Planning Board Votes to Dump Town Planner as Staff
Decision to remove Jay Szklut as Board's staff after memo blow up; possible delay of new rezoning of South Pleasant Street – town's most desirable development – by six months or more.
In the most public of professional divorces in recent Belmont history, an unanimous Belmont Planning Board voted early today, Aug. 10, to replace the town's chief planner, Jay Szklut, as their staff.
In a letter that will be written today to the Board of Selectmen and Town Administrator Tom Younger, Planning Board Chairman Sami Baghdady will say that the board "doesn't feel we can work with the Planning Coordinator and we need to find a suitable alternative."
"The question was whether our staff was effective in assisting us in our objectives and goals," Baghdady told Belmont Patch after the meeting.
"And we felt that was now impossible," he said.
Szklut, who is Belmont's Planning and Economic Development Manager, is out on vacation today and will return to his office tomorrow, Thursday, Aug. 11.
The Board's decision was a direct result of a memo Szklut wrote on July 19 opposing two major decisions on the proposed South Pleasant Street rezoning project the Board made July 12.
The Board voted unanimously to bifurcate the 700,000-square-foot into a South Pleasant Street section from roughly the Clark Street footbridge to the Shaw's Supermarket entrance and a Waverley Square parcel that will include Shaw's and the BP service station on Trapelo Road as well as the Belmont Car Wash.
In addition, the Board decided to exclude residential development in the South Pleasant Street section, allowing for commercial and retail in the area, a decision that many residents who attended two forums on the rezoning process called for.
In the memo, Szklut expressed his professional opinion that the board should reconsider their positions, noting evidence that separating the parcels and eliminating housing would delay any development on both sites and hamper its greatest use and best potential.
At an Aug. 3 Planning Board meeting, the board rejected Szklut's recommendations and criticized his decision to release the memo to other town officials and the public before it was officially presented to the board.
"We felt the content of his memo was well taken but the approach and the way it was disseminated was not correct. It should have been an internal discussion," said Baghdady.
"And we don't feel that is the proper role to publicly question our decision and cast doubt by our staff," he said.
"We need staff who feel that they are accountable to the board and that is lacking," said Baghdady.
"Quite frankly, this last episode ... our staff [Szklut] had a duel role as planner and economic developer and it seems his economic development role was trumping his planners role," Baghdady told Patch.
"The board voted that there is a conflict and as a result we no longer desire Mr. Szklut to participate in Planning Board business as staff. He can sit in the audience and discuss it but not as a planner," said Baghdady.
"Honestly this will allow him to be more proactive working in economic development for the town," he added.
Younger said that Szklut's position was appointed by the Board of Selectmen who were informed this morning of the Planning Board's vote by Younger.
He said that he could not remember another board requesting a town employee who was serving as staff to be replaced.
Younger said the Board has the right to handle the decision themselves or have Younger attempt to mediate a solution.
Baghdady said the release of the memo is now likely to delay presenting a rezoning to the special Town Meeting set for early December, delaying the possible redevelopment of the town's largest most desirable commercial development until at least the regular Town Meeting in April or May.
"That memo questioned our planning decisions so what I will present to Town Meeting will be challenged and that's my fear," said Baghdady.
Town Meeting will need to approve any rezoning by a two-thirds vote.
"Unless there is complete trust in the board that is making this recommendation, zoning does not succeed," he said.