Oct 25, 2010 City Council Agenda – Not your typical City Council meeting
This week’s meeting was supposed to be a Roundtable meeting complete with flipcharts and a facilitator. Thankfully, an Order from the previous week did away with that annoyance. There’s another reason for the switch to a regular business meeting – the referendum petition entitled "SAVE OUR SKYLINE" filed with the Election Commission on Oct 15, 2010. The petition protests Paragraph D.3 of Section 7.16.22, Building Identification Signs, and Paragraph E of Section 7.16.22, General Waiver of Sign Limitations, part of Ordinance No. 1335 amending Section 7 of the Zoning Ordinances of the City of Cambridge. That’s the technical name for the "Sign Ordinance" that was recently modified so that a party wishing to have a building identification sign would no longer seek a variance from the Board of Zoning Appeals but would instead seek a Special Permit from the Planning Board subject to certain reasonable standards. If you think this sounds like a relatively minor technical change, you would be correct.
The "Save Our Skyline" group submitted a whopping 15,535 signatures (obtained in large part via paid signature gatherers) to the Cambridge Election Commission of which 11,461 were certified as valid. This represents about 18.2% of the current 62,947 registered Cambridge voters – well in excess of the 12% required under M.G.L ch. 43, sect. 42 for a referendum protesting a local ordinance. Having met the required threshold, the ordinance is now suspended and the City Council is required to reconsider its original 6-3 vote. If one councillor flip-flops on this matter from YES to NO, that ends it – the amendment is defeated (a two-thirds vote is required for a Zoning amendment). If the City Council maintains its 6-3 vote, then the matter will appear on next year’s municipal ballot, OR the City Council may vote to authorize a Special Election before then on this single issue.
Except for the seemingly boundless amount of money thrown at this campaign, this is a relatively unimportant matter that has been propagandized beyond belief via inflammatory mailings and robocalls. That said, some councillors are nervous about the potential political fallout. Ideally, we will be treated to a clear and a rational explanation by all of the councillors on what the amendment does and does not do and why they voted the way that they did. It is, however, just as likely that Monday will bring a Royal Flip-Flop with some nonsensical rationale explaining "why I was for it before I was against it."
The matter in question is on the Agenda under "Communications and Reports from City Officers" which normally would come up late in the meeting. However, with a sizable crowd likely, it’s quite possible thet the rules may be suspended to take this up earlier.
This isn’t the only item of note on this week’s Agenda. There are also these notable items:
City Manager’s Agenda #2. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Numbers 10-127 and 10-151, regarding a report on plans for the Grand Junction Railroad.
Existing plans developed in recent years called for an Urban Ring bus rapid-transit service and a multi-use path along this corridor. It would seem that if Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray is reelected in another week or so as part of the Patrick/Murray ticket, we may soon see between five and twenty trains per day between Worcester and Boston whizzing across Mass. Ave. and other heavily-trafficked streets at grade level as former Worcester Mayor Tim Murray’s dream is realized.
Resolution #11. Congratulations to Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves and Gregg Johnson on their recent marriage. Councillor Simmons, Councillor Decker, Councillor Cheung, Councillor Toomey, Councillor Seidel, Vice Mayor Davis, Councillor Kelley and Mayor Maher
After 36 years as a couple, I’d say congratulations are in order. That’s a pretty good run for any couple.
Order #3. That the City Manager is requested, to the extent allowed by relevant law, to ensure that Cambridge does not approve any permits that the developer of the Belmont Uplands may request or require from the City of Cambridge until all legal proceedings surrounding this project have been resolved. Councillor Kelley
I have to admit that for some time I have not been entirely convinced of the merits presented by those trying to save the "silver maple forest" that abuts Little Pond just west of the old Arthur D. Little site along Route 2. However, I attended a presentation the other day by Charles Katuska about the important role that a modest-sized forested area (17 acres) can play in terms of habitat and I find myself now favoring preservation of this open space. On the other hand, this is privately owned land. The proper way to have preserved this habitat would have been for the state and/or the Town of Belmont to have purchased the site. Current plans call for building about 300 units of housing on the site, much of which is located in a flood-prone area. The Belmont Conservation Commission opposed the project, but the developer (O’Neill Properties) appealed to the state and prevailed. In addition, the developer has secured other necessary local permits. The permitting is now under appeal. It’s not clear how much leverage Cambridge has in this, but the developer does apparently need to tie the project into Cambridge’s municipally owned sewers.
Order #4. That the Neighborhood and Long Term Planning Committee is requested to hold a hearing(s) with the intention of developing a more effective method for the City Council and Cambridge residents to discuss mitigation concerns during zoning discussions. Councillor Kelley
It’s interesting that we have now reached the point where the appropriateness of a development proposal is now regularly eclipsed by consideration of what kind of mitigation can be squeezed out of the developer or owner of the property. It makes you wonder if "Long Term Planning" plays any role at all any more or if it’s all about using zoning restrictions to determine the price of doing business. This somehow does not seem consistent with the original intent of the legislation (M.G.L. Chapter 40A) that enabled local zoning ordinances.
Order #7. That the City Council go on record encouraging voters to vote no on Ballot Question 3 in the Nov 2 election. Councillor Simmons
Order #8. That the City Council go on record encouraging voters to vote no on Ballot Question 1 in the Nov 2 election. Councillor Simmons
It should come as no surprise that the City Council as well as other government officials here and elsewhere are opposed to the ballot questions being put to voters this November, and Questions 1 and 3 in particular. Question 1 would eliminate the sales tax on alcoholic beverages. Question 2 would effectively end the Chapter 40B "snob zoning" law that’s been used to promote low-income housing projects in cities and towns with little "affordable" housing. Question 3 would cut the state sales tax from the current 6.25% down to 3%.
The unfortunate thing about ballot questions like these is that voters often have to choose between two extremes. The argument against Question 1 is that it would result in the loss of revenue to support treatment programs for people with alcohol and drug addiction. However, are all revenues raised by this tax actually dedicated toward this purpose or just a portion of the revenue? If one could be assured that worthwhile programs could be preserved and nonspecific revenue curtailed, now that would be a good choice. Ideally, Question 2 would not call for the end of Chapter 40B, but rather the curtailment of its abuse by developers who use it as a bludgeon against local objections. Most significantly, Question 3 might call for a rollback of the state sales tax to the 5% rate that most residents had grown accustomed to rather than down to 3%.
This is the dreadful thing about "direct democracy." The public is often not given a proper choice other than what advocates on one side of the other wants. On the other hand, that’s why we supposedly have representative government – to elect representatives who will carefully consider all matters and reach compromises that most residents can live with. Unfortunately, in a state where one party controls virtually everything, there is little in the way of dynamic balance to ensure the kind of middle ground that many of us would prefer. I wouldn’t mind seeing some political diversity grow out of the upcoming election.
Specifically on the sales tax question, I will likely vote NO for entirely selfish reasons. If the sales tax is cut in half, it is doubtful that the City of Cambridge will slash all programs in the wake of reduced local aid. Property taxes will therefore rise closer to the levy limit. As a relatively low-level consumer, sales tax does not add up to a whole lot for me in a given year. On the other hand, I would really not like to see my property taxes leap up to cover the costs of the various necessary and unnecessary programs that will doubtless continue to be funded. It will likely cost me more if the sales tax is slashed. — Robert Winters