. He sees many opportunities along Chestnut Street and on Needham Street around Staples. 

He also believes that while the MBTA Communities Act and multifamily zoning will increase the housing stock, it is unlikely it will contribute to actual affordable housing. He said there need to be incentives for developers to include affordable units in housing projects, but not to the extent that they opt to build elsewhere. It’s a delicate balance, he said, and they need to find that sweet spot. 

McCullen said he is excited to get started, and has been following Planning Board proceedings closely to ensure he can hit the ground running after the election. 

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