Letter: Open letter to residents on Monday night’s Special Town Meeting

by beth on November 3, 2021

[Ed note: My Southborough accepts signed letters to the editor submitted by Southborough residents. Letters may be emailed to mysouthborough@gmail.com.

This letter was submitted yesterday afternoon, which is why Monday’s meeting is referred to as “last night”.]

To the Editor:

I wanted to share a few thoughts on last night’s town meeting as I was quite shocked at the level of disinformation proponents of the Downtown Initiative used to swing the vote.

The first has to do with affordable housing. As a member of the Historical Commission, I was on the subcommittee that wrote the design guidelines. Lisa Braccio headed the group. And in all those long hours, neither she nor anyone else ever once uttered the word “affordable housing.” Those words do not appear in the bylaw, nor in the guidelines. Nowhere in fact. But late in the game, proponents decided that portraying this as a remedy to our abysmal affordable housing situation would help the bylaw pass. And it worked. I have talked to various developers who specialize in this type of construction, and they assure me that a density of at least 20 units is required to make affordable housing affordable to both the buyer and the developer. There is not a single site in this new business district that could handle that density. There are, however, numerous sites around town that could—including South Union School that sits empty, costing tax-payers tens of thousands of dollars each year. It is quite ironic that members of the BOS should lecture the voters on the importance of affordable housing while making no progress on parcels entirely under their control.

Secondly, Mr. Healey’s repeated assurance that the zoning change was “cost neutral” and the sewage issue was a “red herring” is simply disingenuous. Even a minute change in zoning costs something—if nothing else, the cost of promulgation. The EDC/BOS commissioned a very thorough report on the sewage issue by the engineering firm Weston and Sampson, which outlined an elegantly simple design:

Sewage system graphicEssentially the waste flows by gravity down the green arrows to a pumping station under Main Street, which then sends the waste a new processing plant on parcel 54-40

But you didn’t get to see this report last night, because it was conveniently buried by both the EDC and the BOS. However, I did some digging, and here’s what the experts said:

  • There is only one lot that is buildable using our current septic guidelines on the corner of Newton and Main, with or without zoning changes.
  • Actual development in the business district would require the installation of a sewage treatment plant
  • There is only one place for that plant, the 54-40 parcel owned by NStar
  • At the time of the report, the cost of the project was estimated to be $3,298,000 – excluding the costs of acquiring the NStar land through eminent domain; the cost of tearing up and replacing the CSX crossing; the cost of tearing up the newly finished Main Street; individual costs of 15-30K per user to hook up to the system; PLUS, the annual costs for running the plant itself. All in all, probably close to 5 million, plus annual running costs.

How would this all be paid for, you ask? Here are the options Weston and Samson recommended, and I quote: 

  • Town-wide Property Tax Fund – Costs can be recovered from all property owners within the town through the general tax fund.
  • Water Bill Surcharges/Sewer Enterprise Account Charges – Surcharges on water bills, charged

according to water usage, can be used to offset a portion of the capital costs.

  • Infrastructure Investment Fund – A real estate tax surcharge of up to 3% can be set aside into a Municipal Water Infrastructure Investment Fund, outside of Proposition 2½, as allowed through state legislation. (2014 legislation M.G.L. Chapter 40, Section 39M)

They estimated that the tax option for just the base $3M to be roughly $50 per household per year. So total costs would probably run close to $100/household annually.

Does that seem “cost neutral” to you?

To be clear, I am actually for this proposal. I want a renewed downtown, and I think there might be money available from the forthcoming federal infrastructure bill to pay for these sewage improvements and avoid a raise in rates, but there has been no leadership from either the BOS or the EDC on finding the funding, nor making the necessary infrastructure changes now as we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to finish the lower part of Main Street. In fact, when asked last night by Mrs. Phaneuf if such planning was being undertaken, Mr. Healey had no response, because the simple answer is no—a failure that will add untold thousands of dollars to the final tab.

