• Rockets gobble up Turkey Day win

    On Thanksgiving morning, with low temps and high spirits, Needham brought home a 21-7 victory over Wellesley in the 136th annual Needham-Wellesley Turkey Day football game. Coming off their defeat in the state semifinals the week before, the Rockets bounced back with their first Thanksgiving victory since 2018, to finish the 2023 season with an impressive 10-2 record. 

    The Needham-Wellesley football rivalry dates back to 1882, just after West Needham split to form Wellesley. For more than a century, the game has been a source of school spirit and excitement for fans and players alike, with this year being no different. Despite the cold temperatures, students and families from both towns came together to honor the country’s longest running public school football rivalry.

    Fans of both the Needham Rockets and Wellesley Raiders filled the stands with energy and excitement to watch the two teams square off. One avid fan stated that for him, the game was “really all about community. I love seeing the families come together on Thanksgiving for this.” One Needham student said he was “so glad to see how many fans came today,” and that “spirits are at an all-time high.” The abundance of school spirit and pride at the game was more than welcome as they seem to be in short supply at other high school events these days.

    Encouraged by their fans, both teams put everything they had into the game. After two hours, the legendary matchup ended with a Rockets victory, and friends and family poured onto the field to congratulate the winners. 

    After the game, the Observer spoke with head coach Doug Kopcso about the challenges of coaching such a tense and competitive game while also maintaining the spirit of the holiday. “It’s about balancing respect and competition,” he said.  “Everyone is here to have a good time.”

    Josh Rosenberg is a junior at Needham High School.

  • It’s about the cake

    The operation and success of Needham restaurant blue on highland is a true family affair. Owner Scott Drago, his wife, three kids and his parents are all involved. But it’s his 83-year-old mother, Barbara, who is the genius behind the restaurant’s now famous coconut cake.

    “My mother used to make this cake every year at Easter,” said Drago. “It was a family recipe. One Easter we were all gathered at her house and I said, ‘Maybe you should make this for the restaurant.’ Fast forward, we’re at about 16 cakes a week.”

    Drago calls Barbara a true Italian grandma who’s the glue of the family, and food is one of the ways she shows her love. But she is also humble. “I’m just a homemaker who loves to cook and bake,” she said. She and her husband drive from Melrose to blue when the cake supply is low and she bakes on site. Each cake takes about an hour, and Barbara makes up to four a day. Drago believes the work keeps his mother young. 

    The popular coconut cake/

    Barbara’s skills are not limited to cake. She said her best dish is her pasta with meatballs and gravy. And she’s also known for her homemade manicotti. She keeps all her recipes in a file cabinet upstairs so when the time comes, her family will have the keys to her success.

    Of course blue on highland serves more than cake. Drago has been in the restaurant business for years, learning everything from how to make brick oven pizza to serving craft beer.  He worked for the original owners of blue. Now as COO and operating partner, he works with co-owners, Needham residents Corey Peyser and Adam Patti, to keep blue top of mind for foodies in the Metro West area. 

    Having been profiled on WCVB’s “Chronicle,” Barbara has become a bit of a celebrity. Asked if she might open her own restaurant some day, she laughed and said, “Maybe, and I can provide a little competition for my son.” In the short term, though, she is happy to keep the coconut cakes coming to blue.  She said she also makes a “very very good” chocolate cake, and we might see that on the menu someday.

    I tried to coax the cake recipe out of Barbara, but there’s no way she’s giving it to me or anybody … even her son or the restaurant’s chef. She did offer some special ingredients that make the cake so moist. The icing on the cake (no pun intended) is light with subtle bits of coconut. The coconut cake has been such a huge hit that the restaurant serves 50-75 slices each week.

  • Plans underway for long-awaited tree summit

    How Needham deals with trees has been at the root of many discussions in recent years. Everyone loves them — but not necessarily on their property or if they affect construction they wish to do. Many residents want to protect them at all cost, others want the right to raze anything on privately owned land. And with the most recent and ever more frequent flooding, what does a lack of trees mean for homeowners? 

