Annual town meeting: human relations, regulations and zoning

Brookline’s 2014 annual town meeting held its second session Thursday, May 29. Another session is scheduled for Monday, June 2, and a fourth session continues to look likely. Progress on Articles 10 through 25 might look rapid, but consideration of Articles 15 through 19, about redevelopment at Brookline Place, was postponed. A summary of actions on articles:

10. Community relations commission–amended and approved
11. Greater Toxteth neighborhood conservation district–approved
12. Noise control bylaw amendments–rejected
13. Tobacco control bylaw, High School no-smoking zone–approved
14. Tobacco control bylaw, increased age of purchase–approved
15. Zoning amendments, Brookline Place–postponed
16. Zoning amendments, Brookline Place (alternative)–postponed
17. Grant of easement, Brookline Place–postponed
18. Restrictive covenant, Brookline Place–postponed
19, Release of documents, Brookline Place–postponed
20. Zoning amendment, Mason Terrace–rejected
21. Zoning amendments, S-4 zoning, Meadowbrook area–approved
22. Zoning amendment, convenience store at gasoline station–rejected
23. Zoning amendment, accessory dwelling in single-family zone–rejected
24. Grant of easement, Carlton Street footbridge–approved
25. Adopting local option, Retirement Board stipends–rejected

Contentious issues resulted in six recorded votes, including one just on procedure. Debate took over an hour on Article 10: to replace the Human Relations Youth Resources (HRYR) Commission, dating from 1970, with a new Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations (DICR) Commission. Rejection of Articles 22 and 23 on zoning, filed by the Planning Board, again showed consequences of burdening annual town meetings with traditional topics for fall town meetings. Neither rejected article involved an urgent situation. Both were likely to benefit from extended reviews.

Human relations: Arguments over a proposed new DICR Commission revealed little that had not already surfaced in about a year and a half of controversy–during which the Board of Selectmen, their “diversity committee” that proposed the change, the Advisory Committee, its special subcommittee for the matter, the Human Resources Board, the standing Committee on Town Organization and Structure, and the existing HRYR commission all weighed in.

Article 10 at the 2014 annual town meeting was an outcome of Article 10 at the 2013 annual town meeting. The 2013 article was submitted by HRYR commissioner Larry Onie, by Brooks and Mariela Ames, recently but not then HRYR commissioners, and by town meeting members Bobbie Knable, Frank Farlow and Arthur W. Conquest, III. It cited a low level of minorities in Brookline’s professional work force–zero in leadership positions–and sought to strengthen HRYR roles in diversity, equal opportunity and human rights.

Also at the 2013 annual town meeting, Article 9 proposed to abolish the HRYR Department and the position of HRYR director. Stephen Bressler, HRYR director since 1974, was retiring, and Town Administrator Mel Kleckner was eager to chop a small department out of the town’s government structure–leaving responsibilities to the Human Resources Office created in 2000. That office replaced the former Personnel Department–in practice a division of the selectman’s office. The 2013 town meeting approved Article 9 and referred Article 10 to the selectmen’s “diversity committee.” Mr. Kleckner nominated Dr. Lloyd Gellineau to a new position of human relations and human services administrator, reporting to Dr. Alan Balsam, director of Health and Human Services.

Submitters of Article 10 in 2013 pointed out that Human Resources, like former Personnel, focuses on employee compensation and benefits. Workforce diversity gets little attention beyond filing reports and updating policies. In 1994, Brookline revised a municipal affirmative-action policy. In 2011, it revised a municipal anti-discrimination policy. Nevertheless, over the 42 years since Richard Fischer resigned as the first human relations director in 1972, Brookline’s municipal workforce never had an African-American or Latino among senior leadership, and its school workforce had only one.

Under Article 10 at the 2014 annual town meeting, Stanley Spiegel of Precinct 2 and Martin Rosenthal of Precinct 9 proposed to amend the main motion, making the new commission effectively a town department, as HRYR had previously been, and providing its director with the stature of a department head. Town Administrator Mel Kleckner has argued against what he called excessive overhead to maintain a small department.

After around an hour, the moderator, Edward “Sandy” Gadsby, accepted a motion to close debate. That takes a two-thirds vote. It was rejected in the first of three electronically recorded votes, getting support from only 62 percent of those voting. Arguments continued. In a second recorded vote, the amendment proposed by Mr. Spiegel and Mr. Rosenthal passed by a margin of 107 to 95. The third recorded vote approved the new DICR commission and department, 185 to 16 with 6 abstentions.

Now Mr. Kleckner will have to figure out where to locate and how to budget a new department. Sandra DeBow, director of the Human Resources Office, will have to share duties that include recruiting a more diverse workforce. The Board of Selectmen will have to decide whether to advance Dr. Gellineau to head the new department, if he wants to do that, or find a different director. Will current HRYR commissioners apply for the DICR Commission? If they do, will the selectmen appoint them?

Regulations: Residents of the Toxteth Street vicinity organized to create a neighborhood conservation district for their area, under Article 11, to be called Greater Toxteth. This type of district has regulations that go beyond zoning but are less strict than a local historic district authorized by Massachusetts under Chapter 40C of the General Laws.

