Monthly Archives: September 2014

Zoning Board of Appeals: architecture for Hancock Village Chapter 40B

The Zoning Appeals Board held a continued hearing on Monday, September 8, over a proposed Chapter 40B housing project at the site of Hancock Village, along Independence Drive in the Chestnut Hill section of south Brookline. It was most recently proposing nine 3-story structures tucked in behind houses along Russett and Beverly Rds. and a large building at the extension of Asheville Rd., with a total of 184 new units.

The Appeals Board has now had some experience with hostile 40B developments, notably on Centre and Marion Sts. Its favored approach of wearing out developers met with success, but that has now been foreclosed by state rules narrowing the scope of objections and setting time limits for actions. For those gifts, we can in part thank Werner Lohe, a Precinct 13 town meeting member who chairs the Massachusetts Housing Appeals Committee.

Regardless of rule changes, Brookline would have had tenuous prospects with such tactics now, because Chestnut Hill Realty, the owner of Hancock Village who is proposing the 40B project, has more resources than developers of previous projects and is unlikely to walk away just because the process takes a long time. Chestnut Hill was represented by Marc Levin and by landscape architect Joseph Geller of Stantec Consulting in Boston, who is a former chair of the Board of Selectmen.

Theodore Touloukian, a Boston architect, presented a review of proposed architecture. He described the nine low-rise buildings as a total of 44 units, 1-bedroom to 3 bedrooms, including 98 bedrooms and 22 lofts. The large building has 5 floors of apartments over 2 floors of parking, with 140 units and 223 bedrooms. A total of 369 new parking spaces is now proposed. Of the 184 total units, all are rental and 37 are to be subsidized for low-income and moderate-income residents.

Mr. Touloukian reported some success at improving landscaping and reducing the large building’s massing at its northern end but none at reducing the number of units or the height of buildings. Perimeter fencing is now to be 7 instead of 4 feet high to reduce headlight glare from night parking. He said he hoped to see further improvements: subdividing surface parking into smaller areas, preserving more trees, trimming the height of the large building to 4 stories at the northern end and using higher quality materials.

Mr. Levin and Mr. Geller of Stantec, speaking for Chestnut Hill, said they had gone as far with changes as practical. Any further change to the large building, they said, would substantially increase cost. Where new trees are being planted, they are willing to put in evergreens to improve year-round screening. They rejected most of Mr. Touloukian’s proposals for changes in architectural materials as too expensive.

Mr. Geller of Stantec exhibited 14 simulated walks around the project, showing Hancock Village buildings in some detail and surrounding houses in caricature. Views of the large building seemed particularly startling, revealing how the parking rises above grade at the south end, making the height seven stories there, and capturing the building’s massive presence as seen from the front or rear.

Several neighborhood residents and town meeting members commented. William M. Varrell, III, who lives at the corner of Asheville and Russett Rds., asked to scale back the large building, of which he probably has the closest view. “Make it smaller,” he said, “and see if it’s feasible.” Scott Gladstone, a Precinct 16 town meeting member and Russett Rd. resident, had a similar outlook. “Nibbling around the project doesn’t work,” he contended. “Make the project smaller.”

Judith Leichtner, a Precinct 16 town meeting member and Beverly Rd. resident, said none of the changes made since last January “substantially address the problems of the proposal. A five-story building is inappropriate for the site.” Her concerns about overcrowding Baker School were echoed by Abby Cox, a School Committee member and Precinct 8 town meeting member. Baker is already over capacity, Ms. Cox said, with about 800 students and “five sections for three grades.”

Alisa Jonas and Stephen Chiumenti, both Russett Road residents and Precinct 16 town meeting members, bore down on whether the proposed project was appropriate for the site. Before it went to the Board of Appeals, Mr. Chiumenti related, “Mass Development was prepared to reject…the original project,” similar is scope and size. He urged the board to “slash the size of this development, then consider financial feasibility.”

There was an interesting exchange between board members and their legal consultants for this review. Jesse Geller, the board’s chair and a lawyer, and Christopher Hussey, a board member and an architect, seemed to play a game of “After you, Alphonse.” Mr. Geller contended architectural elements were the main issues, while Mr. Hussey said, “I’m going to let the lawyers work [things] out.”

