• Residents, data tip off state IG to potential problems

    Massachusetts Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro knows a good source of information about state waste, fraud and abuse when he sees one. “When I go shopping at Roche Bros. or Sudbury Farms, people tell me things. I learned about the commuter rail when people’s tickets were not punched. Everyone’s got an opinion on a road that maybe shouldn’t have been paved.”

    Shapiro, a Needham native and resident (NHS Class of 1985), was appointed inspector general for a five-year term by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2022. The office has an enormous mandate: It trains thousands of state and local officials in fair, ethical procurement. It polices the healthcare industry’s billing practices for MassHealth and government-related services. It investigates state police and transportation system abuses. “We have about 90 people and $10 million to work with, and we’re looking at the work of about 300,000 people and they spend about $120 billion,” said Shapiro.

    The Massachusetts Office of the Inspector General was the first statewide inspector general’s office in the country. “We were created as a recommendation from the Ward Commission, which was created in the late 1970s, to look at construction irregularities, most notably problems at UMass Boston. As they were being dismantled, they suggested that the Legislature create an agency that is always staffed with professionals that can look at fraud, waste and abuse.”

    In the federal government and in many other states, inspectors general are organized by subject matter. “And so for us to be statewide is unique,” said Shapiro. “There have been a number of other states that have followed it. But having a portfolio like that can be awesome and interesting. It can also be in some ways overwhelming. And so I think one of the biggest challenges that the team and I face is trying to figure out what it is that we pursue.”

    In an attempt to better inform the public about those choices, Shapiro introduced a new format to the office’s annual report, which was released on April 30. “I thought the old annual report looked like an appellate brief,” he said. He thinks this time residents “might read an article about something that we did with the T or with a housing authority, or municipal government, or with Health and Human Services, or any number of other places. And that might grab their attention to think about, ’Oh, when I see something, this is who I can call, and this is a tip that I can make.’ We’re always interested to hear from people.” The office receives more than 2,000 tips about questionable practices each year; Sudbury Farms is not, in fact, the primary place Shapiro and his team get their information.

    Shapiro has succeeded in lobbying the state Legislature for more resources. “When I came in, our MassDOT/MBTA unit had about $577,000 in that account to do that work. And it was about five or six people. And if one thinks about all that’s going on with the MBTA — forget about MassDOT — what would I do with six people?” 

    The division now has more than $800,000 in funding, but that’s still unlikely to be enough to monitor all the potential problems. One of the office’s new strategies is to use data analysis to predict and identify problem areas, rather than relying solely on tips and complaints. While the work is not fully implemented, the expectation is that crunching data will find anomalies in contracting, spending or collections that can lead investigators to problems, whether it’s overcharges for state police details or underperformance by construction contractors. “I’m hoping that 20% of the things that we work on will come from data as opposed to coming from a walk-in, a hotline or an online complaint,” Shapiro said.

    An example of data analysis was a study the inspector general’s office conducted on behavioral health charges at MassHealth, released this March. “There were questions about the ratios of supervision by senior providers to more junior people,” Shapiro said. “There’s a 10-1 ratio of hours of patient care to supervision by the senior people. And we came up with about $17 million or so in billed hours that were outside of that ratio. We also saw holidays that were billed that raise questions, and hours beyond 24 hours in a day that were billed.” 

    While the investigations get the headlines, training is a large component of the work. There are 351 cities and towns in the state, and every one collects taxes and fees and contracts with providers of all kinds. Shapiro, who clearly does his homework, reported that 10 or more Needham town officials have gone through the state’s training, and with good effect. Shapiro points to Needham as a town that has greatly improved its procurement and contracting practices. “I noticed that at [this month’s] town meeting there was an appropriation for the Pollard School,” he said. He remembered an IG report on a Pollard project nearly 30 years ago. “Inspector General [Robert] Cerasoli issued a report on Pollard, and it was a pretty horrible report. There were lots of cost overruns, and there were time delays, and there were two quite significant change orders that created a lot of different dynamics as that played out. And I bring that up to say that the towns and communities can change, and the lessons in those kinds of reports can be significant. I think Needham has put in a permanent building committee since that time. It has created a number of municipal public buildings and really has done quite a great job.”