In sum, we can make all the feel-good zoning changes we want, but if we cannot implement any new development without spending millions of dollars of public funding, our town leaders should be forthright enough to say so, instead of hiding behind misleading banners of “affordable housing,” and “cost neutral propositions.” There is a very good reason why there has been “no new construction downtown in 40 years,” and that’s because no private enterprise has ever had, nor will ever have, the desire or wherewithal to solve our sewage problems for us, and last night’s Pyrrhic zoning victory isn’t going to change that sad reality.

Michael Weishan, Chair
Historical Commission

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 beth November 3, 2021 at 8:54 AM

Michael, I have to respond to your claim about affordable housing:

“affordable housing.” Those words do not appear in the bylaw, nor in the guidelines. Nowhere in fact.

Under Part 4 in the Article for the bylaw, 174-8.12 G(5), the bylaw states:

Affordable housing. In any multifamily or mixed-use building with four or more units, at least 12.5 percent of the units shall be affordable housing that is eligible for the Chapter 40B Subsidized Housing Inventory (SHI) in accordance with the Chapter 40B regulations and Guidelines of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

As for conversations that selectmen and others had with you, I couldn’t say. But you give the impression that the component of affordable was new or insincerely raised out of the blue on Monday.

I certainly agree that the focus of public presentations has been revitalizing downtown through adding by-right projects with mixed-use and new uses (not requiring a special permit). But there have also been plenty of mentions in public hearings and forums (and in the presentation on Monday) of the need for “diversity of housing” as part of the Town’s goals and for more affordable housing. And there was mention of multi-family housing by special permit.

Southborough Access Media has posted its video, allowing me to go back and confirm some of my memories of the night. In Marty Healey’s introduction to the Article, he spoke about the multi-family housing being included “particularly from a SHOPC perspective”. Julie Connelly also mentioned SHOPC as a partner.

That said, I believe that as political insiders they made a mistake in assuming everyone in the halls would recognize that SHOPC is the Southborough Housing Opportunity Partnership Committee – a group focused on pursuing affordable housing opportunities.

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2 Nailed It! November 4, 2021 at 1:00 PM

Re:

Under Part 4 in the Article for the bylaw, 174-8.12 G(5), the bylaw states:

Affordable housing. In any multifamily or mixed-use building with four or more units, at least 12.5 percent of the units shall be affordable housing that is eligible for the Chapter 40B Subsidized Housing Inventory (SHI) in accordance with the Chapter 40B regulations and Guidelines of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

What is 12.5% of a 4 unit structure? Oh, wait! It’s 1/2 of 1 unit! It would be 1 of 8 units if a structure contained that many.

Such a 12.5% figure is close to MEANINGLESS!

Reading all of these posts about the manipulations over article 10, etc, I am reminded
of some poster calling this town Stupidborough several months ago – or was it years? In any event, that person may have hit the nail right on the head!

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3 beth November 4, 2021 at 2:57 PM

“At least” is the important part of the calculation. As repeatedly discussed at the Planning Board hearings, that means that once you hit four units, the fraction requires one unit to be affordable.

You are correct that at 8 units, it would still be one. A second unit would only be required if at least 9 dwelling units were included – and for multi-family housing that’s capped at 10.

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4 PLANNING BOARD VOTED AGAINST November 3, 2021 at 10:20 AM

This entire process and bylaw is a confusing mess. It is irrelevant how many meetings took place to result in this confusing bylaw and all the misunderstandings produced by the EDC. It is arguable that they were even public.

The PROOF is in the pudding: This was virtually a completely housing plan put forward by the EDC. During the week before Special Town Meeting, there were many changes. The final GREEN book version of the town warrant distributed at the meeting was out of date and no longer valid due to changes. The last minute BLUE book version called for a different combination of uses and metrics all together! Why wasn’t that the original plan and fully vetted from the get go?