Edith Netter of Waltham, consulting on legal aspects of 40B development, seemed eager for board members to start weighing options, saying, “They’ve got to talk to one another.” Board member Mark Zuroff sounded more willing than the others to do so. “I think that the project is too dense,” he said. Board member Avi Liss advocated making the large building “less conspicuous” but did not say how that might happen.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, September 9, 2014

Radio pollution: tangles and hazards in Brookline

Radio pollution is both an old and a new controversy here. The old controversy began in the early twentieth century, when AM broadcasting, as we know it now, took off after invention of the vacuum tube in 1906. Between the end of World War I and the end of World War II, it was the only commercially significant radio. There was then, of course, no television and no wireless communication serving the general population. A signature of a classic comics character, Dick Tracy, was the fantasy of a “two-way wrist radio.”

Golden-age service: The so-called “golden age of radio” starting about 1910 was tarnished by interference between stations using close frequencies. Like counterparts in the newspaper business, radio entrepreneurs treated broadcasting space at first as a free good, although it was not. Brookline once found that seemingly any number of news stands could occupy a corner. Any number of radio stations cannot. They may interfere, creating buzz and static. Government regulation started during World War I.

In 1922, a few AM stations were granted “clear channel” rights–prime use of a frequency at high power. WBZ of Boston at 1.03 MHz and WTIC of Hartford at 1.08 MHz are the only ones in New England. WTIC shares rights to its frequency. WBZ, however, broadcasts 24 hours every day at 50 kW from Brighton, with exclusive North American rights to appear at AM 1030. Initially broadcasting from Springfield, MA–the first commercially licensed U.S. radio station–WBZ can be tuned in nationwide, thousands of miles away.

Short-range services: At ultra-high frequencies (UHF) used during World War II for military radar and afterward for satellite, digital cellular and close-range services–around 1 GHz (1,000 MHz) and higher–earthbound transmission ranges are less than 100 miles, sometimes less than 100 feet. Signal energy is readily absorbed by soil, trees, buildings and body tissue. Signals do not travel far inside most buildings. That is why we cannot use GPS satellite location-finding indoors, except perhaps at a window.

At the low end of UHF, Verizon mounted its so-called “4G” cellular service on an LTE model, using carriers in 0.7 GHz bands–becoming popular across North America, Europe and Australia, plus large parts of South America and east and southeast Asia, including India and Japan. Because of lower frequencies, LTE is somewhat less attenuated by buildings than most UHF. However, lower frequencies also make LTE more vulnerable to crowding; there is less bandwidth to share among users.

During the past year, Verizon began expanding “4G” service using AWS spectrum, with carriers in 2.1 GHz bands. To sustain expansion, Verizon needs to increase the density and number of its cellular stations, while reducing power and limiting ranges. Those factors tend to make Verizon cellular services environmentally more friendly but more expensive. They also help to explain why Verizon is paying high-priced lawyers, trying to persuade Brookline to allow the company zoning variances for locating cellular base stations in residential areas.

Risks and benefits: Whether that is in the best interest of Brookline residents depends partly on how it might affect environmental risks. As we gradually learned from long controversies over nuclear power, there is probably no risk-free technology. Even spinning and weaving spread dust in the air that can cause lung disease and factory explosions. Risks from UHF radio became safety and health issues during the wartime 1940s, with the development of radar. Those concerns have continued.

UHF radio energy is more strongly absorbed by materials than lower frequency signals. An easily measured effect is heat. From the 1940s through the 1980s, heat was the main widely studied and well documented hazard. During the Reagan administration, a federal agency produced what has become the reference for nearly all current “environmental assessments” produced by or for industries. [Guy, et al., 1986] That was soon reflected in a so-called “consensus” standard, ANSI C95.1, updated but not basically changed since 1992.

During and before the early 1980s, most common household exposure to UHF radio came from occasional use of increasingly popular microwave ovens. There were few radar zones or microwave transmitters, no digital cell phones or base stations and no close-range emitters such as cordless telephones, WiFi, Bluetooth and “smart” meters and appliances. Few would deny economic benefits and conveniences of the more recent technologies. However, the commonplace uses and continuous exposures occurring today were not anticipated in research conducted before the mid-1980s.

Health and safety: It is unreasonable to expect that a 1986 evaluation of risks and hazards from UHF radio would reflect today’s environment. Nevertheless, that is what cellular service companies are encouraging. So-called “environmental assessments” rehash research before the mid-1980s, ignore about three decades of more recent discoveries and conceal shortcomings through technical jargon and numbers. Findings of “no significant impact” are all but guaranteed by lax standards based on obsolete research.

More recent research on health effects of UHF radio exposure–sometimes called “microwave exposure”–starting in the early 1990s, found associations with disturbances in humans, wildlife and laboratory animals. In 2011, documented risks of brain tumors persuaded a branch of the World Health Organization, a U.N. agency, to classify “radiofrequency electromagnetic fields” as a potential carcinogen. Other types of disturbances have involved biochemical, neurological, behavioral and developmental changes.

