By Linda Scott
So … is a Watertown City Council meeting hearing worth attending? I attended one last night on zoom … a shoutout to citizens who sat through it all for hours in real time in the Council Chambers.
So, is it a “done deal” by the time it gets to the hearing? Hmmm … It was all about a move by the Historic Commission to streamline its process. Not a bad idea. Thank you, Elise Loukas (chair of the HC), for spearheading this effort. We can all understand and appreciate what you are trying to do, but there’s just more to it.
The bottom line is that it sure seemed that some Watertown City Councilors had made up their minds before the hearing. NO RESIDENT who was at the meeting thought that this process was done. It was a hearing, after all. There were multiple witnesses of different ages, work experiences and sexes … who ALL said that this process needed more work or needed to be voted down completely. Let me repeat … NO community member who attended that meeting, in person or on Zoom, thought that this was a good idea as presented. I advocated for more transparency. (see my comments below).
The Council vote was 6 to 3 to approve this amendment. Thank you to Mark Sideris, Emily Izzo and John Airasian for standing with residents on this.
The reality is it needs more work, but it got passed. Score another point for large developers, who can wait out a two year demo delay more easily than residents and small developers. Are we becoming a conglomerate? Maybe. You think you’ve seen “big development” in Watertown? Check out the August 9th Planning Board meeting with Alexandria’s plans for the Watertown Mall.
These days I am constantly reminded of the schmaltzy movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Except, we’re Mr. Potter. (you young’uns, Google it).
My Remarks at the City Council Meeting
The structure of this amendment seems clear, but it is lacking important process details that will add significantly to the transparency of this city ordinance:
For instance, in Section 153.04 Preliminary Review by the Historical Commission, it would help to add the answers to these questions:
What criteria will be used to determine the significance of a building?
What documents will be used to determine the significance of a building?
What specific references to historic registers and local ordinances are left out?
What specific documentation of this process will be used and shared?
What kinds of buildings, if any, will be exempt from this process?
Are there districts (like the Mt. Auburn Street Historic District and the Watertown Square Overlay District) that will be exempt from this process?
How will a determination of damage and costs to repair be determined?
Should the developer’s numbers be used regarding the cost of repairs or some other, less interested source?
In Section 153.05 Commission Hearings
There’s a stipulation for how meetings will be announced to the public. Will decisions made about a building be shared with the public as well. If “yes,” how?
Should an architectural historian be contracted for any part of this process to review decisions, since we haven’t determined a complete list of historic properties in the City?
Is there an appeals process for the delay/no delay decision?
Why was two years decided upon instead of 18 months, which seems to be the area standard?
One more comment:
In Section 153.06 Administration, it states, “the Commission may proactively develop a list of significant buildings that will be subject to this chapter. Buildings proposed for the significant building list shall be added following a public hearing.”
Developing a Watertown significant building list, even after incorporating lists like MACRIS (the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System), seems like a very large but worthwhile task on a number of levels:
- When someone is buying the property, they know what they’re getting.
- It adds to the general knowledge of the history of Watertown.
- Once established, it cuts down significantly on a lot of the time and administrative costs that going individual building by building can necessitate.
I urge you to continue to refine this document for transparency’s sake. This is our City’s goal, is it not? This document, as written, leaves open all kinds of opportunities for the abuse of power.
Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter.