Roundup of Planning Board in the news again

Above: The Planning Board attending the Board of Selectmen meeting last year. From left to right: Andrew Mills, Kathleen Bartolini, Paul Cimino, Dana Cunningham*, Donald Morris, and Town Planner Eric Denoncourt* (Photo by Susan Fitzgerald) *Cunningham and Denoncourt have since resigned.

This evening, the Board of Selectmen will hold a joint meeting with the Planning Board to pick an interim Planning Board member until next May to fill the gap left by Dana Cunningham when he resigned this June.

Whoever fills that post may well feel they are headed into a hot seat. After all, the Planning Board has gotten quite a bit of coverage from the Metrowest Daily News recently. Here is the latest round of stories….

Southborough Planning Board accused of withholding document – from MWDN:
A member of the town’s financial Advisory Committee has filed a complaint with the town clerk alleging that a Planning Board member illegally withheld a document he requested.

In a complaint filed on Tuesday, John Butler alleged that the Planning Board violated Open Meeting Law and/or Public Records Law by failing to release the latest draft of its comprehensive rewrite of the town’s bylaws. (read more)

Southborough board members wonder when final proposed zoning regulations will surface – from MWDN:
Several town officials Wednesday night said they’re wondering when the Planning Board will make its final draft proposed zoning bylaw available to the public.

“It’s supposed to be ready,” Open Space Preservation Commission Chairwoman Meme Luttrell said. “But it hasn’t been posted.” (read more)

Southborough Planning Board expects controversy on marijuana bylaw – from MWDN:
Several Planning Board members agreed last week that a proposed bylaw regulating medical marijuana dispensaries is bound for controversy. . .

“If you’re thinking about robbing the place, it’s in the industrial park at night,” [Bartolini] said. “There (has been) some discussion about, ‘Is this the best place to put it?’”

Bartolini said while she favors the current proposal, she’s open to different opinions.

“We should anticipate quite a bit of discussion on some of these issues,” she said.  (read more)

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John Butler
10 years ago

Although the Metrowest story notes my Advisory Committee position, my action in this matter is solely as a concerned citizen.

The problem we have now, as far as I can see, is that the Planning Board, and its subcommittee, the ZAC, have spent $100,000 or so developing a new draft zoning bylaw using a process that has been illegal from the outset. I could be wrong about this, but that is what it looks like to me.

Basically their procedure seems to have been, all along, to publicly release versions only when the committee (ZAC or PB) had decided it was time to release them, not when the committee members came into possession of them. However as I understand the law, documents in possession of a public body for its deliberation are, by virtue of that possession, public documents (there are some exceptions for documents in Executive Session, but that doesn’t apply here.) A public body cannot deliberate on a document and decide to make it public only periodically, as they have been doing.

Until I was confronted with this practice recently, I didn’t believe they were actually doing this. I was told a few weeks ago by another citizen, “I can’t get a copy.” I said, “Oh, sure you can. It’s public.” I requested it. It wasn’t given, and hasn’t been given. Instead I was told by email that I could get it after the Planning Board voted to publish it. Illegal, I believe, a violation of the open meeting law. Further all inquiries I’ve made of other citizens have said that this has been the PB and ZAC subcommittee practice since their start at drafting this law.

My view is that this draft and its preceding versions should be disposed of, as material developed by a legally defective process. If the Planning Board wants to start over, they can consider doing so on a legal basis. This legal error is not a mere technicality. When public documents are not available to the public at large, questions arise as to whom they may have be given to privately. Were drafts given to developers but denied to the Open Space Committee? Such statements have been made to me. Scrupulous observance of the law removes such a taint from the process. This can be essential to public confidence in the process and its outcome.

10 years ago

thank you to all the volunteers who put in countless hours only to be nitpicked to death. for the most part they have the towns interest at heart. I personaly do not blame any of them who have resigned. no doubt more to come rather than put with this nonsense.

Al Hamilton
10 years ago
Reply to  congrats

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”

I share some of Congrats frustration but from a different perspective. The recent tightening of the Open Meeting requirements and “Mandatory” ethics training have probably reduced the incentive of volunteers to serve on public boards. I seriously doubt that anyone volunteers so that they can be a committees recording secretary. I think the town does a poor job of supporting volunteer boards in general and should explore using electronic media as an alternative to the current “dead tree media” method that is as obsolete as the quill pen and green eye shade.

That being said, public records are a completely different matter. Mr. Butler’s analysis is correct and in fact conservative. It is important to remember that what is done in Town Hall is done under our authority and we have all paid for it. We have the right to see the vast majority of the documents in Town Hall or the Superintendents office. We have the right to know who the Town does business with, what it paid, what it pays its employees, the contents of most emails, and working documents. There are only a few carefully proscribed exceptions.

I must, however, disagree with Congrats about Mr. Butler’s and others requests being “nit picking”. Far from it. Zoning by laws are some of the most intrusive acts that a local government can make into personal liberty, and property rights. There is a reason why even in liberal Mass. they require a 2/3 majority to pass.

We have spent 100’s of thousands of dollars (if you include public employees time) on this process. Regardless of the merits of Mr. Butlers claims, which I believe have substantial merit, the politics of this are disastrous. Is there any real doubt that this will fail at town meeting? Here we are a month and a half away and fundamental questions are not being answered.

I think that Mr. Butlers suggestion that we start over with a more transparent process is well advised. Or we could simply fix the existing by law and call it a day.

10 years ago
Reply to  congrats

I don’t think it’s nonsense. Adhering to the Open Meeting law is important. I’m not necessarily in favor of throwing out work valued at $100,000 because some drafts were not issued sooner. The changes have still not been finalized and are certainly a long way from being voted on by TM. The public will have plenty of time to discuss and critique the final proposal. A slap on the wrist to those involved in withholding the various drafts makes sense to me but let’s not squander $100k, especially since it is likely that the “start over ” effort will be very similar to what is being discarded.

10 years ago
Reply to  southsider


As I read Mr. Hamilton’s comment on the $100,000 spent so far, I interpreted it to mean that the funds have already been expended through town employes’ time and consultants. His comment ” Here we are a month and a half away and fundamental questions are not being answered” is key.

Just because we have spent so much time and money on this project doesn’t make it a good project. Frankly, I often wondered why the Planning Board continued pushing the issue. It just didn’t make much sense to me.

Finally, Mr. Butler and Mr. Hamilton do us all a great service when they insist on transparency in town government. (Pizzagate is a recent example of town government that was anything but transparent.)

Al Hamilton
10 years ago
Reply to  southsider


I think we have already squandered 100’s of thousands of dollars including consultants time and public employees time.

The lack of transparency and availability matters for several reasons:

1. Before you vote on this would you like to understand the financial implications for the town? Will this proposal cause you to pay more or less taxes than you would if we do nothing? What will the impact on your property values? What will be the impact on municipal services and the demand for schools?

The Advisory committee has been trying to get some basic information and comparisons so that it can do their job and advise town meeting on these subjects. Doing the analysis is a LOT of work and requires careful review. With a little more than a month to go I doubt they can do an effective job.

2. Other committees that have developed legislation that is put before town meeting have web sites where they have posted all of the working drafts and various other proposals so the public could see evolution of legislation. Why had this proposal apparently being developed in secret?

3. I have yet to hear an explanation of how the new proposal benefits me or anyone else. In spite of my incessant whining, Southborough is a pretty nice place to live. It has been developed under the existing zoning regs. I for one would like to understand what is so broken that we need to fix it. Yes, there are some minor problems with a section that need to be brought into line with state law but why is it necessary to throw the baby out with the bath water and do a wholesale overhaul?

4. Regardless of the truth of the matter, optics related to the development of this proposal are terrible. The lack of transparency breeds suspicion, whether it is warranted or not. The meetings in executive session, and refusal to release public documents should have voters antennae up. These activities are not sowing the seeds of support on fertile ground in which to grow yes votes.

If this fails at the fall town meeting, which I believe is likely, we will have wasted the effort. That will be regrettable but it is better than passing something we don’t understand and has not been thoroughly reviewed. Particularly something that will effect every resident and property owner in our community.

10 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

I think i get all of your points and I agree that this whole process has been handled badly. I am also a believer that this whole thing will not pass TM …it’s too complex, has too many opponents, and the Planning Board does not have nearly enough GoodWill with the community to make it happen. That said, my point is this: let’s not force them to start all over again and re-spend all that time and money. Let’s reprimand the Chair ( or whomever ) for the Open Meeting violation and move the project along to its public review and comment phase and then its ( probably) inevitable demise.

John Butler
10 years ago
Reply to  southsider

southsider: Let me say that the very firm facts that I have are narrow and current. (I asked for copy. I don’t have it. I was told in writing a few weeks ago that it would be released only after they vote to release it. I believe that to be a violation of law.) Further inquiries suggest that there have been ongoing violations of this type, but that is not solid information at this stage. Smoke, not found fire. There may be conflicting information that arises about past practice. If the scope of the problem is narrow, then I also could support remedies of the type you suggest.
The important lesson is that the Planning Board’s extreme casualness, at the least, about complying with the open meeting law (remember they were just about to appoint a planner recommended by their subcommittee that never even bothered to post a meeting), justifiably weakens public confidence.

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