In 2012, an association of health researchers published a compendium of findings, calling for stronger standards. While other researchers criticized the effort as unfocused, it brought attention to neglected but potentially significant elements, including pulsed sources, common in telecommunications, and individual differences, with a few percent of the population who may be hypersensitive.

While industry groups commonly claim that allowed power levels are conservative by factors of 10 to 50, the association claims they are excessive by factors of 100 or more. Its findings are currently unassimilated. So far, no government-sponsored organization has sorted through the many reports, developed priorities, conducted well controlled research or performed regulatory analysis.

Investigation and regulation: Hazards from UHF radio exposure are not simple to investigate. Calibrated UHF survey meters with appropriate sensitivity cost around $20,000 or more. Some potential problems have been described as accumulating over long-term exposure, others as affecting a few percent of the population. Effective research may need large numbers of subjects and long durations. Mitigation measures have also received little attention so far, although UHF radio signals are readily blocked by even thin metal.

Zoning regulations, again at issue in Brookline, are not very flexible tools to address potential UHF radio hazards. However, a longstanding tradition in zoning, reacting to other uncertainties, has been to separate industrial activities from residential areas. That is currently the approach of Brookline’s zoning. As long as they do not prohibit telecommunication services, by leaving niches in which services can be located, zoning regulations are an obvious way we now have to reduce potential hazards that we cannot yet estimate well.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, September 7, 2014


Arthur W. Guy, et al., Biological Effects and Exposure Criteria for Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields, Report 86, [U.S.] National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement, 1986

Barry Mishkind, WBZ and WBZA in Boston and Springfield, MA, Hammond Museum of Radio (Guelph, ON, Canada), 2004

Hammett and Edison, Statement re proposed base station site CA-SBR022, County of Santa Barbara, CA, 2007

Don Hayes, Petition Number 08-27 MetroPCS, Re 639 Granite St., Braintree, MA, Zoning Board of Appeals, 2008

Robert Baan, et al., Carcinogenicity of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, Lancet Oncology 12(7):624-625, 2011

Where did our RF standards come from? Hammett and Edison, Consulting engineers (Sonoma, CA), 2012

David O. Carpenter and Cindy Sage, Eds., BioInitiative Report: A Rationale for Biologically-based Public Exposure Standards for Electromagnetic Radiation, BioInitiative Group (Santa Barbara, CA), 2012 (25 MB)

Kevin Fitchard, Verizon quietly unleashes its LTE monster, tripling 4G capacity in major cities, Gigaom Tech News, December 5, 2013

Planning Board: mending a fence and a ‘derelict’ house

A weekly meeting of the Planning Board on Thursday, September 4, started at 7:30 pm in the northern first-floor meeting room at Town Hall. Reviews of seven property improvement applications were scheduled, a heavy workload. Summer is the busiest season for property improvements, and the board had not met the previous week. The board elected Linda Hamlin as chair and Steven Heikin as clerk for the coming year. Ms. Hamlin, an architect, may be the first woman to chair the Brookline Planning Board.

Fence viewer’s call: A dispute over the height of a fence took more time than any other case. The fence at issue was recently built between two properties along Dudley St. The owners of the fence applied for a special permit allowing extra fence height, after their neighbor complained that the fence was over seven feet tall–the maximum allowed for the zone in a side yard, when less than 20 feet from a lot line.

The area’s terrain retains more of its natural variations than urban Brookline, with occasional rises and valleys. Before installing the fence, its owners sought to stabilize a slope with a retaining wall, along or near the lot line. At maximum, that raised their land elevation about three feet above their neighbor’s land. After they installed a fence six or seven feet high, from the neighbor’s land it looked nine or ten feet high.

Brookline specifies that height of a fence or wall is measured “above the natural grade,” and the building inspector who looked at the site took that literally, finding that the top of the new fence rose to more than seven feet above undisturbed land–too high. Special permits for extra fence height are allowed “to mitigate noise or other detrimental impact or provide greater safety,” but none of those circumstances seemed to apply.

Robert L. “Bobby” Allen, Jr., a Brookline-based lawyer, Precinct 16 town meeting member and former chair of the Board of Selectmen, represented the fence owners. The neighbor brought along a landscape designer who had worked on the property but no lawyer. As they often do, board members tried to mediate, seeking some avenue toward agreement. This time, they could not pull it off.

The neighbor offered to meet with the fence owners again, but the owners said that had been tried and didn’t work. Mr. Allen, who handles many such cases with generally calm demeanor, seemed to be exasperated over this one. He couldn’t take it “offline.” Faced with the impasse, the Planning Board briefly reviewed the zoning and sided with the neighbor, recommending the Board of Appeals deny a special permit for extra fence height.

