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The Battle Over Planning the Town's Future

South Pleasant Street rezoning blueprint growing personal between Board and professionals.

It was supposed to be your typical mid-summer town board meeting where housekeeping items are at the top of the agenda and the first priority is to finish the official business early so participants can enjoy the warm evening.

But Tuesday’s meeting brought a bit of the August heat inside as a contentious altercation between Planning Board and the town's Planning and Economic Development Manager Jay Szklut revealed a growing tension over how best to move forward on the future of the largest and most significant parcel of developable land in Belmont.

In a challenge that surprised many in the tone it took, Baghdady confronted Szklut over a three-and-a-half page memo the town's planning professional wrote to the Board on July 22 asking it to reconsider two important decisions on the rezoning of South Pleasant Street the board made 10 days earlier. 

"It's not personal," Baghdady said after the meeting concerning the encounter between the two men.

"But I did argue that what he did was not the correct procedure to take," he added. 

Szklut also said he didn't see the South Pleasant Street process as growing personal between the two men.

"It's not that I'm saying my vision of what the planning should be on South Pleasant Street is the only correct one," said Szklut a day after the meeting. 

"But I really don't know his vision," he noted.

The board voted on July 12 to break up the South Pleasant Street project into two separate rezoning plans – all parcels from Shaws Supermarket to Trapelo Road and to the commuter rail tracks is now associated with Waverley Square – and rejecting housing from the parcels being currently rezoned that runs from Shaw's north towards the Clark Street footbridge.

The chairman said he expected after the vote to have the Planning Division staff – Szklut and Jeffrey Wheeler, the town's planning coordinator – to help "bringing something to Town Meeting" which will need to approve any zoning changes. 

Whatupset some Planning Board members was Szklut's memo in which he stated his "professional opinion as to why decisions made by the Board at their July 12, 2011 ... should be reconsidered and more fully discussion." 

Pointing out his comments were "based on professional expertise ... pertaining to economic development," Szklut said bifurcating the development removed 40 percent from the rezoning process and would severely constrain what can be built on the area under consideration.

For example, the parking requirements in the new zoning map will limit what can be constructed in the largest parcels, contends Szklut. Reconnecting the two sections would increase the possibility of financing development over the air rights of the MBTA commuter rail tracks. 

Szklut also felt eliminating a residential component – which he said are nearly always profitable in Belmont – to any development would hamper the success of the retail and restaurant component of the development.

Just the process

Yet the merit of Szklut's memo was not heard Tuesday night as Baghdady limited the discussion to the procedural matter of whether the board should reopen discussion of their earlier decision. 

The Board had deliberated for months, held two "very well-attended" citizen forums and received "a lot of public input" before making their decision, said Baghdady.

For example, Baghdady said separating the development "did not take the Waverley Square (section) off the (development) agenda." 

"We are very mindful of the need for coordination between the Pleasant Street section and Waverley Square," said Baghdady after the meeting. 

Baghdady also said the decision not to include residential in the northern section of the development was based on "a very strong majority of the residents" who attended the Planning Board-sponsored forums held over the past year. 

Baghdady said Szklut's memo said to him that "we got it wrong and we should reconsider our decision," an act Baghdady said was "out of order."

In fact, reopening the earlier decision would create "bad precedent," that any resident could ask to have any policy decision to be reconsidered and they would have to comply, he said.

But more important, Baghdady said since the board's decision was unanimous, Szklut's memo was an attempt to "undermind" the outreach and confidence residents had been placing in the board who was acting in "the best interest of the town." 

"Its fine to put out your thoughts but decisions needed to be made so we can make a presentation to the Town Meeting. We can't continue debating these issues," said Baghdady.

While "Jay has spoken out as the way he should as Economic Development manager," said Baghdady, since the board's decision was based on public input and long discussion, "it was inappropriate to say 'we got it wrong'," said Baghdady. 

Board member Andres Rojas also criticized Szklut, saying he found it "startling" that the Planning Division manager would content that he had a better vision of the process then the one that came "organically" from residents.