    The town has gone round and round with these questions and is slated to do so again early in 2024 with a Tree Summit. But the situation is complicated, enforcing regulations around trees is unwieldy, and the many stakeholders are often at odds.

    Needham is a designated Tree City USA, with four certified arborists on staff. Superintendent of Parks and Forestry Edward Olsen, the town’s tree warden and president of the Massachusetts Tree Wardens and Foresters Association, said Needham is committed to preserving its trees. 

    “The mantra we’ve had at Mass. Tree Wardens is, ‘right tree, right location,'” he said. “I think we live that through our own forestry efforts. Our role as Needham forestry, and my role, is to protect the trees from the public as well as protect the public from trees.” This means that sometimes it is better for a tree to come down than not to fell it for the sake of leaving it in place. Olsen said leaving a diseased or dangerous tree can result in it falling unpredictably and causing significant damage, if not worse. 

    Other towns and cities in the area such as Wellesley and Newton have established tree bylaws. But Olsen said preserving trees is not as simple as instituting a bylaw, and often people conflate the idea of a tree bylaw with zoning laws. 

    Tree removal along Central Ave./

    “Trees aren’t the problem, it’s the houses that replace the small ranch houses that’s the big issue in town that I see,” he said. “If we’re allowing builders to build these massive homes, that could be changed by zoning. It’s not what’s above ground, it’s what’s below ground with trees. Flooding occurs because of the impervious surface, which has to do with the size of the home, not just the trees.” 

    When considering a bylaw for Needham, Olsen sees many potential complications, such as enforcement with a small staff, tense relations with contractors and builders, and the autonomy of homeowners. And in many cases, the tree law looks more like a tree tax, where builders pay into a general tree replacement fund. 

    “I always try to ask, ‘What is the why?’ said Olsen. “If it’s saving trees, I don’t know if that’s the way to get it.” He said educating and incentivizing people is key. “People have to want it, it needs to start there. You need to tell them why there’s an incentive. Trees planted strategically can reduce [heating and cooling] costs. There’s aesthetic value of having trees on the property.” 

    Olsen said the town is considering a tree program to maintain and grow public shade trees, but cost will be a factor in whether it is approved. 

    Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley said she agrees with Olsen that the question of trees is  complicated, and she knows the town will need to really listen to all stakeholders during the upcoming Tree Summit. 

    “I think we have a number of stakeholders from town boards that need to be involved,” said Cooley. “There needs to be a bunch of listening to hear from residents and to hear from developers about what their expectations might be. I don’t think anybody has an example of somebody that did it perfectly, and I think that’s part of the challenge.” 

    Cooley also said she believes more education is needed around the value of trees for stormwater management, a concern that was front and center after the flooding on Aug. 8. “Every tree on a street that’s cut down is no longer sucking up hundreds of thousands of gallons.” 

    Another potential conflict with a law that limits cutting down trees is with Needham’s effort to move toward solar powered energy. Keeping a tree canopy can limit a home’s ability to run on solar panels that require ample sun exposure. 

    With nearly 100 teardown homes a year, many trees are being removed to make access easier. As builders continue to focus on profit margins, a law regulating how many and which trees can be removed could be detrimental for business. 

    Jay Derenzo, a third generation builder who works in Needham and many surrounding communities, said he is not opposed to a tree ordinance, provided it is done thoughtfully and with input from residents, builders and any other stakeholders who have an opinion. 

    “Newton and Wellesley have [tree ordinances],” said Derenzo. “The tree ordinance we would have wouldn’t be the same.” He said the trees in Newton are much older and closer to the berm, something that Needham doesn’t share. He doesn’t think Needham should just “cut and paste” from other towns. 

    Often, Derenzo said, the trees on a property are diseased and need to come down. Whenever he takes on a property, he assesses it individually and not with a “one size fits all” approach. In some cases, the majority if not all trees need to come down. 

    “I’ll get some feedback from abutters in the rear of the property,” he said. “As long as you put something up, you shouldn’t just clear-cut and leave.” He also said while he is not opposed to a tree ordinance, he does not want it to get muddled in bureaucracy. In other towns, he said, the building department is responsible for enforcing the tree bylaw. “That’s the right way to do it. There shouldn’t be another board or committee to go in front of.” 