Greater Toxteth’s regulations call attention to front porches common in the area. A special review would be required to enclose a front porch for living space. So would alterations that add living space encroaching on current front yards. However, other additions that increase living space less than 15 percent would not need special reviews. Town meeting did not need much time for the article, because the Neighborhood Conservation Commission and the residents of Greater Toxteth had “done their homework” well.

Noise control bylaw amendments in Article 12 were proposed by Fred Lebow, an acoustic engineer and a former Precinct 1 town meeting member, to provide what he claimed are more reliable standards for measuring noise. One complication was that the article proposed a method for estimating background noise at night by making measurements during the day and subtracting an arbitrary 10 decibels.

The proposed approach may work for some neighborhoods but might not provide accurate estimates for those near highways and busy streets, particularly Route 9 and the Turnpike. They tend to have larger differences between day and night background noise. Both the Board of Selectmen and the Advisory Committee supported the proposal, with one minor difference between them. However, town meeting was not convinced and voted no action.

Tobacco control bylaw amendments in Articles 13 and 14 were proposed by High School students Nathan Bermel, Mary Fuhlbrigge and others. Article 13 called for a no-smoking zone extending 400 feet from grounds of the High School. That becomes a large area–around 35 acres, roughly but inaccurately sketched in the warrant report.

It extends approximately through the intersections of Blake and Rawson Roads and of Welland and Somerset Roads, on the north, through the intersections of Lincoln Road and Gorham Avenue and of Cypress Street and Brington Road, on the east, through the intersection of Clark Road and Route 9, on the south, and across Tappan Street just short of the intersection with Gardner Road, on the west. All of the Cypress Street Playground is in the zone, which looked like a main intent.

As voted by town meeting, the restriction applies full-time, year-round, whether or not school is in session, but it applies only to someone classified as a “minor or school personnel.” If John Dempsey, a member of the Bicycle Advisory Committee, were still the principal of Devotion School, he would be not be allowed to smoke at home–not that Mr. Dempsey has likely wanted to. Former superintendent Robert Sperber, now a Precinct 6 town meeting member, would be restricted, were he still superintendent. Enforcement may be difficult, except perhaps on or next to High School grounds. An obvious refuge for High School smokers becomes Tappan Street near and northwest of Gardner Road. Other refuges are likely to be found quickly.

Under Article 14, town meeting voted to raise the minimum age for tobacco purchase in Brookline from 19 to 21. Like Article 13, the restriction appears symbolic; it may not have much practical effect. Within a metropolitan environment as large and complex as Boston, there are innumerable ways to skirt local laws. The initiative could still be effective if pursued as a state law rather than as a local law.

Zoning: Under Article 20, submitted by petition, town meeting rejected rezoning 273, 277 and 281 Mason Terrace from single-family (S-7) to two-family (T-6)–a rejection that was recommended by the Planning Board, Board of Selectmen and Advisory Committee. The argument from the Planning Board was that, if allowed, a “future threat of demolition of [those] dwellings in order to construct new buildings” could damage the Mason Terrace neighborhood.

In contrast, under Article 21, also submitted by petition, town meeting–as urged by the Planning Board, Board of Selectmen and Advisory Committee–approved a new S-4 type of single-family zoning, using that to designate properties in the Meadowbrook Road area. That neighborhood was historically called “Buttonwood,” settled in the early twentieth century by officers of Brookline’s police and fire departments and their families. As petitioners described, “It is one of the few neighborhoods left in Brookline where a family can afford to buy a single-family home with a yard for less than a million dollars.”

The counterpoint of Article 21 versus Article 20 shows how Brookline’s town government continues to support measures that strengthen neighborhood character and continues to oppose measures that encourage profiteering. That makes striking contrast with attitudes found some 50 and more years ago–a lasting mark of Brookline’s “neighborhood zoning” begun at a dramatic, four-night town meeting held in December, 1973.

Town meeting rejected two routine measures proposed by the Planning Board. Article 22 would have recognized a convenience store at a gasoline station. Article 23 would have prohibited an accessory dwelling in a single-family zone. While there were arguments for and against those proposals, they are likely to have been victims of rushed consideration and might better have been put off to the traditional venue of a fall town meeting. There were recorded votes. Article 22: 109 in favor and 62 opposed. Article 23: 106 in favor and 59 opposed. Both fell short of the two-thirds required for a zoning change.

Under Article 24, town meeting accepted a grant of easement that would allow the so-called Carlton St. footbridge, closed since the fall of 1975, to be renovated and equipped with wheelchair ramps. The project is Brookline’s largest contribution to an effort that is mostly federally funded: dredging the Muddy River channel, following disastrous 1996 flooding that shut down the MBTA Green Line for weeks.

Under Article 25, town meeting rejected stipends for Retirement Board members. The session’s last recorded vote found 47 in favor and 100 opposed. Decades of skeptics notwithstanding, Brookline remains a town and not a city–in fact as well as in name. Members of a few boards, including the Board of Selectmen and Zoning Appeals Board, are paid–although stipends remain nominal–but hundreds of town residents serve on unpaid boards, commissions and committees. The 240 elected town meeting members are, of course, unpaid.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, May 31, 2014

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