Last night’s Planning Board panel at Candidates’ Night was unusual, so I’m handling it unusually.
I’m sharing highlights both from the forum with Michael Weishan and my phone conversation this morning with Lisa Braccio.
At last night’s forum, candidate Weishan made his pitch to join the Planning board and answered questions from the audience. Braccio had planned to attend but had to cancel last minute. (She had a mishap that landed her in the Emergency Room with a concussion yesterday.)
That was both a pro and con for Weishan who had the audience’s full attention for his pitch, but was also the only one who had to field audience questions. To try to make it more balanced and to better inform voters, I called Braccio this morning to put the same questions to her.
Weishan told the audience that there are two items coming down the road that he found scary.
The more minor was one that impacts him personally. Plans for the Cordaville Road project, currently in its design phase, show widening the road by taking all of the extra width from the West, the side of the road he lives on. Which “would take down every shade tree for a mile and a half, disrupt push every stonewall”. He learned about it when they marked every tree in front of his property to alert him they might be cut down.
[Editor’s Note: You can find project plans on the DPW website which highlight 30 trees identified for removal as part of the project.]
The other issue coming “could be an existential moment for our Town” — future MBTA Communities zoning changes. The high density zoning being pushed by the state would call for 15 units per acre with a potential for adding 750 residential units. He said the school population could be increased by 1/3.
Weishan noted that the zoning comes with opportunities for affordable housing, preservation, and “all sorts of things” but it requires someone with some planning experience to help get it right. As part of his pitch, Weishan touted his planning expertise based on his experience running a landscape architecture firm. [Editor’s Note: See my clarification below.]**
During questions, James Nichols-Worley stated that a poll found 2/3 of Mass voters either supported MBTA Communities or wanted to see it strengthened to create more housing. He also brought up the Attorney General’s threat to prosecute municipalities that don’t comply with the state regulations. He then asked how Weishan would ensure that a small group of loud voices wouldn’t lead to Southborough ending up back in front of the Mass Supreme Judicial Court.
He said we don’t know the answer. Weishan said that it could be fought and towns are considering a class action suit. He said he supports the goals to create more affordable housing which Southborough doesn’t have enough of. He would suggest putting together a practical plan and bringing it to Special Town Meeting voters this fall. His idea was to game out some potentials to present voters with costs and ramifications for choices and ask them how to proceed.
Later, Freddie Gillespie raised that the MBTA Communities isn’t about Affordable Housing, just dense housing. Under the regulations, the by-right dense housing zoning doesn’t have to include an affordability component. If it does, it can’t require more than 10% of the units be affordable ones.*
Weishan responded that 10% of 750 units would put us well over the legal requirements for avoiding undesirable 40B projects. Gillespie responded that the increased number of units would result in an increased number of affordable units required to meet that threshold.
Over the phone this morning, I described Nichols-Worley’s question to Braccio. She explained that the Planning Board is bringing in a consultant to help them with the zoning work. She highlighted that under the state’s rules 10 of the 50 acres for the high density zoning would need to be within a 1/2 mile of the train station. For the other 40 acres they need to determine where that should be overlaid.
She said there is a lot to balance and “Southborough has to do what is right for Southborough”. The high density housing could cause an over 10% increase in housing stock, impacting the schools. Pointing to the area near the MBTA as where there are more affordable homes in Southborough, she referred to the risk of losing them to high density buildings.
Braccio also stressed the need to increase multi-family housing in Southborough that is affordable for families seeking to move into town where the financial threshold is too high. She wanted to keep an eye on what other towns do in terms of fighting the changes or what they come up with. She said that Framingham came out with rules that use a 60% affordability criteria instead of 80%.* It’s not yet known if the state will accept that.
Kamali O’Meally asked Weishan how he would handle Conflict of Interest issues for decisions that would be beneficial to him. Weishan responded that based on having been “shell shocked” in his past service to the Town, he would make sure all of his ethical i’s are dotted and t’s crossed.