Then on town meeting floor there were mentions about affordable housing, but no explanation nor explicit reference to what you are NOW pointing out above. There were multiple AMENDMENTS from the floor. So the FINAL bylaw didn’t match the EDC proposal at all, nor the BLUE book version in the hands of voters. Conveniently, there were whack-a-moles popping up left and right with just the right EDC desired adjustments. However, the real twist came when the Facebook call went out by proponents. That speaks for itself. Then, the Moderator has his own confusing narrative stating that BOS, Planning Board, and Advisory SUPPORTED the final jumble. When in fact none of the above MET nor TOOK a vote. The moderator consistently ignored motions and repeated calls on same from residents. BOTTOM LINE: 4 out of 5 PLANNING BOARD MEMBERS VOTED AGAINST the last minute confusing changed mess. So save your propaganda for someone else.

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5 beth November 3, 2021 at 11:29 AM

To clarify, after Planning Board Member Meme Lutrell stated that the Planning Board hadn’t voted on the amendment, the Moderator did correct his statement to say that the votes of support were on the original motion, not the amended version.

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6 Kelly Roney November 3, 2021 at 4:40 PM

A good place to start if you’d like to review the last few comments and the vote: https://youtu.be/7UzTnovhH6g?t=9968

Paul Carter speaks about sewers, stating that Tony Kwan has built a private sewer plant behind Reliant Medical (formerly Southborough Medical Group).

Jonas Linden, who had tried to move for indefinite postponement several times, tries again, even though we’re at that time on the point of disposing of Article 10 by voting on it, which the Moderator says to him. Maybe Mr. Linden could tell us what he was thinking. I don’t get his point at this late time, with the debate complete, although he clearly opposed the article as “not ready”.

Moderator Cimino states correctly that the vote will be on the main motion, as amended by Mr. Carter and Mr. Nicholson, but there’s a question raised by Joanne Pearson about this, which Mr. Cimino answers clearly.

Meme Luttrell asks Mr. Cimino to clarify the changes due to the amendment. (I think Ms. Luttrell was right and helpful to do this.)

Mr. Cimino then outlines the two changes quite carefully, so that those of us in the hall could be sure what we were voting for or against.

Louis Kirchner asks for Town board positions on the article. Mr. Cimino answers with regard to the unamended bylaw (from the blue sheets). I didn’t interpret Mr. Kirchner’s question that way, and neither apparently did Ms. Luttrell, who stated that the Planning Board had not voted on the bylaw, as amended. Mr. Kirchner then clarified that he indeed had only wanted to know the boards’ positions on the unamended bylaw. Perhaps he could explain why he didn’t have that information, since it’s printed at the bottom of the top blue sheet.

Then, starting about 2:53, we vote.

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7 Tom November 4, 2021 at 7:55 AM

Beth, based on discussions on the floor and visuals of voters as individuals, which all voters have a right to, even board and committee members, Planning Board members cast their final individual votes against Article 10.

Apparently in the end, after all the changes that Planning Board did not agree to, all but one voted AGAINST the article as individuals. This makes sense because they never agreed to all the changes done at the last minute on the floor. Also, as you point out above, the Moderator had to be corrected from the floor about his easily misunderstood statement to voters. Also, obviously Planning Board did not meet after the many changes at the Town Meeting itself. In the end, it was a No vote from Planning Board.

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8 Kelly Roney November 4, 2021 at 11:17 AM

Only one small amendment passed, including two small changes, and they were pretty small, such that Mr. Cimino could easily summarize them before we voted on the main motion. Would members of Planning have voted for their own article, unamended? I’m certain they wouldn’t have supported removal of floor area ratio, as I advocated without success.

The clear upshot is that the Planning Board is hostile to downtown mixed use. I haven’t heard them say why. It was clear when the board voted in changes a month before Town Meeting that still make the amended bylaw very hard to use.

