LETTER: Let’s Talk About Community Involvement — Important Meeting Alert

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By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

On September 21st there was a very important meeting to vote on the Watertown
Comprehensive Plan, a document that is meant to guide the City’s decisions for the next few years.

I guess with a meeting this important and long time coming, I don’t understand why there was any confusion on how it should be conducted. God knows, we’ve had enough time to sort that out.

The public was told that they would have time to speak in the beginning and then at the end, after hearing the remarks by the City Councilors and the Planning Board members and before the vote was taken.

Because of this, many of us were waiting to hear what was said before we responded. Then, after the Department of Community Development and Planning (DCDP), all of the city councilors and the Planning Board member comments, a vote was taken without a second public comment period, leaving the public out of the process again. I think that this was simply an oversight, but sadly, it was just another example of another opportunity for Watertown residents to speak that was lost.

One of the Planning Board members remarked that she wished that there were more people and more people of diverse backgrounds giving their input on projects at the Planning Board meetings.

Steve Magoon, Director of the DCDP, agreed, referring to “the same half a dozen people who come to every meeting” and that we have more opportunities for community involvement in Watertown than in many other places. Name those places, please, Steve, because what I hear from all over this City is that citizens are still being ignored. That discourages involvement, to say the least.

Let me try to clarify the situation, because referring to half a dozen residents completely disregards the hundreds of Watertown residents who have legitimately participated in the process:

  1. The half a dozen people that Steve Magoon mentioned is really 600 people who signed petitions to say we need a more reasonably scaled built environment in Watertown Square (witness “the box on Main Street,” just across the street from City Hall), and we need to not pick on our marginalized and diverse neighborhoods by filling them full of bio labs and buildings on steroids. It was Councilor Palomba who stated that these petitions were impressive and unusual, because they were signed by 600 people from all parts of the city. By the way, the Planning Board handled these petitions, and if it weren’t for a former council president, Clyde Younger, who urged the Board to work with “the people” on this, they both would have been summarily thrown into the trash by the board.
  2. The half a dozen people that Steve Magoon mentioned also refers to the 40 plus people at the community meeting for the Main Street project. That building started out as a four story building. At that community meeting, the developer was asked by the public to reduce the size to three stories. The last proposed plan for this building ended up at six stories, which had the full support of the DCDP, Steve Magoon’s department.
  1. The half a dozen people that Steve referred to are also the 70 plus people who showed up at the first meeting for the Broder bio lab project, which will sit right in the middle of a community that is designated by this City’s Comprehensive Plan (refer to Town of Watertown Open Space and Recreation Plan) as an Environmental Justice Zone.
  2. And the half a dozen that Steve mentioned was the 50 plus people (standing room only, outside on a sweltering, hot summer evening) who showed up at the second community meeting for Broder.
    During that meeting, it was discovered that an older building retrofitted as a lab on the same property that the new, much larger bio lab (83,355 square feet) will join, was already emitting so much sound that the neighbors had to sleep with their windows closed if they wanted to avoid the constant 24/7 hum.
  3. The six people that Steve Magoon was referring to is the 50 people who showed up and spoke at the Manley meeting, which by the current City ordinance, didn’t even have to happen and was scheduled for the day after Labor Day.

The Manley project is right next door to our City’s 11 million dollar newly purchased investment, Walker Pond, that is meant to be a wildlife sanctuary and a respite from our urban sprawl for all of the people of Watertown.

Manley has plans that have three easements, one that allows them to dump water into Walker Pond. A community member caught that detail. And in this project’s plans there are roof air handlers for bio labs that operate 24 hours a day, interfering with wildlife. See:

Respectfully, it appears that the Planning Board is looking for public input in all the wrong places. If you folks could please follow the process and review the community meetings, it would be really helpful. When asked about this at a previous meeting, all of the Planning Board members said that they didn’t watch these community meetings, even though they have the responsibility for deciding on these projects.

It also doesn’t help to encourage community involvement when recently, at a very short, 25 minute Planning Board meeting, the Planning Board chair didn’t entertain even one citizen’s question. She was advised by the DCDP’s second in command, that she didn’t have to take any questions from the public, although a resident’s hand was up, because it was technically a meeting, not a hearing.
See: http://vodwcatv.org/CablecastPublicSite/show/2741?site=3. 0:22:48

When the September 21st Comprehensive Plan meeting ended abruptly the other night, with no second chance for the community to respond, we were in a bit of a shock. Once again, community input was cut short. I don’t know what others were going to say, but here’s what I had in mind:

I have a concern that we are swapping the traditional sources of pollution for the new … noise pollution. We cannot see, taste, smell or feel this pollution. It’s insidious, and early studies show that it is affecting migratory birds as well as producing health problems for people. Libby Shaw’s comments about more trees will certainly help, but with the major areas pinpointed for great change in Watertown by the Comprehensive Plan (some areas also considered environmental justice zones), I think that we are in danger of replicating the same mistakes of Watertown in the 1800’s, industrialization no matter the cost to the community or the environment.