Gillespie followed up to point out that as a resident on Cordaville Road, Weishan would have to recuse himself from that project. He responded that he could still advocate in a private capacity. Gillespie rebutted that since he could do that as a private citizen, and perhaps even more effectively, it didn’t make sense as a reason to run.
I asked Braccio about how she would handle her own Conflict of Interest issues. I referred to the fact that she has recently been recusing herself from issues related to overseeing the Department of Public Works Superintendent because her husband is paid to do snow plowing work for the department. I asked if she would recuse herself from DPW road projects in front of the Planning Board. She responded that she wouldn’t since the Planning Board’s role doesn’t relate to appointing a director and the applications wouldn’t be related to plowing. However, she would first check with the state Ethics Commission.
Braccio also noted that any ethics complaints that had been filed against here were resolved. (She followed that due to confidentiality, she couldn’t share more details on that.)
Southborough Access Media posted the video of the program. You can skip straight to the Planning Board section here.
For more information on each candidate, read their statements here.
You can also look for more of my election coverage here, and find the Town’s election page here.
*MBTA Communities zoning regulations state “zoning requires not more than 10 percent of the units in a project to be affordable units, and the cap on the income of families or individuals who are eligible to occupy the affordable units is not less than 80 percent of area median income.” There is a potential exception for a higher percent of units and/or lower income, but it requires convincingly demonstrating to the state that its still economically viable for “a reasonable variety of multi-family housing types” to be “feasibly developed”.
Updated (5/8/23 2:08 pm): I originally wrote, “Weishan touted his planning expertise based on his experience as a professional landscape architect”. It turns out that my recap was inaccurate.
A reader questioned whether his description of his background was accurate, noting that he didn’t appear to have a license as a landscape architect. I reached out to Weishan for clarity. As verified by the video, he referred to the company he runs as a “landscape architecture firm”, but he doesn’t refer to himself as a landscape architect. When the design work he does through his firm requires that level of expertise, he hires a licensed landscape architect.
Watching the above video of Michael Weishan gives me great confidence that he is by far the most qualified of candidates for our Planning Board.
Simply look at what he has accomplished in town. It is truly amazing.
Please vote for Weishan
For clarity’s sake, the full question from MassINC’s October 2022 Poll:
I thought it might be fun to end the election coverage on a humorous note. Many of you might be aware that in addition to my design practice I am the director the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation at Harvard. We run both the FDR Suite Museum, a Global Engagement consultancy on promoting democracy, as well as scholarship programs for our first generation, lower income students. I was at the College the other day, and one of my students was eagerly explaining the abilities of the new AI Chatgpt programs. I was skeptical: what could this thing possibly do for me? Well, my student replied, you are running for the Planning Board in your town, right? How about an AI endorsement?
So the prompt was: “write a verse endorsement of Michael Weishan running for Planning Board in Southborough MA.” In four seconds, this was the result, the first ever AI generated endorsement of a candidate in Southborough:
In Southborough, a town so fair,
A leader’s needed, wise and rare.
To guide its growth with a steady hand,
And cherish for all its precious land.
Michael Weishan is that man,
someone we know knows how to plan,
A man of vision, strong and just,
Whose leadership we all can trust.
With deep experience in the field,
His knowledge, talent, is amply revealed.
His vast expertise will surely prove,
Through planning Southborough will improve.
The Planning Board awaits his call,
To help the town avoid a fall.
And make sure we have sustainable growth,
while avoiding developments we all loathe.
So this May 9th rally to his side,
And let his wisdom be our guide.
I hope everyone appreciates the tongue-in-cheek nature of this post, and I want to thank all the candidates running this year. It’s really hard to put yourself out there, and they all deserve our thanks for offering to serve our town.
One reminder regarding MBTA Communities: The state mandate of by-right density in an overlay district near the commuter rail station won’t add 750 units overnight, if indeed it ever would.
Change is hard, always, but the fear of a sudden massive rise in population from this moderate and appropriate rise in density is misplaced, and in any case without sewers it’s undoubtedly overblown.