    So does he think Needham is well run? “You know, you can always continue to do better. I wouldn’t be an oversight official if I didn’t say that, right?”

  • Stephanie Wyman appointed special education director

    After serving for almost a year as interim executive director of Needham’s special education program, Stephanie Wyman was appointed to the position at the April 23 School Committee meeting. 

    Wyman has worked in the district for more than two decades, first teaching full time for eight years as part of Needham High School’s special education program, which now includes postgraduate students. She oversaw and taught half of the high school’s special education program before she became the out-of-district coordinator a year later, working with families of children with special needs who were placed in programs outside of Needham. 

    “I was teaching previously in Northern Virginia but when I came back, I took a position at Needham High School in one of our sub-separate programs for students with intellectual and varying disability needs,” she said.

    Now Wyman manages the special education program for the entire district, coordinating with educators, parents, administrators and the school board to develop and maintain an inclusive and comprehensive special education program.

    “I’m in the school buildings — the five elementaries and the two middle school buildings — on a weekly basis, and then meetings are coming up from there,” she said. “I work hand-in-hand with our ELL department, our METCO program, counseling and our directors of guidance.” 

    Wyman said she views special education as a wide range of research-based support programs. “When we talk about special education, I would see it as an umbrella of services that support students, and we’re tailoring it based on a student’s needs.”

    The Program

    Special education services are implemented using Individualized Education Plans. Parents and district specialists assess each child’s needs for support in academic subjects as well as physical and social/emotional needs. According to Daniel Cohen, Needham’s preschool director, the schools implemented a new, state-issued IEP form at the end of February. It gives students more opportunity to provide direct input on their services. 

    IEPs develop what’s called Specially Designed Instruction — individualized support services given to students based on their specific needs. SDI is offered through a variety of programs across the district. At the preschool, special education operates through different classroom formats. Students in the hybrid program split their time between general instruction with typically developing students and specialized classrooms where they receive extra support in their specified areas. Preschoolers needing more support are placed in the Integrated Learning Center, where they work on speech, cognitive, social and other types of skills.

    Inclusion is a central facet of both special and general education in Needham’s preschool program, said Cohen.“Our approach is focusing on everyone’s uniqueness and individual needs and being accepting of that and understanding that all of our students, no matter what their ability level, no matter how they identify or what they look like, [that] all of our students are working on many skills.”

    Throughout the district, students with special needs are also given instruction through “pullout services” where they are taken out of certain classes to receive support by specialists in their respective area of focus.

    This has been a source of concern for members of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) who want their children to receive academic support while also not missing out on enrichment classes such as art and music.

    SEPAC, a group of parents whose children participate in Needham’s special education program, acts as a consulting and advisory board for the district. The board consists of elected members who meet with the district leaders each month to provide parent input on the program.

    Other concerns the group has identified include a lack of formalized curriculum around teaching all students about neurodivergence and special needs. According to Pamela Greenfield, one of SEPAC’s co-chairs, these subjects are taught on a school-by-school basis and based on the educator’s knowledge and discretion.

    SEPAC has been working to develop this curriculum with the district for several years. 

    “We’re still working together with the district to find this more universal, more formal curriculum, and I think a lot of districts are struggling with this,” she said.

    Despite challenges, SEPAC, Wyman and the district maintain a healthy relationship and develop community engagement activities for the town to educate residents on neurodivergency. The organization hosts a monthly speaker series with professionals in the field to discuss executive function, sensory disorders, medication management and other relevant topics.

    SEPAC also has developed a mental health support group for parents that meets the first Monday of each month at the Needham Free Public Library, and has worked with the district to create open dialogue around the extended school year program where students receive services beyond the traditional school year.