Appeals Board cases: Polly Selkoe, assistant director for regulatory planning at the Planning Department, introduced Jay Rosa to the board. Mr. Rosa has taken a new Planning Department position as zoning coordinator. He will assume duties from the town clerk’s office, following and reporting cases at the Zoning Board of Appeals. Earlier in the evening, Mr. Rosa had attended his first two cases, including a controversial “garage triangle” on Walnut Place.

The Appeals panel visited the site that morning. While there, according to panel member Mark Zuroff, they saw two large trucks make their way past two cars parked in the Walnut Place triangle. Panel members said they did not believe the proposed garage entrance would become a nuisance or serious hazard. They allowed the Upland Road applicants on the case to modify their garage so as to enter it from Walnut Place rather than Upland Road.

A ‘derelict’ house: Another case that proved controversial proposed to alter a house on Beaconsfield Road with a rear addition and both front and rear dormers. The house, in a T-6 two family district, is now a two-family and would remain one. However, the 4131 square feet of gross floor area would be increased well beyond the 4593 square feet normally allowed. To get such an increase requires design review, giving the Planning Board considerable scope.

Members of the Planning Board were appalled to hear that much of the house had been ripped apart, leaving a shell. A nearby resident said the house, with “hardly any work going on since spring, looks like a derelict [and] is very dangerous.” Ms. Hamlin asked, “Is this the new thing: we tear it apart and then ask for permits?”

Mr. Allen, also representing the property owner in this case, was quick to observe that work so far was done under a building permit and had not added new space to the house. One board member thought that the house was in a National Historic Register district, inhibiting demolition, but the Beaconsfield Terrace district starts to the west, toward Beacon St. While Brookline’s zoning is fairly strict about disturbing landscaping before design review, it does not forbid demolishing walls and floors.

Board members turned to the proposed design. Mark Zarrillo, the outgoing chair, said “it looks too bulky.” Mr. Heikin said the design was “out of scale [and] out of character with the surroundings.” According to Ms. Hamlin, “The existing houses have an intimate scale.” The proposed front dormer, she said, “totally overwhelms that house…the scale is wrong…you’ve eliminated any detail that gave it any charm.” The board continued the case and will review it again after the owner and his architect revise their plans.

School Committee: no PARCC testing this year

A regular semimonthly meeting of the School Committee on Thursday, September 4, started at 6:00 pm, held in the fifth-floor meeting room at Town Hall. Topics included the state’s PARCC testing program and considerations for a general tax override, expected to be proposed early next year mainly to support public schools.

Superintendent of Schools William Lupini and the School Committee welcomed several new hires and promotions for leadership positions, They include new vice principals Jennifer Buller at Devotion, Brian DiNitzo at Lincoln and Dann Rudd at Baker. New administrators include Gabe McCormick for professional development, Michelle Adams for school affairs and Brian Poon as associate dean of students at the High School.

Many of their friends and family were there. At least two of the new hires and promotions are African-American. Public Schools of Brookline looks to be leading the town in diversity of senior staff recruitment–an example most municipal departments have yet to appreciate.

Testing plans: Superintendent Lupini described his opposition to introducing a new commercial testing regime in Brookline this school year, called “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers” (PARCC). These tests are being produced and sold by the Pearson company of London, with major offices in Boston and six other U.S. cities.

Dr. Lupini said the state group organizing PARCC had agreed to “extend by 50 percent” the testing times, only to reverse course under alleged federal pressure. They are “now considering eliminating the extra time,” he said. Communities that previously agreed to adopt PARCC will find “conditions have changed…will likely be upset.” He contended the situation left special-needs students at severe disadvantage. Bottom line: “PARCC didn’t provide an environment that’s in the best interest of our students.”

School Committee members appeared to expect Dr. Lupini’s change of heart and offered some considered reactions. Committee chair Susan Ditkoff sounded the most skeptical. She does “not agree on the question of timed tests” but nevertheless “supports the approach” Dr. Lupini proposed. The “equity issue is front and center,” she said, “especially special needs” students, although “Common Core standards ask for higher levels of thinking.”

Vice chair Barbara Scotto, previously a teacher in Brookline elementary schools for many years, said she “supports the decision,” although “it concerns me that the timing issue is so prominent” at state and federal levels. She explained that Brookline’s experience with untimed tests taught helpful lessons. When scheduled times were up, she said, “possibly a third…had finished, the rest of the students were taking their time,” and “the kids who rushed through often did not get the best scores.”

