Credit: Georgina Arrieta-Ruetenik

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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