    Greenfield said SEPAC is delighted to have an experienced and knowledgeable special education professional like Wyman in the long-term role.

    “She knows the district inside and out and she understands that from a parent perspective, so we were pretty pumped to have her sticking around in a long-term capacity in that role.”

  • Traveling Meals to keep rolling . . . for now

    The Traveling Meals program is an institutional “Glover baby,” having been nurtured in 1971 at Glover Memorial Hospital, which then was a town department.

    The town got out of the hospital business when Glover was merged into the Deaconess Hospital system in 1994. Its successor, Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham, has continued the program, preparing low-cost, high-nutrition lunches and dinners for about 50 town residents five days a week, charging the town the bargain price of $6.25 per meal.

    As BIDH-Needham has grown, it literally has added hundreds more mouths to feed, but its food service capacity has not grown along with the rest of the sprawling campus along Chestnut Street. In 2022, the hospital informed the town it might soon need to end its participation in the Traveling Meals program as it was struggling to fulfill its own food service needs.

    In February, that time appeared to have arrived. BIDH-Needham President John Fogarty sent a letter to Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick saying, “This letter serves as 12-month notice that we will no longer be able to provide this valuable service.”

    The hospital reversed its position this past Monday when Fogarty sent another “Dear Kate” letter saying BID was revoking its notice to withdraw. In a statement to the Observer, Fogarty said, “We have informed the town that we plan to continue with the Traveling Meals program and are pleased we are able to support this important initiative.

    “We have continued to invest in our dietary facilities and offerings, including expanding our café hours for employees beginning next month.”

    The February withdrawal notice came just three months after the hospital and the town concluded multiple months of negotiations revising the hospital’s 2018 PILOT agreement with the town. The 2023 agreement marked the first time the hospital’s participation in Traveling Meals was explicitly included.

    Nonprofits such as schools and hospitals often provide a combination of revenue and in-kind services. PILOTs are most often voluntary, not mandated, and nonprofits often pay nothing.

    Fitzpatrick said the town’s agreements with BID are not negotiated annually. “It generally changes when the hospital has acquired or disposed of property,” she said.

    The hospital historically has paid 12.7% of what a for-profit commercial property owner would pay in taxes. From 2018 to 2023, the total valuation of hospital-owned parcels increased almost 25%, from $29.4 million to $36.3 million. The 2023 agreement is expected to yield an annual payment of $119,217.

    “We started discussing this PILOT agreement in the summer of 2023, and they signed it in November,” said Fitzpatrick. “At that point, they felt they were going to be able to continue (the meals program). But they did ask us to add the (exit) clause.”

    “To be clear, the Traveling Meals was not in the PILOT agreement before this. We asked them to add it.”

    Prior to the hospital’s reversal, Fitzpatrick said BID-Needham was keeping lines of communication open and offered hope that the exit could be avoided. “They said they gave us the 12-month letter because that covered them. But they’re still pondering whether this is something they will be able to continue. So we’re going to keep talking to them to see if there’s anything that changes in their staffing that would allow it.”

    “The traveling meals program is an important community resource, and we have been proud to support it for many years,” Fogarty said in a statement to the Observer. “We are having ongoing discussions with the town on how we can forge a path forward together to sustainably support this program.” 

    Board of Health shifts gears

    The most recent negotiations put the town and the hospital back on that path. The major navigational duties will likely fall to Tim McDonald, the town’s director of health and human services.

    Traveling Meals is run by HHS staff and multiple volunteers who deliver the meals. The meals are paid for by the residents themselves, funded by the state or covered by The Friends of the Board of Health and Traveling Meals.

    HHS has often noted that food insecurity is an issue in town, and Traveling Meals helps put a dent in that problem. The program also addresses social isolation, as a vast majority of meal recipients are homebound.

    “It doesn’t happen every month, but the board hears about the five times or so a year that we find a senior that’s on the floor and we call 911,” McDonald said when the issue was discussed at this month’s Board of Health meeting.