    Select Board Vice Chair Kevin Keane said he recognizes the difficulty in crafting an ideal tree bylaw, and believes there might be an easier way to accomplish the same goal. 

    “I love old trees. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and it’s awful to see them come down,” said Keane. “But what’s worse is that they’re never replaced with anything.” He said requiring builders to replace felled trees with new plantings as part of obtaining an occupancy permit might be one approach. 

    Creating legislation around tree preservation is as complicated as it is multisided. Incentives and education are a way to start the conversation, but a plan that a majority of stakeholders can agree on seems distant if not unlikely. 

    “Many people have been talking about this for many many years and still haven’t come up with a solution,” said Olsen. 

  • Toys for Tots

    For more than 30 years, Toys for Tots has been collecting gifts for children in need. This year, the Needham Police decided to participate in the toy drive for the first time. 

    Officers Joe Brienze and Danny Conner are running the effort around town and at the station. “We were able to obtain 10-plus donation boxes, and we empty them constantly,” said Brienze. The boxes have been spread around Needham at Sunita Williams Elementary School, Mitchell Elementary School, Eliot Elementary School, Pollard Middle School, and St. Joseph School as well as at the police station. 

    Toys for Tots was started by the Marines in 1991 to collect toys for less fortunate kids around the holidays. “The primary goal is to take in as many donations as possible to deliver to the Marines in Boston,” said Brienze. “We knew the town has been great with fundraisers before and we wanted to be able to use the power of social media to get the word out.” 

    Gifts can be dropped off at any of the bin locations until Dec. 11,  or, people can Venmo @NPWDFoundation or write a check to the Needham Police Working Dogs Foundation if they prefer. Officers can then shop for the toys. 

    Once the collection period ends, the toys will be loaded onto a bus, and officers will meet up in Boston with officers from other area communities. “We will be giving the toys an escort through the city of Boston to drop them off at the Marine headquarters,” said Brienze. “It is a big event they do every year.”

    Lizzie Idelson is a sophomore at Needham High School.

    Needham Police will accept as many donations as possible until December 11th. 

  • Goodbye Columbus?

    Needham has become the latest community to consider whether a holiday that celebrates Christopher Columbus is good public policy.

    The Select Board dedicated 25 minutes of its meeting this week to a public hearing  on a proposal for three possible courses of action on the holiday: to continue to observe the second Monday in October as Columbus Day; to replace it with Indigenous People’s Day;  to recognize that date as Indigenous People’s Day and also establish a celebration of Italian American Heritage Day (or Month).

    In recent years, the holiday has come under scrutiny due to concerns over the devastating impact of European colonization on North America’s indigenous populations. These concerns led the Select Board to create a goal to evaluate the town’s approach to marking the holiday.

    Town staff conducted a study of 20 peer and neighboring communities and found that nine had acted to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, while three had created a combined recognition of both Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day. Eight deliberated and decided not to alter Columbus Day.

    At the outset of the hearing, Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley offered a brief historical overview of Columbus Day, which became a national holiday in 1937. 

    “1892 was the first declaration in the United States of the holiday related to Columbus Day,” said Cooley. “It was not linked to Columbus as a person. It was really with the intent of celebrating the hard work of American people and how far the country had come.”

    This was a tacit acknowledgement that the legacy of Columbus himself and his prominent role in the nascent transatlantic slave trade is highly problematic for many.

    “He is likely not everybody’s favorite emissary for the cause,” Cooley acknowledged before opening the hearing to public comment.

    Multiple speakers described the proposal as an example of “cancel culture” in action, while others saw it as an attempt to reflect history more fully.

    “It’s not a good road to go down when you start changing history,” cautioned Daniel Socci, a lifelong Needhamite whose father emigrated from Italy. “Who wouldn’t be in favor of an Indigenous People’s Day? But I wouldn’t cancel one for the other one.”

    Kerry Hurwitch, a member of the town’s Human Rights Commission (HRC), suggested it would not be a matter of changing history but rather acknowledging it.