The Manley project, for instance, which is located next to Walker Pond, where the City’s goals are to make a peaceful, healthy place for our citizens, have details that run counter to our City’s goals.

Last week, I was looking at a bio lab just beside the river that has had complaints for its loudness, when a man walked out of the woods by the river. We started to talk. He told me that he worked in that building. He said that he can’t afford to live in Watertown, but probably it was a good thing, since the community he did live in, a few miles to the west of Watertown, was a lot quieter.

There is a glimmer of hope. Thank you to Council President Mark Sideris for proposing and the City Council for voting unanimously to have the community meeting ordinance studied to see where more input for the citizens of Watertown can be codified.

There’s a very important meeting next week on September 27th at 6 p.m. in Watertown City Hall’s Phillip Pane Lower Hearing Room, scheduled at the same time as the Zoning Board of Appeals will be meeting on the aforementioned six story building at 104-126 Main Street, making attending both important meetings very difficult for the public, another stumbling block to involvement.

On September 27th, the Committee on Economic Development and Planning will be having a discussion with the DCDP about possible changes to the ordinance that governs public input into the development process, (hopefully) strengthening the public’s ability to be involved. Otherwise, there are many projects, like Manley, that we as residents will have no right or ability to weigh in on or even hear about.

So, I’m urging you to attend this meeting on September 27th in some form. Come in person or on Zoom. Understand that this ordinance, as written, restricts your ability as a taxpayer and a
citizen to be more involved.

It’s also very important for you to call your councilor and write letters to all of the councilors and/or email them to ask them to strengthen the community meeting ordinance. Below I have listed:

  1. The link to find City Councilor telephone numbers: https://www.watertown-ma.gov/350/City-Council
  2. An email address to reach all of the councilors at the same time: https://www.watertown-ma.gov/350/City-Council
  3. A link and a copy of the ordinance:
    Zoning Code 155.
    9.03. Site Plan Review of certain residential land non-residential developments
    b. “For projects with four or greater residential units, or for non-residential projects with 10,000 square feet of new development or greater, the Petitioner will conduct a public information meeting no less than ten days prior to the submission for Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals approval. This meeting will provide an opportunity for the public to understand and comment on the the specifics of the project …”
  4. Plus a short explanation that Steve Magoon sent to me about what projects are and aren’t required to have a community meeting. He’s using the Manley project as an example:
    The required Special Permit with Site Plan Review was triggered because the building had been converted partially from light industrial to commercial use for a indoor recreation space and so there is a partial conversion back to the previous light industrial use.
    As noted below in the Zoning Ordinance, this is not new construction or new development as defined by the ordinance so would not automatically trigger a required community meeting/public information meeting. Typically reuse of existing buildings do not require a community meeting.
    ” …For projects with four or greater residential units, or for non-residential projects with 10,000 square feet of new development or greater”
    The project was submitted for an initial site plan review with no or minimal changes proposed to the site and some facade improvements. At that time, it was noted that the building was being reused and that there is no new square footage being proposed. The proposal only included an update of the building facade and mechanical equipment located the center of the roof Based on comments received through the initial staff review, the project has now incorporated significant updated stormwater improvements and provides a substantial reduction of pavement,
    after the city determines that the existing loop roadway around the exterior and rear of the site was not necessary for public safety.

Please write a simple letter, or feel free to nerd out!
Thank you!

Letters to the editor can be sent to watertownmanews@gmail.com

2 thoughts on “LETTER: Let’s Talk About Community Involvement — Important Meeting Alert

  1. Six people should not run this city, even if they are the only ones who show up at Planning Board meetings. These folks often seem to speak as if their way is the ONLY way and, if their ideas aren’t being adopted, this must mean that the residents of Watertown are being “ignored.” No, we hear them. I would like to hear more voices finding middle ground.

    Also, this letter misrepresents their support – in that many residents attend community meetings about proposed developments to learn, not to support a particular viewpoint about the development.

    One last question: Should it be unacceptable for “noise” to be heard in neighborhoods bordering areas zoned for commercial/industrial use? Commercial/industrial buildings often emit some noise, which should be at a reasonable level. Silence is NOT a reasonable standard in this situation.

    • Let’s be clear, Mr. Magoon’s comment about the “six people” is an oft used, well worn tactic used by city officials to dismiss public input they find inconvenient.

      “Six people should not run this city.” Quite right. There were six hundred signatures on two petitions expressing concerns about development. When I went to school, six hundred was quite a bit more than six. Furthermore, I believe that those who signed the petitions are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of our townsfolk who are dismayed about much of what they see being built around town.

      This comment, as is the case of many comments in the past, is disrespectful of decent folks who have legitimate concerns and legitimate democratic rights. And again, their concerns are misrepresented. I am sure that no one is advocating for total silence (except perhaps in the Library).

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