    “The question is, when would someone have found them if we weren’t going there every weekday? So, we think it’s a really valuable community program and we’re going to do whatever we can to continue it.”

    McDonald has dedicated considerable time over the past 18 months to find an alternative vendor. “Unsurprisingly, there weren’t a ton of food establishments interested in producing lots of meals for seniors at a loss,” he said. 

    The town’s long-term capital spending plan includes considering expansion of the kitchen facilities at the Center at the Heights, possibly creating a commercial kitchen with the capacity to support the Traveling Meals program and address other food insecurity issues in town.

    McDonald said last week the February notice of BID’s departure had created deadline pressure that has been somewhat alleviated by the reversal of that decision. “Our foot is not completely off the gas, but there’s certainly a lot less urgency.”

  • Needham runner sets world record

    It was quite a birthday weekend for record-breaking Needham runner Jan Holmquist. On Saturday, just 20 days after breaking her own world record for women ages 75-79 in the James Joyce Ramble 10K in Dedham, Holmquist celebrated her 80th birthday. Another year, another age group, another record to break. On Sunday, Holmquist finished Needham’s Great Bear Run 5K in 24:08 — a world record for women ages 80-84.

    “Running was great with my granddaughter (Needham High sophomore Story Bracker) with me. I couldn’t ask for a better birthday weekend,” she said.

    So what’s next? On Saturday, Holmquist plans to run the Wachusett Mountain leg of the USA Track and Field-New England All Terrain Runner Series. That’s 3 miles uphill on a paved road. Still to come — the track, road, cross country and trail legs of the series.

    Then on June 8, it’s the Adrian Martinez Classic at Concord-Carlisle High School, where Holmquist has her eyes set on the record 8:35 for women ages 80-84 in the mile.

    “I want people to see that older people can get out and be active and social,” Holmquist said. She’s certainly doing that.

  • Performance space upgrades just the beginning

    Town Meeting voted by consent May 13 to appropriate $344,558 for school auditorium upgrades and improvements. Although this is good news to the many residents who have called for action on the tired, inadequate — and in some cases unsafe — performance spaces, it is just the beginning of actions theater consultancy firm Hewshott indicated in a 2023 feasibility study the town should invest in to improve the auditoriums at Pollard Middle School, Newman Elementary School and Needham High School. Total estimated cost according to the study would be about $3.5 million. 

    Immediate safety concerns were addressed as soon as the town was made aware of those needs, but many code upgrades such as repairing rigging and replacing lamps in the stage work lights remain to be done in all three locations. A portion of this funding will go toward these improvements. 

    The majority of the appropriated funds will be spent on design plans to convert Newman from an outdated analog system to a digital system to “conform with fundamental technology shifts in the industry,” as written in Article 5 of the Special Town Meeting Warrant.

    Although many articles were discussed at length at this year’s Town Meeting, this request passed without any discussion at all, something school Superintendent Dan Gutekanst said is testament to the work and information put out by the School Committee and other proponents in advance of the meeting. 

    “I think we put forward a compelling case, I think the FAQ provided the information people needed, the School Committee did a good job talking about it, and I think people get it,” he said. “Town Meeting gets it and is ready to move on.” 

    School Committee Chair Liz Lee expressed a similar sentiment. “I was not surprised that Needham has a deep understanding that this has a deep importance to our kids, and I’m grateful to Town Meeting members and our residents for that understanding,” she said.

    Lee is optimistic that these steps will begin to move the needle in the direction that reflects the work the theater department wants to do. “I’ve never been in theater, and that’s my gift to the world,” she said. “But I trust in the system because I know they have the people who know the things we need to go forward.” 

    Of the three auditoriums, Newman was selected for the redesign because it is currently the most heavily used space by the school groups as well as by the town. Pollard will be considered as part of the larger school building project, though through a separate funding source. 

    The plans for Newman include only lighting and sound applications and will look at issues such as converting the audio system to digital, replacing wireless equipment, upgrading video equipment to high-definition widescreen, replacing lamps with LED lighting and replacing rigging where needed. 

    Heather Salerno, co-president of Friends of Music, said they were encouraged by Town Meeting’s support for the upgrades. “We have a long way to go to get our performance spaces up to standard and on par with our peer communities, but this is an important step, and we are grateful for the town’s support.”

    As the town moves forward on performance space renovations and improvements, the question of who is responsible for the auditoriums’ oversight and maintenance remains. This is a question that will need to be addressed, agreed Gutekanst, saying that they need to assess available resources and where they can be reallocated to meet that need. “We need to work with the town to see what other personnel we can bring on board so that new spaces are managed effectively and efficiently,” he said. 

    Lee said her impression from listening to discussion among other town boards is that there is a sense of commitment to creating a maintenance plan across all town buildings. “It doesn’t make much sense to build it and not keep it up,” she said. 

    The work was slated to begin over the summer, but Gutekanst said officials recently learned the request for bids from three local rigging and lighting companies went unanswered, which will delay the project. 

    The Permanent Public Building Committee, which will oversee the project and use of funds along with Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick, discussed the performance space work at its most recent meeting. Hank Haff, director of design and construction, said they are exploring other options to move forward, but will “likely have to go out to bid again and define a more flexible schedule.” The design work is still scheduled to start in September. 

  • Asian culture fest draws families to Town Common

    A celebration of Asian cultures brought families to the Town Common on Saturday, May 11, for a Kid Craft Festival as part of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Sponsored by the Chinese Friends of Needham, the event featured youth music and dance performances as well as craft-making and calligraphy.

    “I think AAPI month is perfect timing for groups to come out and demonstrate their culture and show people what is special about them and help people better understand, especially for kids,” said Dennis Zhang, president of Chinese Friends of Needham. “It’s very helpful to teach kids to be respectful of each other and the diversity of the groups they come from.”

    This is the third year the event has taken place, and it included activities related to Japanese, Indian and Chinese cultures. A highlight of the performances involved two groups of students in the Needham ACE after-school enrichment program demonstrating the art of Chinese Yo Yo. The festival was supported with a grant from the Needham Council for Arts and Culture and local business CardMyYard.

  • Town Meeting completed in three slog nights

    Monday’s third and final night of Annual Town Meeting extended well past midnight, passing all but two of the nearly 50 articles it considered over three lengthy sessions.

    The 211 members in attendance engaged in lengthy discussions before ultimately voicing overwhelming approval to articles in support of the Quiet Zone project, multiple infrastructure investments and the removal of deed restrictions that could have hampered the Needham Housing Authority’s ambitious redevelopment plans.

    It showed less enthusiasm for a pair of citizen petitions. After extensive and sometimes passionate discussion, an attempt to change zoning language affecting the construction of large houses was referred to the Planning Board for further study. The final article up for discussion, a request for $150,000 for a supplemental study related to the MBTA communities law, was handily defeated after nearly an hour of debate.

    The three sessions consumed more than 13 hours, with a great deal of the discussion involving two topics that have recently dominated the town’s agenda — housing and stormwater management. 

    The issues occasionally overlapped, such as when the argument was made that large houses should be discouraged due to their possible contribution to increased flooding problems. Later, a similar case was made that new zoning required by the MBTA law could lead to new construction that may exacerbate existing flooding problems.

    On large houses, TM prefers to refer

    The most intense discussion of the evening was dedicated to the petition offered by Precinct I member Joe Matthews to amend a town zoning bylaw regulating the size of homes in the town’s Single Residence B district. 

    Matthews made multiple appearances before the Planning Board over the past year advocating for closing what he and others see as a loophole in the current zoning language. He argues that it facilitates teardowns of potential starter homes and their replacement with considerably larger and more expensive houses.

    He did not succeed in convincing enough members of the Planning Board to make a high priority of studying a change, so he effectively went over their heads, bringing the issue to Town Meeting for it to act on the issue. 

