Several hundred people in chairs in town hall
Town Meeting / Credit: Georgina Arrieta-Ruetenik

When Special Town Meeting convenes at the end of the month, two of the most significant warrant items will require members to decide whether to follow the guidance of the Select Board or the Finance Committee (FinCom).

The two key town bodies hold opposing positions on two items: how — or even if — to proceed on the stalled Foster property project, and whether the town should opt in to new energy efficiency standards in its building code.

On the Foster property, the Select Board has put forward a nonbinding resolution asking Town Meeting whether it supports the concept of amending land use regulations to allow for clustered development on roughly half the 58-acre property while preserving the remaining area as open space owned by the town.

On the energy code, the Select Board supports the adoption of the state’s Municipal Opt-in Specialized Stretch Energy Code “for the purpose of regulating the design and construction of buildings for the effective use of energy and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Foster Property

The FinCom remains opposed to the Select Board’s actions on the Foster property, a position that dates back a year and has only intensified. In August, the committee requested copies of all communications the Select Board and town manager have had about the project with various parties, a request that yielded a 1,900-page response. 

The FinCom members oppose what they have described as an overly close and possibly disadvantageous relationship with a private developer, the expenditure of $2.5 million for land they believe should be donated, lack of consideration of the impact on abutting properties and an ill-conceived process lacking in transparency.

At last year’s fall Town Meeting, the Select Board requested $2.5 million in debt financing so the town could eventually purchase 34 acres of conservation land from the developer once it had acquired the property. The developer would construct a cluster townhouse development on 14 acres of land abutting both Charles River Street and Whitman Road, with another 14 acres set aside as unimproved “wooded buffer” zones.

The FinCom joined abutters and others in opposing the financing, but Town Meeting approved the request by a 5-to-1 majority after more than two hours of discussion.

Since then, despite nearly 10 months of negotiations among state officials, the town, the developer and the potential sellers, the project has not advanced in any measurable way.

The project failed to gain access to a state program that would have streamlined the development process in return for the inclusion of four affordable units. Because the developer, Northland Residential, has yet to complete the purchase of the land, the town has not been able to purchase its 34-acre share — which is largely undevelopable and is slated for open space and passive recreational use. 

The Select Board plans to shift its strategy and seek zoning changes that are necessary to construct the proposed development, which current zoning does not allow. With 70 units across 14 acres, it is far too dense for a parcel that is zoned for single-family homes on large lots.

The Select Board-sponsored warrant item is a nonbinding resolution that is essentially taking a poll of Town Meeting to see whether it remains committed to its decision last year to fund the effort and would support a lengthy campaign to obtain the necessary land use regulation changes.

The Select Board has often noted that, should the deal fall apart, the entire parcel could be sold to developers who may clear cut vast amounts of the parcel to construct large single-family homes.

To opt-in or not to opt-in

The FinCom seems less vexed by the proposed upgrade to the energy code, although it once again has raised concerns about a process moving too rapidly and with insufficient information.

“This was just introduced to the public today,” said former FinCom chair John Connelly at last week’s meeting, a reference to the fact the town had held its first informational session on the plan earlier on the day of that meeting. “And you’re asking everyone to vote in 30 days.”

“It doesn’t ‘seem’ quick, it is quick,” Connelly said. “That’s my reservation. There needs to be proper public input and discussion. It shouldn’t be rushed. Rushing for the sake of rushing doesn’t benefit anybody.”

Katie King, the town’s deputy town manager, pointed out that commercial builders are already there when it comes to accepting and implementing the stricter energy standards. She added that residential builders, while apprehensive, acknowledge that their clients are asking for all-electric and passive homes.

“Children’s Hospital was before the Select Board just last night and mentioned they were 20% more efficient than the code currently requires. There’s certainly a market push to do this separate from this proposal.”

King was joined by Joe Prondak, the town building commissioner, who said the new standards are designed to encourage a gradual shift to more buildings heated by electrification. 

“The opt-in code focuses on new buildings, whether commercial or residential, and ultimately seeks to electrify those buildings and eliminate fossil fuels,” he said.

The public will be able to weigh in when the Select Board holds a public hearing on the issue during its regularly scheduled meeting at Town Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 10.

A circular pie chart showing sources of greenhouse gas emissions
Credit: Town of Needham
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