More Town Meeting Notes (Now Even Notesier)

I’m sitting here listening to Don Mercier grill Tim Richardson of BMLD about easements for electrical poles. Yep — you guessed it — its another night at Town Meeting. Don seems convinced that something untoward is afoot with these easements — the Town’s been slipping envelopes of cash to homeowners, or building kitchen additions or something. Tim says this is really about making it easier for BMLD to locate equipment. After some back and forth, its approved — cause we’ve really got bigger fish to fry.

I should also note that, contrary to my previous post about “Crazy Ideas bubbling up to Town Meeting,” the Board of Selectmen has pulled its earlier request that Town Meeting send a message to Belmont Hill School to get on the bus and negotiate a Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement with the town at long last. It seems that Belmont’s Board of Assessors is working up a more comprehensive plan for PILOT payments that will be presented to every non profit in town, including Belmont Hill. Angelo Firenze claims the motion was shelved so as not to single out one non profit for criticism.

That’s all well and good — if this “comprehensive plan” ever sees the light of day. It sounds like the right way to go, but I’m putting a tickler in my calendar for two months from now to see what becomes of it.

On to zoning issues and clarifying amendments. I’m searching under the Pumpkin orange seats here in the BHS auditorium for a triple shot of espresso.

UPDATE: OK. Now we’re talking about houses of worship and other non profits (i.e. schools) allowing third parties to use their lots in violation of town zoning laws and even accepting fees for that use – a possible violation of their tax exempt status.

Seems the use of these lots is a big help in relieving congestion in areas like downtown (Post Office employees use the Unitarian Church’s lot, as an example) and in Waverly Square. But neighbors are pissed — they want to live next to a church, not a municipal lot. I’ve actually heard complaints about this at B2, but its not a straight forward issue (as we’re learning). We’re now hearing about the town’s new policy guidelines for these lots…

By-right uses will include residential overnight parking of non-commercial vehicles is cool, as well as use by town departments and for public/private vents. Employee/customer parking shouldn’t account for 30 spaces or 50% of the lot. No permit needed for that stuff. Uses requiring special permits would be use by commercial trucks, vans and heavy vehicles. Long term regular use by more than 30 vehicles or 50% of the lot. Potential commercial eveninguses (restaurant, etc.). Hmm…

Long and short — the amendment passes almost unanimously. I’m not sure what this will mean, practically, though it certainly clarifies our bylaws for use of these lots and gives some relief to frustrated abutters.

Now its on to an effort to preserve Belmont’s few remaining “Historic Accessory Buildings” (aka “barns”). This is a about real barns — recognized by historic commission and pre 1921. Many along Pleasant Street. Owners will get benefits to preserve the exterior of the building — including a perpetual Preservation Restriction, including using them for home occupation (making them less likely to be torn down).

UPDATE: Oh gosh. Its barns barns barns.. Jenny Fallon’s (too long) Powerpoint concerning the zoning changes and a detailed detailed detailed explanation of the pros/cons has been followed by an even longer Powerpoint giving TM members a whimsical tour of barns and carriage houses in Belmont, Cambridge and surrounding towns. It’s wonderful. Adorable. These barns can beat up my puny one car garage any day. I’m sold on this zoning change. Don’t even think about tearing down a barn in this town. Let’s vote! Please! But no.  It’s more barns…another impassioned plea by Sue Bass for barn conversions. Stick the Au Pair in ’em. Go for it. Methinks they doth explain too much!

UPDATE: OK. Now there’s debate. Barns increase traffic, yada, yada. Liz Allison is talking now. She’s asking “who benefits”? Benefits flow to owners of the home, not residents. Most of us don’t see these barns. Also…the numbers…Vermont barn rennovations can cost between $5,000 to $25,000 range. This is encouraging people to do preservation and we’ll give you a second building worth much more — big benefit for merely rennovation. National Park Service already provides 20% tax credit for qualifying barns. A lot of benefit flowing to small group of people: 28 houses. Average assessed value of $1m. My god…I’m actually agreeing with Liz. This may be a first. OK. Advantages neighbors or developers? Developers benefit. Neighbors get worn down. The nut here is that preservation is great, but this regulation is asking the town to pay too much for what is a small benefit to the community as a whole (you get to look at some barns as you pass by on the street). Also, zoning exceptions tend to concentrate power in the planning board, which is subject to political influence or at least discretion.

Jenny F. answering questions about the ramifications to the town – will it increase tax revenue or cost us revenue? How will neighbors’ views be addressed? How many could be subdivided? Not clear.

Great, the town Assessor isn’t attending, so we don’t know what the impact on tax assessments on these properties will change. Now Tom Younger is getting ready to speak. He says its impossible to determine how assessments will change before permit applications are received.

Phil Curtis of Warrant Committee is speaking on barns — this is a public subsidy for private development, that the benefit goes to a small group of people and that its a zoning change that enhances the value of the property to the homeowners. WC thinks private home owner should maintain their own houses. A public subsidy – increasing value of property — in the name of barn preservation.

Now we’re hearing from Martha Moore (?) an actual Belmont barn owner. We’re now hearing about their barn rennovation. Queue the This Old House theme.

Anne Mahon and others have spoken in favor of this — arguing that all zoning changes end up benefitting a minority of property owners at the expense of others, and that the changes make it possible to preserve bits of Belmont’s history.

BOS member Ralph Jones warns that abutters can get worn down and that the changes will benefit property developers.  TM member Monty Allen is questioning the “only benefits rich folks” argument — is the town really subsidizing these owners? Is this cost free to the town? Jenny: not directly — assessment of property will increase (and thus taxes) also the perpetual preservation restriction for the town. Don Mercier is telling TM that the change will immediate increase the value of the properties in question.

Some drama here — the question was moved to a voice vote, which was too close to call (sounded like it passed). Sue Bass requested a roll call vote which, itself, requires support from 35 TM meeting members. So now we’re having a vote to see what kind of vote we’ll have. Crazy. I’ve vassilated but will vote against it (I’d be glad to explain why), but I think it will pass anyway.

OK. I’m in the _way_ minority voting against this one. Now all my libby TM friends are made at me. Let me clarify – I’m all for preserving historic barns and support the goal of historic preservation with every fibre of my being. I just happen to think that this zoning change is a big give away to a small number of home owners and developers in town, and I’m just not sure what the benefit to the community is. Its the populist in me — after all: many owners who own properties with barns on them have already renovated the structures, and nothing in this law prohibits barns from being taken down – it just creates incentives for them not to be torn down. Ah well.