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381WVN #322: Rough road to Town Center decision

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  • waylandvoters1
    Nov 23, 2009
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      Dear Wayland Voter,

      It's appropriate that the most attention-getting articles at the Nov. 18-19 special Town Meeting were about a new high school and the Town Center development. Officials have linked the two since 2006, asserting that the 372,500-square-foot commercial-residential project was essential to help pay for improvements like a new school.

      Voters approved articles affecting both projects in a Town Meeting marked by incivility, impatience, incorrect revenue projections, raucous behavior, suspense, raw politics and a rare three-vote finish for the Town Center article.

      This newsletter will look at the important decisions on both projects. Later newsletters will examine contrasting instances showing that at times Wayland can aspire to Norman Rockwell's idyllic vision of a town meeting. We'll also look at the belief of some voters that Wayland government is increasingly divisive and dismissive of contrary views.

      ANALYSIS
      HIGH SCHOOL AND TOWN CENTER: DIFFERENT WAYS OF GETTING TO YES

      At Town Meeting the $71 million school building plan was the big winner, coming the day after 42 percent of registered voters showed up to register 70 percent approval. The High School Building Committee had been at work for years, coming back from the stinging defeat of an earlier proposal for a bigger school in 2005 and criticism from voters that HSBC Chair Lea Anderson described as "brutal."

      Members of the committee stayed on the job, added new members and methodically started over. The big difference was that this time the town didn't ask voters to gamble on a plan that offered no promise of state reimbursement and was entirely a local creation. Taking advantage of a new state agency and reimbursement policy, Wayland conformed with state standards and received a commitment of up to $25 million in aid.

      Even before the 2005 defeat the committee demonstrated openness and politeness. It seemed willing to learn from mistakes. For example, when outraged neighbors of the campus massed to complain about not being consulted, several committee members readily acknowledged the blunder.

      After the 2005 defeat, SOSWayland was formed as a registered political group to advocate for the schools (though the group says it supports other expenditures as well). It became in effect the marketing arm of those seeking a new school. In 2009 SOS leaders were among the officers of the ballot question committee Yes4WHS.

      The HSBC didn't make exaggerated claims, though some Yes4WHS materials from SOS and Yes4WHS did. Early in the process fears were aroused that if Wayland didn't take advantage of this chance it would have to go to the end of the line behind many other towns. (Not, so, the Massachusetts School Building Authority said when asked.) There were claims that Wayland's accreditation was at risk. (At Town Meeting, a speaker opposing the project quoted an accreditation official as saying that there was no near-term risk and in fact facilities are a small part of the accreditation process.)

      When the high school was argued at Town Meeting, one speaker produced figures suggesting that renovation would be cheaper than new construction and predicted that the cost of the buildings would force staff cuts and larger classes. A 2008 graduate of the High School responded that the campus was built for large lectures and small seminars, and now some class sizes are already 25 or more, meeting in rooms built for half that number.

      In the end, the 1481-95 vote could be taken as an indication that residents had confidence in the plan, the committee that produced it and the state's commitment to reimbursement. It was a serious decision that will cost most property owners hundreds of dollars a year for a quarter-century.

      Increased operating costs for the new high school, acknowledged at an October HSBC forum, weren't included in budget figures at Town Meeting.

      Town Center a different story

      In contrast, the Board of Selectmen rammed Twenty Wayland's Town Center proposal through, seemed surprised when a larger version failed with voters, then fast-tracked a smaller version. The selectmen pressured and alienated other boards, repeatedly gave concessions to Twenty Wayland and loosely talked up the prospect of $1 million in annual new tax revenue without citing supporting evidence. (That habit was still on view at Town Meeting, as you'll see below.) They dismissed conflicting figures and views as flawed, again without specifications.

      It wasn't surprising that the selectmen listened sympathetically when Twenty Wayland said a few months ago that the project wasn't feasible unless it delayed payments to the town and modified a requirement of 25 units of affordable housing. The selectmen, after what they called difficult negotiations, rewrote their Development Agreement, allowing Twenty Wayland to avoid immediate payment of a promised $2.8 million "gift."

      Town Meeting Article 3 embodied the developers' demand to cut the affordable housing from 25 units to 12.

      Many supporters of the project showed up, confident of achieving the two-thirds majority needed to change the zoning for the Route 20 project. But opponents and skeptics were also numerous.

      The Wayland Housing Authority backed the change, with Chair Mary Antes arguing that 12 units of affordable housing would be better than none, which would be the result if the article failed and Twenty Wayland backed out.

      The Wayland Housing Partnership opposed the article. Its chair, Betty Salzberg, put its opinion bluntly: "We don't believe that these guys are serious about building anything in the near future." Noting that Twenty Wayland is appealing and litigating even after receiving permits with certain limitations, she suggested that Twenty Wayland could be stalling, waiting for the market to rise before selling out.

      The decrease in affordable housing amounts to an $11 million gift to the developer, she said. The $11 million is what Twenty Wayland estimated it would cost to provide 22 affordable condo units in the residential area.

      Housing Partnership member Marty Nichols pointed out contradictions in the proposed change and the original mixed-use overlay district which could be troublesome later. A provision that affordable housing be indistinguishable from market price units appears to be violated, he said. Another existing zoning provision, specifying that affordable units be constructed at the rate of one affordable unit for every three market-rate units, seems to conflict with the phasing language in the new Development Agreement amendment. A question was raised about that just before the vote, but Selectman Michael Tichnor offered no explanation in response.

      Selectmen Chairman Joe Nolan said the project was exactly the same as when voters approved it in 2006. Drawings at the time showed a small-town scene with a green and tasteful streets, stores and condos. A bike trail and other amenities were promised.