    “We are proposing replacing the name of the Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous People’s Day,” she said, speaking on behalf of the HRC.

    “Celebrating Columbus and others who were like him dismisses the devastating losses experienced by the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere in the past and the ongoing effects of colonialism today.”

    Residents Mike Gallagher and Jeffrey Heller both advocated retaining the Columbus Day tradition of honoring the contribution of Italian Americans and also having a distinct commemoration on behalf of indigenous people.

    Perhaps the strongest denunciation of the Columbus legacy came from resident Doug Fox. “We’re talking about genocide,” Fox said.  “What he represents to indigenous people, it is so toxic. … It’s the wrong type of history.”

    “Columbus inspired me and many other Italians to come here to the United States,” said Socci’s wife, Maria, who immigrated from Italy. “It is not toxic.”

    The final public comments came from Amber Autumn Sun Orlando, a member of the Praying Indians of Natick who also serves on the Select Board’s committee working on a new town seal.

    “My family and myself descend from the very people that, if you dug down deep, are below where you stand right now,” she said. “The amount of pride the Italian Americans have should be honored. That’s something that is beautiful. But it’s the name ‘Columbus’ that it’s tied to.”

    She described Columbus as “a man that was cruel and unfortunately has more bad than good that is tied to his name.”

    “To have a day to [celebrate] someone who has a history of doing horrific things, not only to native people but plenty of other people, it hurts,” she said.

    The Select Board closed the hearing, but welcomed the public to submit further comments in writing before its next meeting on Dec. 5, when the board is expected to vote on the proposal.

    How should the town mark the second Monday in October?
    2 votes
  • Water main break near Cricket Field

    A water main break along William Street caused temporary flooding late Sunday night and a loss of water service for approximately five hours before DPW crews were able to repair the pipe and restore service early Monday.

    Carys Lustig, director of the Department of Public Works (DPW), said an emergency call was received around 9 p.m. regarding water coming up into the street along a stretch adjacent to Cricket Field, from Sunnyside Road to approximately 47 William St.

    Lustig said once DPW staff arrived on scene, they were able to shut off a gate to isolate the leak. This allowed safe access for staff to then reach and repair the damaged segment. She said she is not aware of any homes being flooded.

    By 2:12 a.m. Monday, the water main had been repaired and water service was restored.

    “At no time was the town’s water supply impacted in any way for any of the neighbors in terms of safety and potability,” said Lustig.

    William Street was closed to traffic due to the degradation of the pavement but was mostly reopened by Monday afternoon, other than the segment nearest the break. 

    “In that particular area, we wanted to be extra cautious,” said Lustig. “All the utilities around that neighborhood are underground — electric and gas. We did want to make sure we had Eversource out there marking out their lines before we excavated in the dark.”

    Lustig said William Street is on the DPW’s list to be paved in 2024 when a more permanent repair will be made. “It probably hasn’t had a pavement treatment in about 20 years.”

    She described the event as a fairly routine water main break that required only a small section of pipe to repair. “We have pipes that are brand new and we have pipes that are over 100 years old,” she said. “In the ‘60s and ‘70s, they were experimenting with new materials. That’s where we tend to find most of our breaks.”

  • Central Avenue daycare center project underway, but under review

    Preliminary work has begun on the construction of a long-planned day care facility at 1688 Central Ave. at the same time the building permit for the project is being challenged by a group of abutters.

    The Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) heard nearly three hours of testimony last week. They adjourned without making a decision on the appeal of the permit issued last month to Needham Enterprises, owned by former Select Board member Matt Borrelli. Testimony centered on concerns about the barn on the property, stormwater management and possible soil contamination.

    First proposed in the spring of 2021, the project calls for a 10,000-square-foot day care center on a 3-acre parcel in an area zoned for single-family residential use. The Planning Board granted the permit in March 2022 partly based on a state law, the Dover Amendment, which exempts child care facilities from certain local zoning regulations.

    While technically an approval, the permit contained numerous conditions that led  Needham Enterprises to sue the Planning Board in Land Court for relief. The trial concluded in August, with the developer succeeding in shedding the multiple conditions and being allowed to apply for the building permit.

