The outset of Monday’s Special Town Meeting was a model of civil discourse and public consensus. With one article withdrawn due to miscommunication between the town and the state, 10 of the remaining 15 agenda items passed without discussion, by consent.
Two articles related to Public Health department initiatives received cursory review before being approved (see separate story), while a cleanup of inconsistent and in some places archaic elements of the town bylaws alternated between curious and humorous (what’s the proper fine when a resident’s dog chases a car?) was approved.
It wasn’t until consideration began on the two most substantial and contentious articles — issues where the Select Board and the Finance Committee were on opposite sides — that the discussion, while still civil, was marked by stark disagreements.
In the end, the Select Board’s recommendations for a greenhouse gas-limiting building code and sustaining the opportunity to pursue interest in obtaining the Foster property for the town won the day.
Of the two, amending the specialized energy code prevailed by a closer yet still significant voice vote margin of approval. It was presented by Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley, who began by reminding Town Meeting members that they had voted in 2021 to direct the town to prioritize addressing climate change, and suggested adopting the building code was an immediate way to have an impact.
The choice was whether to adopt the state’s highest building code tier for energy efficiency in new construction, which is optional for each community. This change would particularly raise the bar for newly constructed homes of more than 4,000 square feet, requiring heating and cooling systems that limit greenhouse gas emissions. Some Town Meeting members voiced concern that the higher standard might have unintended impacts on homebuilding decisions such as whether to install a gas fireplace. Others reminded the group that Needham had been slow to adopt the last set of efficiency standards, and now had an opportunity to lead.
Louise Miller, chair of the Finance Committee, said her committee was unanimous in voting to hold off. “We all reasonably agree that climate change is real,” she said. “The question is whether Needham should adopt the code now, at this Town Meeting.” *
“We have to do whatever we can,” said Jim Ruetenik from Precinct J in response. “Saying we need more research, more time, was the argument of tobacco companies.”
Kate Weinograd, from Precinct E, objected to the Finance Committee’s recommendation because it did not include a financial analysis. “Does the Finance Committee have a view today of the financial implications of this article?” she asked. “If the answer is no, then that’s it . . .”
Moderator Michael Fee was strong in his response to those who suggested the Finance Committee did not have standing on this issue. “I decide that,” he said. “But thank you for your input.”
Cooley made a simpler case for adopting the code now. “The Finance Committee opposes this article,” she said. “They’d prefer to bring it to you in the spring. What will change between now and spring? Forty to 50 new houses will be permitted.”
The measure passed on a voice vote, and the new building code will take effect in July 2024.
A more subtle argument occurred regarding Article 16, to give the Select Board and Planning Board direction on how to proceed with plans for the 62-acre parcel of land known as the Foster/Castle Farm property. A plan to allow an area of concentrated development with 70 townhouse units, including 5% affordable housing units, in exchange for keeping 34 acres undeveloped had been undermined by a change in the state’s policies.
The debate seemed to have three camps: those who want the townhouse/open space solution; those who oppose the townhouses; and those who are worried that any special zoning regulation for this parcel would open doors to other, less clearly defined projects.
Sidestepping the concerns about precedence, Cooley explained that without the townhouses, the entire parcel would likely be developed as single-family homes, eliminating the open space and any affordable housing. Finding a way to proceed as planned, she said, would be good for town residents and the environment, and is the desire of the sellers of the property. She reminded Town Meeting members that the family patriarch, Henry Foster, was the state’s first director of environmental affairs, and keeping open space fits his legacy.
Andrea Dannenberg from Precinct C stood in opposition to the article. She made a motion to amend the resolution, changing the description of the type of construction allowed and raising the affordable housing requirement, both of which would have made it more challenging for a developer and the Planning Board.
Dannenberg’s amendment was voted down, and the nonbinding resolution passed by a comfortable margin.
While the overall tone of the Oct. 30 meeting was serious, it did have its lighter moments, centered around the proposed revisions to the fines for numerous noncriminal offenses on the books. The Select Board and the Finance Committee were in full agreement that it was time for an update and clarification. The fines for those offenses will now be in three tiers, starting with the “nuisance” level of $100 per instance for such issues as watering lawns during water bans or letting shrubbery grow over public sidewalks, and escalating to $200 and $300 levels for offenses with more consequential impacts.
Finance Committee member Joshua Levy made the case in favor of adopting the article, sharing a spreadsheet of the misdeeds and the corresponding fines. Levy said he noticed it was an interesting moment: Town leaders named Levy and Fee were presenting a vote on fines. The laugh from the assembly was a good reminder that democracy still functions here.
Watch the entire Special Town Meeting on The Needham Channel.
*[Editor’s Note: The Finance Committee vote on the opt in specialty code was 8-1.]