Advisory subcommittee: new crews needed to right ships

Gathering in the large, first-floor south meeting room at Town Hall starting at 7:30 pm Wednesday, October 14, the Advisory subcommittee on planning and regulation heard two articles for the fall town meeting, scheduled for November 17.

Subcommittee members found that Article 12, offered by member Lee Selwyn to revise the meaning of “habitable space” under zoning, needed substantial review. They proposed referring the article to a committee to be appointed by Edward “Sandy” Gadsby, the moderator of town meeting, and Mr. Selwyn agreed.

Park land for Putterham neighborhoods: The subcommittee took a similar approach to Article 15, from petitioners led by Regina Frawley, a Precinct 16 town meeting member. However, circumstances are different. Convening a special review committee is actually what Article 15 asks for. It represents a long detour, starting from an article approved at the May 26, 2015, annual town meeting.

In Putterham neighborhoods–the southernmost parts of Brookline–as Ms. Frawley argued last spring, there is little public open space. During years of the Great Depression, when much development in those neighborhoods was underway, Brookline did not acquire park and playground land, as it had done earlier in other parts of town. The only sizable areas remaining as potential recreation space are the so-called “buffers” on the north side of Hancock Village.

Following development concepts worked out with the Brookline Planning Board during 1945 and 1946, when the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. developed Hancock Village, it left unbuilt land adjacent to single-family houses along Beverly and Russett Rds. Since then, that land has often served informally as recreation space for residents of Hancock Village, as well as those of nearby streets.

The Hancock Village buffers soon came under attack. First the Hancock Co., in the 1950s, and then the next owner–the Niles Co.–in the 1960s, applied to turn the buffers into parking lots. The apartment zoning approved at the 1946 annual town meeting had left the buffers part of the large single-family zone to the north, which does not allow parking lots. The Zoning Board of Appeals turned down the applications.

Recent perils: More recently, the current owner–a subsidiary of Chestnut Hill Realty–has proposed to build both parking lots and more apartments on the buffers. The proposal, approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals last February, draws on provisions of Chapter 40B of the General Laws to override zoning in return for partly subsidized housing.

The current Board of Selectmen and its predecessor opposed the Hancock Village 40B project, although neither has been successful so far. The predecessor board–including Kenneth Goldstein and Betsy DeWitt–sued the Massachusetts Development Financing Agency for issuing a “project eligibility letter,” allowing the project application to proceed. That lawsuit has been dismissed at both superior court and the Court of Appeals.

While considering further appeal of the first case, the Board of Selectmen–now including Nancy Heller and Bernard Greene–is suing members of the Brookline zoning board in Land Court for approving the Hancock Village 40B project. A hostile motion to dismiss is pending in that case, building on the loss by the Board of Selectmen at the Court of Appeals.

The Board of Selectmen now looks mired in conflicts around a proposal to use land at Hancock Village for recreation. Besides the two lawsuits, at this year’s annual town meeting, recently elected board member Nancy Heller filed Article 17, promoting changes to the 40B law that would authorize “local elected officials” to make “binding recommendations” on 40B projects.

Reviewing recreation land: When this year’s annual town meeting approved Article 18, asking the Board of Selectmen to “study and consider in good faith” taking the Hancock Village buffers as permanent recreation land, almost everyone assumed the board would appoint an independent, expert review committee. However, nothing like that has happened so far.

Instead, about a month later, the board sent the Advisory Committee a $15 thousand reserve fund request to hire a consultant, who would work with town staff reporting to the board. The Advisory Committee took note of Massachusetts cases involving conflicts between 40B projects and land takings for other purposes, when refusing to fund a consultant interacting with the Board of Selectmen.

While land taking for community uses is possible, even though a 40B project has claims, it must occur in “good faith” and not mainly to block a project. Involvement by the Board of Selectmen in a proposal for Hancock Village land, given their conflicts, looks to risk poisoning the well and defeating an attempt to acquire land for recreation.

Seeing a Board of Selectmen seemingly frozen on recreation land issues, doing nothing constructive, Ms. Frawley and co-petitioners filed Article 15 for the November town meeting. It calls for a special review committee, to be appointed by the Advisory Committee and the moderator of town meeting. That could separate the recreation land issues from the Board of Selectmen and allow them to be reviewed in “good faith.”

Recommendation: For the subcommittee, Ms. Frawley briefly reviewed activities related to recreation land at Hancock Village since May. According to her, Melvin Kleckner, the town administrator, opposed an independent committee to review the issues–at first claiming to be “too busy” to meet with her and then, two weeks later, saying he intended to hire a consultant.

Mr. Kleckner is a town employee who lives elsewhere, not an elected official of Brookline. Since he was apparently involved in withholding information about a $200 thousand cost overrun during the May town meeting, his relations with the Advisory Committee have become rocky at best. One long-term committee member, reportedly fed up with disrespectful treatment, has resigned from the committee.

According to Ms. Frawley, Mr. Kleckner said the issues of recreation land are “too challenging” for mere citizens. Somehow though, over the years, Brookline citizens managed acquisitions of Hall’s Pond, Amory Woods and the Blakely Hoar Sanctuary, plus more than 100 park and playground parcels, without need for Mr. Kleckner’s consultants.

Subcommittee member Lee Selwyn recalled the $15 thousand reserve fund request for a consultant that had been rejected, suggesting that a committee may need “paid expertise.” Ms. Frawley said the committee could assess its needs. Stanley Spiegel, the subcommittee chair, said nine messages in support of Article 15 and one opposing it were on record so far. The subcommittee favored Article 15 and recommended approval, in a unanimous vote.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, October 16, 2015


Warrant for November 17, 2015, special town meeting, Town of Brookline, MA, September 8, 2015

Article explanations for November 17, 2015, special town meeting, Town of Brookline, MA, September 8, 2015

Comprehensive permit for The Residences of South Brookline, LLC, on the site of Hancock Village, Zoning Board of Appeals, Town of Brookline, MA, February 20, 2015 (4 MB)

Board of Selectmen to Land Court: you win, Brookline Beacon, October 5, 2015

Hancock Village lawsuit: Brookline’s appeal dismissed, Brookline Beacon, September 29, 2015

Advisory Committee: probing a disconnect, Brookline Beacon, July 29, 2015

Craig Bolon, Advisory Committee: reach for the reset button, Brookline Beacon, July 8, 2015

Craig Bolon, Board of Selectmen: poisoning the well, Brookline Beacon, July 2, 2015

Advisory Committee: new park land for Putterham neighborhoods, Brookline Beacon, April 10, 2015

Craig Bolon, Hancock Village: development pressures, Brookline Beacon, February 22, 2015

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