      But opposing speakers doubted that Wayland would ever see the full project, or the tax revenue, as planned. Construction could stop with a supermarket and a retail block with 12 one-bedroom apartments on the second floor. Or even less than that.

      Proponents say that current tax revenue from the 57-acre property will drop if the Town Center isn't built. To skeptics the Town Center is a gamble, and Wayland stands to be liable for costs and could lose some ability to control unfriendly affordable housing development. The project as planned threatens the Historic District, the Sudbury River and groundwater aquifers feeding town wells, and could clog Wayland with new traffic.

      Politics Wayland style

      The way the article passed was another lesson in Wayland's unpleasant political climate.

      Because half of Wayland voters rarely turn out for local elections, and far fewer for Town Meeting, it is possible for activist groups like SOS to assemble a large bloc of like-minded supporters. Many senior citizens don't attend Town Meeting because of the late hours. (They turned out in greater numbers when Town Meeting once met one Sunday afternoon in 2007; the experiment was to be tried twice, but officials didn't repeat it.)

      After assembling a large number of supporters, a frequent stratagem is a motion to cut off debate, which often succeeds because the SOS-backed forces usually have the two-thirds vote to do it. The goal is not to debate, or necessarily even to listen, to a variety of views, but to vote to achieve a desired outcome and then leave as soon as possible.

      Thus after Selectman Tichnor introduced the zoning article and several arguments were heard, a voter's successful motion ended debate as more voters waited to speak at Pro and Con microphones.

      Voice votes on Article 3 were indecisive, and Moderator Peter Gossels ordered a standing count by tellers, which can be difficult and time-consuming in the new field house configuration.

      The head count was 553-271, a majority of 67.1 percent, less than one-half of one percent above the two-thirds requirement for passage. In some U.S. political jurisdictions, such a narrow result requires an automatic recount. A counting error of only five votes out of the 824 total would have changed the result.

      Given the difficulty tellers were having, it wasn't surprising that some voters called for a recount. And here the trouble began. Selectmen were visibly agitated, walking around, huddling with other officials as they noticed that many voters had left as soon as they were counted. Tichnor and Nolan moved unsuccessfully to adjourn the meeting until the next day. Moderator Gossels admitted the difficulty of reconciling ambiguous rules, but decided that by statute a recount is mandatory immediately after seven or more voters question the accuracy of the count.

      Some pro-Town Center voters were noisy, unruly and insulting. A live microphone caught School Committee Chairman Louis Jurist saying, "This is ridiculous." A woman near him said, "It's illegal." One man repeatedly bellowed, "It's wrong!" Voters walked up to Gossels and spoke harshly.

      In the recount the article was defeated, 297-216. Selectmen made it clear that when the meeting resumed on Thursday they would invoke a rule allowing voters to reconsider their decision under certain conditions.

      An indication of how high feelings were running: One voter predicted the next morning in a communication with WVN that if Gossels didn't allow the reconsideration there would be a riot. It wasn't entirely a joke.

      Reconsideration rules are strict, calling for the reconsideration motion to introduce "significant new information" that wasn't available to voters before the original vote.

      FinCom error

      When Town Meeting resumed on Nov. 19, the selectmen's first argument called attention to an embarrassing Finance Committee error printed in the warrant that overstated by the estimated new tax revenue from the fully built-out Town Center. But that wasn't really new information. The night before, a member of the elected Board of Assessors, Molly Upton, had questioned the FinCom estimate, citing a quarterly bill of $109,000, and Gossels had extracted an admission from FinCom member Bob Lentz that he had used an incorrect figure for current taxes paid, $260,000 rather than $405,452. excluding the Community Preservation surtax and wastewater payments.

      Thus the correct estimate for revenues net of projected expenses from a fully built configuration is $527,000 annually, $145,000 lower than the $672,000 printed in the warrant. Maybe voters weren't listening, but the information was before them. Many have doubted the Fincom's projected tax revenue from the project, but there was no challenge at Town Meeting.

      The disclosure of the error didn't stop a member of the Planning Board from using the exaggerated figure while urging a Yes vote on Thursday. A FinCom member argued that even $500,000 makes a big difference in the town's budget, which is about $60 million.

      (It turned out that Upton had emailed Lentz weeks before with the same information. And on Thursday another citizen said she had told the FinCom about the error at a prior public meeting.)

      The selectmen also argued that voters had relied on rules printed in the warrant prohibiting a recount but didn't have access to the statute that Gossels cited in allowing the second count. A final point alleged that some unidentified tellers had advised voters that they could safely leave after being counted. Whatever the reasoning, Gossels permitted a new debate and vote.

      Rules require putting off reconsideration to the end of Town Meeting. Officials shortened the meeting at the cost of delaying action on other town business, moving successfully that voters pass over (set aside) three articles. Selectman Chairman Nolan said that an article to create a municipal housing fund (part of the Town Center process) might be taken up later, but it wasn't. There was no explanation from officials for passing over articles 8 and 9, a small land acquisition to improve safety at an intersection and a zoning change to encourage green energy research and development.

      Motions to pass over 8 and 9 were introduced by two people who had nothing to do with the articles, and didn't attend hearings about them, but were active proponents of the Town Center: former Selectman Bill Whitney and Alison Moore, who at one time worked in marketing for a company associated with the project.

      During debate before the Town Center zoning vote, Gossels spoke pointedly to voters he suspected were approaching the podium to move to cut off debate, and he refused to recognize them to speak. Debate was extensive, ranging from a Yes voter's complaint about residents having to hire baby sitters to a NO voter's objecting to a Yes campaign email referring to him and others as "cunning."

      The final vote was 531-251.

      -- Michael Short

      (Disclosure: Molly Upton and Betty Salzberg, who are mentioned in the article above, write for WVN.)

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      Michael Short, Editor