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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Zoned Out at Zoning Hearing

Dennis Fox

July 8 , 2004

Last month's Selectmen's Hearing on Zoning seemed rife with possibility. I figured I'd learn more about how Brookline makes zoning-related decisions, listen to residents point out problems with whatever it is Brookline does, and watch our five suited selectmen sit and squirm. What could be better? After a couple of hours, I decided "better" would have included some two-way communication.

The hearing's purpose, it turned out, was simply to let two consultants the selectmen hired to assess our zoning and permit procedures listen to resident complaints. So despite criticisms of one development project after another, the selectmen themselves said almost nothing until their final pro forma appreciations for everyone's contribution. Still, despite their anti-substance commitment, buried in the concluding pleasantries were hints of future drama.

The selectmen's decision to pay $20,000 for advice was apparently stimulated by the town's nasty debate over rezoning 2 Brookline Place. At two Town Meetings, one speaker after another criticized the selectmen for pushing every development proposal much too hard regardless of project merit, making it impossible to know when their enthusiasm is justified and when it simply reflects smarmy water-carrying for profit-hungry developers. Many Town Meeting Members who finally voted to rezone did so despite, not because of, selectmen support.

Striving to narrow the "trust gap" he spoke of at Town Meeting, Board of Selectman Chairman Bobby Allen promised the zoning hearing audience that "this board is always willing to look in the mirror and see how we're doing." Then he sat back and let residents have their say.

Some two-dozen speakers used problems with recent projects -- Brookline Place and Longyear, Kendall Crescent and the Webster Street Hotel, Hammond-Heath and 1285 Beacon -- as examples of broader institutional difficulties. The many complaints about the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Building Department challenge the town's asserted interest in resident participation in project design, approval, and oversight.

I would have liked to hear responses from selectmen as well as from town employees and Planning Board members who sat in the audience (only the Planning Board's Ken Goldstein said anything of substance, after explaining that "losers often complain about process"). Without their input, it's hard to assess the generality of the complaints. In the end, designating the evening as a learning experience for the consultants rather than an interchange between residents and town officials kept tempers manageable but failed to clarify the extent of the problems.

Indeed, when public comment ended and Chairman Allen asked if other selectmen wanted to speak, at first the answer was no. According to Allen, though, the many comments already show the town needs better communication among different departments. He then added that, although speakers had focused on big development projects, he also wants to simplify things for average citizens "so they don't need an attorney and an architect" to get permits for minor home renovations.

Allen's remarks spurred the other selectmen to chime in to stake out early positions. Michael Merrill, emphasizing that residents sitting on decision-making boards are "good people" who "do their best," concluded that the process, though complicated, "does work well." Similarly, Joe Geller insisted that "the message to the board for the last six months or so to improve the planning process" should not detract from "the many successes, only some [of which] are controversial."

A less defensive Gil Hoy simply said "I hear the frustration" as he accepted the "need to do better." Likewise, Michael Sher opposed "sweeping problems under the rug" and advocated a "transparent process, open to all." Sher also looked beyond specific isolated projects. Brookline is at a "critical juncture," he suggested, because rising real estate values escalate disputes. "There is a question," he added: "How much more can we take?" With "developers around the country focused on Brookline," he warned, we may be at a "tipping point."

Perhaps the consultants will provide ammunition to those who seek more significant reform than the Board of Selectmen might institute on its own. To really justify their fee, they should also consider how Sher and the other selectmen might keep Brookline from tipping too far.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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