With all the development going on in Watertown, and some recent controversial projects, the Town Council wondered whether the Community Development and Planning Department has the enough staff to handle it all.
The questions were posed to Director of the Community Development and Planning Department (DCDP) and Assistant Town Manager Steve Magoon during the department’s budget hearing on Monday night.
Development has increased year after year over the past several years, and last year was the busiest, Magoon said. His department dealt with a record high 1,396 permits in 2018, up from 1,167 in 2017.
He said the DCDP has a dual role.
“A number of entities are interested in coming into the community to do economic development,” Magoon said. “Our job is to encourage that, and at the same time maintain the character of the community.”
Big projects currently are going up on Arsenal Street, and more on Pleasant Street, and Magoon said there will likely be several more in coming months and years.
Many of the projects are planned to be life science lab space, including on the Doble Engineering space on Walnut Street, the former Colonial Buick/GMC dealership on Galen Street, and Fluid Management Systems on Pleasant Street. Other developers have come in to the Planning Department interested in creating a self storage facility, or even adult-use marijuana dispensary, Magoon said.
Town Councilor Susan Falkoff pointed to three controversial projects that have angered neighbors and others. Falkoff did not name the projects, but some that have made headlines include residential projects on Morse Street on the Southside, excavation for a residential project on Salisbury Road in the East End, and the building of a wall and drainage at the Oakley Country Club near Arden Road.
“I still wonder if the department is well enough staffed,” Falkoff said.
The Community Development and Planning Department has added staff in recent years, including a Transportation Planner last year, and they are trying to fill the position of an Environmental Planner, Magoon said. This year the department has requested a person to be shared with the Personnel Department, who would come in at 7:30 a.m. to work in the DCDP’s Building Department office to deal with contractors seeking permits.
Magoon said he is very cautious when requesting new staff.
“I don’t approach my job as, ‘We need more people, let’s ask for three more,'” Magoon said. “I take seriously requests for additional staff.
“Ya, there were situations where it could have helped having another staff member.”
Town Councilor Tony Palomba said, while he understands Magoon’s cautious approach, he wants to make sure the department has the staffing it needs. He suggested having someone who can interact with the public.
“I would suggest sort of community relations person for the department, or an increased planner to deal with the development,” Palomba said. “Someone to be a point person for the public may be helpful.”
Councilor Anthony Donato said he was pleased with the interest he saw from staff when a Council subcommittee held a meeting looking at how departments work together, in the wake of the controversial projects.
“The turnout from employees was extraordinary. It put a human face to the Town side of the issue,” Donato said. “There was good back and forth and it was good to see what the staff deals with on a day-to-day basis.”
Councilor Ken Woodland likened the Community Development and Planning Department to New England Patriots’ fullback James Develin, who comes in to clear the way for the running back to score a touchdown in short-yardage situations.
“Your department goes in and does what needs to be done for the performance and needs of the town,” Woodland said. “Sometimes it takes a big hit, and it does a great job.”
All the permits being taken out also means more money coming into the Town. The price of the permits are based on the cost of the project, Magoon said.
“Projects used to be going from values of $100s to $1,000s, now conversion to lab space can be for multi-millions of dollars,” Magoon said. “The more value, the more fees we get.”
The teardown of houses and building new homes has also brought in more in permit fees.
In recent years, the Building Inspector has been not only checking the figures before the project but also after it is complete.
“The builder or architect has to certify the value if it is in excess of $50,000,” Magoon said.
The bigger projects tend to be more in line with the original proposal, Magoon said, because they have to put together a project budget for the client. Meanwhile, with a home project, the homeowner wants to save as much as possible, so they may underestimate the cost.
The DCDP works on many other areas, Magoon said, and some of the current focuses are the Town’s parking plan, extending the Community Path, the Transportation Management Association (TMA) and shuttle, I-Cubed (projects funded by the state and in partnership with Athenahealth and the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation), the bicycle and pedestrian plan, design of Arsenal Park, and looking at the Bring Your Own Bag ordinance.
Some other things coming down the line, Magoon said, are updating the Town’s Housing Production Plan, the Recreation & Open Space Plan, and the Comprehensive Plan.
Monday’s budget hearings were the first in a series of four meetings. The next will be Saturday, May 18 beginning at 9 a.m. in Town Hall. Others will be held on Tuesday, May 21 at 6 p.m. and on Tuesday, May 28, following the regular Town Council meeting, approximately 8 p.m.