    “This overly permissive policy in residential zones enables and incentivizes the demolition of habitable small and medium houses in order to build houses with as much marketable square footage as possible,” he said.

    “This has been identified as a problem by the town for over a decade. The situation has worsened with negative outcomes on affordability, the natural environment, rainwater management, tree loss and other areas.”

    Prior to Matthews’ presentation, Town Meeting member John Bulian offered a motion calling for Town Meeting to refer the issue back to the Planning Board with the obligation to report back to next year’s Annual Town Meeting with a recommendation.

    Both the Select Board and the Finance Committee took similar positions on the article. Both voted to oppose making the zoning change at Town Meeting but supported having the issue undergo a fuller review.

    During a 45-minute discussion, members who spoke were clearly split on the issue. Nearly all agreed with Matthews’ contention that the zoning needed to be reviewed, but many felt the issue was too complex and far-reaching to be settled during one Town Meeting discussion and would benefit from a more robust review process.

    Mark Gluesing, a Town Meeting member who is also chair of the Design Review Board, served on the town’s Large House Review Study Committee that examined these same issues nearly 10 years ago. He argued that the time had come for another lengthy review picking up where the 2017 review left off.

    “I think this is a sledgehammer,” he said of Matthews’ plan. “I think we need to take a more nuanced approach. All the boards and committees involved have said that they were willing to do that.”

    Once the article was brought to a vote, Town Meeting rules required members to vote first on the motion to refer it to the Planning Board for further review. The initial voice vote was inconclusive, so the motion to refer ended up being passed by a 118-82 margin by a show of hands.

    Infrastructure night

    Three separate capital spending articles passed unanimously and a fourth received just a single dissenting vote, appropriating just shy of $18 million for projects dedicated largely to various elements of the town’s infrastructure.

    The single largest commitment was $13.6 million for the second construction phase of a pipeline that conveys one-third of the town’s wastewater and is currently “struggling to handle the sewer flow,” according to the article language.

    Another $250,000, which will be augmented by an additional $250,000 in federal funds, will be used to fund a stormwater plan to evaluate the condition of the town’s existing stormwater drainage system.  

    This hydrology study is intended to help the town identify ways to manage the impacts associated with the expected increase in heavier rains and storms, such as the early August 2023 storm that flooded hundreds of homes throughout the town.

    An additional $225,000 was approved for a related project, the design phase to improve brooks and culverts on the section of Alder Brook from Webster Street at Dedham Avenue to the Charles River.

    Path cleared for Housing Authority plans

    The Needham Housing Authority went into Town Meeting needing approval of four separate articles vital to its plans to redevelop the Linden-Chambers housing complex.

    Last week, Town Meeting approved the most important article to change the zoning at the 11-acre site, creating an Affordable Housing District that can accommodate the eventual 247-unit complex, along with the accompanying zoning map. Members also approved the appropriation of $5.5 million of Community Preservation Act funds as the town’s contribution to the estimated $85 million construction costs for the 136 units to be built in the first phase of the project.

    On Monday, the NHA was successful in its fourth and final article, which eliminated deed restrictions that had been placed on the property when the land was conveyed to the NHA by the town through votes at Town Meeting in 1957, 1960 and 1967.

    The original deed restrictions specified that the property be used as housing for the elderly. The NHA claims those restrictions conflict with the both current and planned use of the facility, which is to serve both low-income elderly and low-income disabled persons.

    Proponents said the complex would continue to house a significant cohort of elderly tenants, as the mostly one-bedroom units are not likely to be occupied by families. The article easily obtained the two-thirds majority vote it needed for passage.

    Quiet Zone takes a big step forward

    For more than a decade the town has been debating the merits of establishing a Quiet Zone by investing in safety upgrades so commuter rail trains would no longer be required to sound their horns in advance of all six public grade crossings.

    Early in Monday evening’s session, Town Meeting voted overwhelmingly to appropriate $750,000 to assess the feasibility of going forward with the effort.