A messy process 

"It was a messy process" and it "may not be perfect" but Rojas said he could not see changing an unanimous decision on points the board all agreed to.

Szklut, who hoped that the memo would be discussed, told the members that past boards had "rethought" earlier decisions when presented with additional information or facts, contending that nothing legally prevented the board to reconsider what he called after the meeting a "preliminary, non-binding decision." 

"I accept the fact that the first version of any Planning Board decision can change and be modified," said Szklut.

Szklut then referred to the Planning Board's action to change an earlier decision and include a grass strip between the roadway and the sidewalk at the new Wellington Elementary School.

But Baghdady snapped back that neighbors presented the Planning Board new safety prospectives which was part of the public process.

"Procedurally, we can reconsider because this is an ongoing process," said Szklut after the meeting, "but it was clear from their tone that [the July 12 decision] is going forward."  

Baghdady also claimed that Szklut's memo was an attempt to circumvent the board's authority as the memo found its way into the hands of two Selectmen and the members of the Economic Development Advisory Committee before reaching the Planning Board.

In fact, four days before the board meeting, Szklut took several Economic Development members on a "field trip" to the South Pleasant Street district to walk the area while discussing several aspects of the memo. 

"It's like your trying to build pressure on us," said Rojas. 

But Szklut countered that the memo was forwarded to Selectman Angelo Firenze, the liaison to the Planning Board and is a member of the Economic Advisory Committee. 

Saying he did not want to argue the point, Szklut said he "will continue to (write similar memos) and notify my supervisor when I do." 

"They are saying that I'm some sort of rogue planner and that's not true. I always have my work approved," said Szklut.

Favorable words

While he felt the heat from the Planning Board, the two people who spoke Tuesday felt Szklut was getting the raw end of the argument. 

Jennifer Paige, who had originally came Tuesday to ask the Planning Board to attend the 'Meet Belmont' community gathering on Aug. 30, found it troubling that the "only professional planner" in the entire process was being questioned for authoring a memo that "is very much in his position" to write. 

Saying that any town board finds it easy "to get caught in the weeds" of a process, "it is seminal (for the Planning Board) to listen" to Szklut's view, said Paige.

Adam Tocci, whose family owns the largest number of parcels on South Pleasant Street, said cutting of the parcel into separate districts would, as Szklut noted in the memo, substantially delay any development of the area. 

Tocci, who has been critical of the Board in the past two planning forums, said it was a disgrace that Szklut was being "raked over the coals" for presenting another side of the issue.

"It wouldn't surprise me if he has his resignation" notice ready, said Tocci of Szklut. 

But Szklut said a day after the meeting that he is not resigning and will continue to supply his expertise to the Planning Board, although he believes he and the Board have differing viewpoints of what the Planning Division's role should be going forward.

"I believe they see themselves as the Planning Department for the town and the staff should only support them," said Szklut.

"But I see the department as being the professionals who provides the needed expertise to the Board," he said.

David Chase August 07, 2011 at 01:33 PM
I'm not sure I'll get this written the way I intend, but we seem to be very good at saying "no". Any change, from bump-out crosswalks, to a score board in a field, to a group home, to a bike path, to development and rezoning, acquires a group of residents who are certain that the change will not only be bad, but that it will be very, very bad, and sometimes even go so far as speculating nefarious motives and conspiracies. And when there is a legitimate concern (and there often is) it gets lost in a blizzard of concocted objections thrown at the project, in hopes that something will stick and stop it entirely. Can we do this a little less? Even developers, who do indeed have a profit motive that involves spending as little as possible while generating the maximum return, are not out to intentionally mess things up.
Bonnie Friedman August 08, 2011 at 01:15 AM
I was at the South Pleasant Street planning meetings, and I don't think there was a clear consensus on residential units. I remember lots of us supporting mixed-use in this area. I also don't remember a clear consensus on dividing the area into two separate zoning areas. I can also understand why Jay Szklut is surprised by the Planning Committee's report.

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