    The judge in the Land Court case ruled the Planning Board had exceeded its authority, and the permit was issued Sept. 19. One month later, nine abutters appealed that decision to the ZBA.

    The first half of last week’s hearing was dedicated mainly to the core issues argued at Land Court regarding the scope of the Dover Amendment and how extensively the project can legally be reviewed.

    The attorney for the abutters argued that the project should be required to undergo a site plan review that would allow reconsideration of many of the conditions the Land Court disallowed.

    “The project does not comply with the town’s zoning laws,” said C. Dylan Sanders. “It does not have site plan approval as the bylaw requires.

    “The Dover Amendment expressly allows the town to regulate,” Sanders said.

    Many project elements are at issue, including the 4,800-square-foot barn on the property and certain dimensional requirements, such as how far back the day care building needs to be from Central Avenue. The possibility of contaminated soil and the project’s stormwater management plan were also called into question.

    Evans Huber, attorney for Needham Enterprises, referred to the Land Court’s judgment that the Planning Board review had been excessive and that the ZBA would be flying in the face of that court ruling by ruling otherwise.

    “You’ve been deluged with a lot of paper, but I think in some ways we can boil this down to something that is much simpler than the scores and scores of legal analyses that you’ve received, “ Huber told the three-member ZBA.

    “The only question this board has the authority to answer is whether or not this building permit was issued in violation of a particular provision of the bylaw.”

    The building permit was approved by Joe Prondak, the town’s building commissioner. Prondak said he found no violations of the town’s bylaws by Dover Amendment standards. He also cited written responses from multiple town departments that also contained no objections to the permit being issued.

    As for the adequacy of the stormwater management plan, town engineer Tom Ryder said it was more than sufficient. While one resident claimed it was a mere two pages, Ryder said the report contained 131 pages. 

    “It has a narrative and data. There’s a maintenance plan. They have calculations and the management plan is on a larger sheet,” said Ryder.

    While the initial stormwater plan was based on the project being connected to town sewer, the developer recently cited expense concerns that require a change to a septic system. Ryder said the stormwater plan might need to be revised, depending on how the septic system is sited on the property.

    There were also no written objections from the Board of Health, which had been asked to review concerns raised about possible contaminated soil on the site, allegedly from unlicensed uses by prior owners. 

    When the hearing was opened to comment from the public, multiple residents referred to submitted photos of rusted drums and other items that suggested prior owners had conducted dubious activities on the site. They raised concerns about contaminated soil and argued against using the site as a day care facility.

    Members of the ZBA suggested the residents would be advised to raise those concerns with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which has regulatory authority over contaminated land.

    The ZBA adjourned the public hearing after receiving nearly 90 minutes of comments. While the hearing will not reopen until its next meeting on Dec. 14, the soil issue was further discussed the following day at the monthly meeting of the Board of Health.

    Residents frequently raised concerns over the soil during the Planning Board’s consideration of the project, and they raised those issues once again at Friday’s Board of Health meeting.

    During the Planning Board process, the public health department had attempted to engage a Licensed Site Professional (LSP) to investigate the site, but no LSPs responded to the request for proposals.

    Attorney Huber had stated at the ZBA hearing that an LSP advising Needham Enterprises on the project said there’s no visible evidence of hazardous materials on site, but Huber did not say whether the soil has been tested. 

    “We have anecdotal reports,” Tim McDonald, head of the public health department, told the residents. “We have pictures of things being stored. We don’t have documentation of an environmental spill or contamination.

    “The interpretation from town counsel and the chief counsel of the Mass. Association of Health Boards was there has to be clear documentation for Public Health to override personal property rights.”

    A DEP spokesman confirmed that the public health department has communicated the soil concerns to the agency. 

    “This property is not listed in our online database,” said the DEP’s Ed Coletta, referring to a database DEP maintains of properties that are confirmed to have tested positive for a contaminant or where a spill of a hazardous material was reported.

    “Mass. DEP has been contacted by the Needham Public Health Division and a couple of nearby residents regarding this site, and we’re looking into it,” he said.

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