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9 Michael Weishan November 3, 2021 at 10:41 AM

Beth,
Thanks for publishing this. But I stand by the claim of insincerity: since you can’t build a building with four or more units on any of these parcels save one without a sewage treatment plant, (and even that one parcel might be iffy) the clause you cite is meaningless. That was what I was referring to. I should have perhaps better said “No where in fact with any realistic intent.” Maintaining that this bylaw in anyway addresses or improves our affordable housing crisis, is, as Mr. Healey would put it, a total “red herring.” We DO have opportunities to do that. South Union school for one. Other unused or vacant parcels along Route 9 are another. But that requires energy and will that seems to be lacking. The Spanish have a saying: del dicho al hecho hay mucho trecho— “between said and done lies a big distance.” Well, we’ve certainly had the “said” part. Years of it in fact. Now let’s see if anything crosses the distance. I am highly dubious that will occur, but I would be delighted to be proven wrong.

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10 Uhlman's Ice Cream and a Defunded EDC November 3, 2021 at 6:37 PM

EDC placed their bets on some false advertising of ice cream and microbrews. The rest of the content in Article 10 didn’t really didn’t matter much to many voters. BOS and EDC can now take their very small victory laps and add a line item to their resume. Voters who want ice cream shops and microbreweries can keep driving to Westborough and Hudson for many years to come. Voters have the ballot box for BOS and, if so inclined, could propose to defund the EDC at the next Town Meeting.

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11 Resident November 4, 2021 at 9:14 AM

I don’t think we should have to go to Westborough for ice cream and microbreweries. I think it is high time that Southborough starts letting businesses in so that we spend our money in our town. Does anyone remember how hard it was to get a Wendy’s in town so many years ago? Why do you think the buildings along route 9 are all vacant? Every time something is proposed, there is a group that starts the “our little historical town” chant. It is time to move on and fill those buildings and allow businesses in without years of red tape. It is time to get with the times people.

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12 Kelly Roney November 4, 2021 at 10:59 AM

True!

The biggest irony is that mixed use in the town center would actually be a return to historic roots of small towns in general.

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13 Resident November 4, 2021 at 11:52 AM

But you don’t have to go to Westborough to get an ice cream cone. You can go to Cold Stone at The Crossings at Whites Corner. Tomasso’s is there too and has a very nice bar and a great menu. You can enjoy dinning and cocktails at Yama Fuji at Town Center too. Both of these complexes were approved by the Planning Board and built after Wendy’s. For even more dinning and cocktails there’s The Rose Garden and Owen O’Leary’s. O’Leary’s even has pool tables on the second floor! And, we have 5 coffee shops around town as well.

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14 Resident November 5, 2021 at 9:12 AM

Oops! I forgot to add Hola, also at The Crossings. So, we have Italian, Asian (2), Mexican and American. We also have a slew of quicker eateries; Mauro’s Village Cafe, Eros, House of Pizza, Zumi, Subway, Domino’s, Pizzaville, Pizza 19.
To add to the list of commercial building since Wendy’s, there’s 106 Southville Rd. It’s a huge 2 story building. Can you imagine a 3 story building, lager than this one on the corner of Main & Newton? The pending bylaw will allow it.

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15 beth November 4, 2021 at 7:56 AM

Another incorrect fact in the letter that someone pointed out to me is the reference to South Union Building sitting vacant. (I have to admit that in quickly scanning through the letter, I missed that.)

The South Union Building (21 Highland Street) houses both the Recreation Department and Southborough Youth and Family Services.

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16 Michael Weishan November 5, 2021 at 1:40 AM

And they occupy what percentage of that building and at what cost per year?

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17 beth November 5, 2021 at 8:20 AM

I should have also noted that there are programs held in the building. So rooms are used beyond just the office space.

But I don’t have the details on what % is used and the operating cost. It’s a legitimate concern – but not the one you raised in your letter. I’m just correcting your statement that the building is vacant.

Obviously, if we had to move the departments, the questions would be where could they go and at what cost. That’s part of the bigger picture that the Capital Committee is studying on the Town’s long term municipal needs. The STM included approving funding under Article 4 to continue that work.

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