    Presenting the article on behalf of the Select Board, Marianne Cooley contended the environment for the project is more favorable now than it would have been in prior years.

    “The regulations are clearer than last time, and our understanding of our situation is clearer than the last time we looked at this,” she said. “Needham is now looking at a cost of about $3.5 million for construction for five of the six crossings.”

    The golf course crossing near the Hersey Station will not be studied as part of this process as it presents considerably more complex issues than the other five crossings that, unlike the golf course crossing, are located on public ways.

    During discussion of the articles, supporters cited improvements in quality of life as the main benefits to be derived from no longer mandating that the horns be blown intermittently for all but four hours of the day — the period from 12:40 a.m. to 4:40 a.m.

    Those opposed were skeptical safety could actually be improved in the absence of mandatory horns. Philip Murray, a member from Precinct E, made a motion to refer the article back to the Select Board with an alternative idea: study the merits of eliminating the Needham Heights and Needham Center stations entirely, leaving the town with only the one grade crossing at the golf course.

    The referral motion was rejected and the article was passed.

    The $750,000 study is expected to produce a diagnostic review of the town’s entire rail corridor and designs for various quiet zone configurations. Preliminary research indicates that four of the town’s crossings at Oak, May, Rosemary and West streets are not especially complex. The Great Plain Avenue crossing in downtown Needham presents more challenges.

    MBTA Community study fails to obtain funding

    It took until after midnight and the last remaining article scheduled for discussion before Town Meeting recorded its only “no” vote from this year’s session.

    Submitted by Gary Ajamian, Town Meeting member from Precinct F, the article was seeking $150,000 to fund a study that would provide “an analysis of infrastructure, public safety and environmental impacts associated with (the) MBTA Communities Act.”

    The discussion on the article centered essentially on whether the new study would be a useful supplement to the voluminous study that the issue has already undergone, or a wasteful and unnecessary redundancy.

    The town’s effort to produce a zoning scheme that would comply with the law was overseen by the Housing Needham Advisory Group (HONE), which over eight months conducted three community meetings and produced two zoning scenarios that are currently being reviewed at the state level to see whether they comply with the requirements of the law.

    HONE was assisted by two consulting firms who were paid just shy of $100,000 ($70,000 of which was paid by a state grant) to lend their expertise on the MBTA law and in municipal planning, in addition to the effort of a cohort of town staff.

    Ajamian’s petition argued there was a gap in the consultants’ expertise and an inherent bias — essentially a case of the town checking its own work. “The petition simply says Needham needs an independent third party to have a look,” he said. “We’re asking for this engineering study to ensure the rezoned areas will support this proposed multifamily housing.”

    The Finance Committee and the Select Board both opposed the petition, with their representatives citing a lack of specificity as to scope, scale and duration.

    Select Board member Heidi Frail, who was also co-chair of the HONE committee, described the suggested work as a “rerun” of the extensive analysis completed. “It does not specify either the information asserted to be missing or the specific studies they propose to undertake to generate that information.

    “Most importantly, the MBTA law states unequivocally that the town is not responsible for upgrading infrastructure in order to facilitate development,” said Frail. 

    This means if a project proposed under the new zoning required an upgrade to town infrastructure for the project to be viable, the cost would be borne by the developer, not the town.

    Dan Matthews, a Town Meeting member from Precinct I, was on the Select Board when the MBTA law was first passed and played a role in devising the town’s compliance approach.

    “The MBTA Community process has been in motion for almost three years,” said Matthews. “There has been hard work in this community, first by the Housing Plan Working Group and then the HONE committee for two solid years.”

    He noted Town Meeting had earlier passed an article providing $80,000 to the Planning Board for future studies, and suggested those funds could be tapped should a more specific informational need arise during later consideration of the town’s zoning recommendations.

    A handful of proponents argued that the zoning changes associated with the MBTA law will be more impactful than any changes in recent memory and deserve more scrutiny.

    Town Meeting ultimately disagreed, voting by a healthy margin to not adopt the citizen’s petition.

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