Dr. Lupini, who currently heads the state’s association of school superintendents, said that organization “will be bringing up the issue when we meet” later this month. As of now, he said, “59 percent of districts opted for PARCC…50 percent of students will go with PARCC.” He seemed to expect some districts may reconsider, now that it is clear accommodations for special-needs students are being constricted.

Background: At a School Committee meeting this May, Dr. Lupini had announced plans to implement PARCC testing in Brookline schools during the 2014-2015 school year. As the only exception, he proposed Brookline High School would stay with MCAS for grade 10–that is, English and math tests required for graduation. A public hearing about the issues was set for June 5, to be followed by a School Committee review and vote later in June.

In a move that might have surprised some, on June 19 Dr. Lupini pushed out to September the review and vote about PARCC testing. He had become concerned, he said, about “the untimed nature of MCAS versus the timed nature of PARCC.” While that might have been a departure for Dr. Lupini, it was a familiar issue for people acquainted with decades of testing controversies, including several members of the School Committee.

PARCC has become the military arm of Common Core State Standards, the latest effort to regiment U.S. elementary and secondary schools. Supposedly state-coordinated but in fact federally promoted, it looks like an emerging cash cow for the publishing company formerly known as Pearson Education, recently rebranded as just “Pearson.” As compared with other regimented tests, it puts efficiency and not students first. It is both administered and scored by computers, even in so-called “essay” segments.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, September 5, 2014


Valerie Strauss, Teacher says, No longer can I throw my students to the ‘testing wolves,’ Washington Post, September 5, 2014

Louise Law and John Stifler, Look between the lines on education ‘reform,’ Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, MA), May 21, 2014

Les Perelman, Flunk the robo-graders, Boston Globe, April 30, 2014

Scott O’Connell, Rough start for PARCC, Metrowest Daily News (Framingham, MA), March 30, 2014

Solid Waste Advisory Committee: recycling and trash metering

A monthly meeting of the Solid Waste Advisory Committee on Tuesday, September 2, started at 5:45 pm in the Denny Room at the Health Center. All six members attended, with an agenda including commercial recycling, a new set of waste bins in public areas, and changes in fees to implement trash metering.

Solid waste trends: Edward Gilbert, the director of solid waste and recycling, reported that Brookline’s solid waste collection tonnages continue to fall. Refuse is down about three percent from a year earlier. Recycle collection has fallen even more, down about six percent. No one described reasons for the trends or compared them with other communities.

After a flurry of activity early in the Patrick administration, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection seemed to doze off. Its latest solid waste data published on the Web stop with 2011. Trends in solid waste disposal fell around five percent per year for 2004 through 2009, mainly decreasing landfill and out-of-state disposal. After that, progress halted; statewide refuse disposal for 2011 was up three percent over 2009. Brookline appears to be bucking a disappointing recent trend in Massachusetts.

Brookline achieved its progress without implementing a plan for trash metering that was proposed last May 14 by Andrew Pappastergion, the town’s public works commissioner. However, progress did not seem to dim the enthusiasm of Mr. Gilbert and committee members for the plan. Mr. Gilbert pointed out that Brookline could start charging for disposal of household furnishings some landlords continue to dump on town sidewalks.

Solar-powered compactors: Within about two months, new solar-powered compactors from the Big Belly company of Newton should be installed in public areas, and the old litter baskets will then be removed. The replacements come in pairs: one bin for refuse and the other for recycling. Signs on recycling bins will list materials they accept. The new bins are lined and covered. They should reduce attacks from birds, squirrels and other animals.

Since 2006, the committee has organized two trash audits, sorting through random samples of waste collection to estimate the amounts of recyclables in refuse bins and the amounts of refuse in recycling bins. A further project of the type is not being planned, but the committee noted objections from one town resident, who apparently has privacy concerns. An opinion from town counsel had held materials put out for collection become town property. Residents should shred items that might be personally identifiable.

Foam recycling: Committee members agreed to plan another collection of polystyrene foam for sometime next winter, but they were not enthusiastic about it. Past collections proved ecologically unsound, they said–high inputs but slim results, costing more in non-renewable resources than they saved. Brookline does not currently have a plastic foam compressor, which might help the balance. Committee members may take a trip to Newton, to see how its program operates.

No consensus emerged on commercial recycling. Committee members had heard that Alan Christ, a Precinct 4 town meeting member, had worked on a warrant article about the topic. There was discussion about recycling in local restaurants. Few if any now separate out recyclable beverage cans and bottles. A similar discussion occurred at a spring meeting of the Climate Action Committee, with a focus on school cafeterias.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, September 3, 2014