Aired October 27, 2022. Town Meeting Members had to decide on potential land acquisition, construction projects, and whether breweries should be allowed in Needham.
reported by Yuxiao Yuan
At the Special Town Meeting on Monday, October 24th, the Town of Needham received approval to borrow two and a half million dollars for the purchase of 34 acres of open space near the Ridge Hill Reservation. The article was passed only after a long debate. The deliberations around the acquisition proposal went on for almost two hours, and most of the arguments focused on the lack of necessary information for town meeting to make an informed decision. Doubts came first from the Finance Committee, whose nine members unanimously opposed granting the authorization at this moment. “We are just lacking basic information about the proposed transaction.”said Fin Com Chair John Connelly in his position summary. “On Saturday, just two days ago, the Finance Committee members first saw the offer to purchase between the property owner and the proposed developer, Northland, in a draft development agreement between Northland and the Town>” According to the draft development agreement, Northland residential will purchase the entire 64-acre property known as Castle Farm for 21 million dollars. Then Northland will sell the 28 Acres of meadow land along Charles River, and the two parcels along Charles River Street– each about three acres–to the Town for two and a half million dollars. On the future Northland property, the developer intends to build 70 townhouse units, with five percent designated as affordable. Continued Connelly, “There is no precise data on the 70 townhouse units that are expected to be constructed; what they’re going to look like, the size of them, the height of them, or the eligibility for affordability. There’s been no wetlands determination. There’s been no traffic study. There’s been no town fiscal impact analysis detailing what costs the town will bear in the future years related to the 70 unit townhouse development.” Many people share the Finance Committee’s concerns. Precinct C member, Cynthia Landau, made a motion to delay the vote on this matter. She suggested a special town meeting in February, to provide time for more information. The developer’s offer to purchase document shows Northland has until March 15, 2023 to obtain all the permits and approvals for the project. “There is no reason to fear that Northland will withdraw if the vote does not happen tonight.” argued Laundau. “We don’t need to be rushed into making a decision tonight, with little information and few hard facts.” The Select Board stated this collaborative purchase was critical to preserving the rest of the land from development, because the current zoning in place would likely support 25 single-family houses on the property and require no forested buffer. “That would result in clear cutting, most likely, of more than 25 acres because of the way the subdivision and rural conservation lots get laid out.” responded Chair Marianne Cooley. In contrast, Northland will only develop 14 acres of the retained land, and leave the remaining 14 acres as open space. But many were skeptical about this comparison. Landau pointed out the zoning only allows 15 percent of each lot to be developed for building structures. She said,”I wouldn’t assume that they’re going to clear cut a lot in order to build on 15 percent of it. Needham resident David Eisenberg added that the proposed development runs counter to the town’s green goals. “High density housing that’s in areas that are not convenient to the train, that are not served by public transit, that don’t have sidewalks, that don’t have bike lanes– it’s actually an environmental disaster. So, if you really want to address that, you have to consider the full cost.” Neighbors on adjacent streets also criticized the transparency of the process. Said James McGaugh, “The lack of process and the absence of conversation with neighbors is inexplicable. It may be understandable, since citizen engagement can slow things down, but not one member of the town has visited our neighborhood to communicate with us directly.” Many believed postponing the decision could help rebuild the public trust in town leadership. Town Meeting member Holly Clarke added, “I don’t think this means we don’t do it, but I think it means we owe it to do it right, and having more information is better, and it’s what will give people confidence in what’s going on.” But for the supporters of the acquisition, one single reason is enough. The Select Board has called this offer a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity’ on multiple occasions. Many Town Meeting members share this view, and saw it as a great deal. Said Kathleen Cahill, “I just really would ask everybody to really seriously not pass up what is not not a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity, but a ‘once-in-many-lifetimes’ opportunity to grab this this property for an amazingly low price.” Town Meeting member, Lois Sockol agreed. “If you haven’t walked out there, walk out and you’ll know what conservation means. It almost had a magical feel for me, so I hope that we’ll let that be our land.” Joseph Matthews added, “I think that the Town is just really fortunate to have the ability to purchase this land for 2.5 million dollars. I mean, we have to consider that there is basically no situation where it’s not being developed.” The proposal passed with 160 in favor and 33 opposed. Other articles Town Meeting approved on Monday included a $55,000 funding request for hiring a consultant to work with the Climate Action Plan Committee, and one giving the green light to start the process of a community electricity aggregation program, which can potentially allow the town to buy power generated by cleaner energy on behalf of its residents and businesses at a favorable price. The $2,725,000 additional funding for the Emery Grover renovation project was secured by a two-thirds voice vote. Town Meeting cleared the zoning hurdles for opening microbreweries and brew pubs in Needham, which will only be allowed by special permit in some of the business districts and the industrial districts across town.