Jenny Fallon, a Town Meeting member, former School Committee member and now a Chairwoman of Belmont’s Planning Board, e-mailed me to get the word out about a very important meeting next week for all of you who are interested in bringing (dragging?) Belmont into the 21st century.
Mapping Belmont’s Renewal is a forum sponsored by the Planning Committee and Office of Community Development to solicit residents’ input on important development considerations such as the need for economic development, building Sustainable Neighborhoods, quality of life issues, as well as parking, transportation, land use and open space/recreation.
The meeting takes place in the Belmont High School Cafeteria on Wednesday, April 15, 2009 from 7:00pm to 9:00pm.
For more information, contact Jay Szklut, Planning and Economic Development Manager at 617- 993-2666 or by email: jszklut(at)town.belmont.ma.us
For those of you haven’t been following this effort, Jenny took the time to answer some questions about the plan.
BloggingBelmont: First, what is a Comprehensive Plan?
Jenny Fallon: A Comprehensive Plan is a policy framework that guides a community’s development and land use activities. The Plan addresses the entire geographic area of a community and defines the community’s long-term (at least 5 years) objectives. It is a compilation of policy statements, goals, standards and maps for guiding the physical, social, and economic development, both public and private, of a town in the context of the region. The Plan should be rooted in the community’s priorities and goals, in our common expectations for the look and feel of the town and the services we expect and rely on. Topical areas considered can include housing, transportation, economic development, recreation, open space, natural resources, historic preservation, public facilities and infrastructure, cultural resources, and environmental concerns.
B2: What is the purpose of this planning review? What problems was it created to resolve?
JF: The Town’s last Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 1963, and the Zoning By-Laws were last up-dated and re-codified in 1988. With several major capital projects looming, significant private development both proposed and underway, and extreme fiscal constraints facing us, the Planning Board believes that a Comprehensive Planning process will promote substantive public discussion and real assessment of alternative priorities, helping to build consensus around policies to guide the steps the community will take as we move to preserve and improve the assets and character of our town.
The Comprehensive Plan will also examine the impacts of existing Town policies and by-laws on furthering the goals and priorities identified and help us prepare to update the Zoning By-Laws. As the Planning Board has sought to balance the needs of residential and commercial uses and respond to new interests since the last up-date, Town Meeting has adopted more than 120 amendments to the By-Laws, including whole new sections, and more amendments are expected. Factors that warrant a new comprehensive look at the By-Laws, include: current and projected demographic changes, the fact that much of the built environment is non-conforming, the changes in people’s expected standards for housing and the need for affordable housing, environmental concerns, escalating costs of energy, the promotion of smart growth principles, and significant shifts in the economy.
B2: How long has this review been going on? What prompted it?
JF: After having conversations with 14 other boards and committees last spring to define the scope for this planning project, the Planning Board and staff worked over the summer and fall to produce the RFQ and hire a consultant team to help us run this process and create our plan. Since January 2009, the consultants have reviewed the planning documents which have already been developed for specific topic areas, gathered information about current conditions in Belmont and the surrounding region, and begun to identify issues and opportunities facing Belmont. We have created the Comprehensive Plan Committee, a citizen advisory group formed to assist with the first stage of this process and act as a sounding board for the information developed so far by the consultants.
B2: What will be happening on April 15th? What input can the public provide?
JF: While a Comprehensive Plan is a document for guiding development, it also carries the benefit of engaging the public in the decision making process to create it. The planning process is a way for people with different perspectives to come together and reach consensus to articulate the sort of community they would like to live in and want to leave for the future. It is this broad involvement and ownership that produces an active, working document that does not simply occupy shelf space.
April 15th will be the first large public event of this process. We are hoping to educate and excite people about this process and our goals for it, to present the information compiled so far and begin to raise some of the questions, issues and opportunities that are before us. There will be opportunities for input that evening, and we will be holding more meetings later in the spring and next fall as we move into phase two to engage residents in discussion. That evening will also be the kick-off for an online survey as part of the outreach for public input.
B2: What will be the long-term impact of the plan that is created and when will it be created?
JF: The Comprehensive Plan will identify those areas of the Town where development/redevelopment are most appropriate and the type of development to be encouraged. It will allow the town’s leaders to prioritize and focus the investment of our resources to accomplish specific goals that have been identified and carry broad community consensus.
Development of the Plan is anticipated to be a 14 to 18 month process and is divided into two phases. The final document will include an overall implementation plan. Our goal is to be able to present the Comprehensive Plan to the 2010 April Town Meeting.
The first phase includes identification of the significant demographic, environmental, and economic trends affecting the Town’s future development, identification of goals and policies for the Town of Belmont, prioritization of these goals, evaluation of current zoning policy as it relates to those goals, and development of a scope for phase two. Phase two is the actual development of the plan. The plan will examine economic development, transportation, land use, housing, open space, sustainability and energy, cultural and natural resources and, based on the trends identified and the interrelationships between the components, develop implementation strategies for achieving the goals identified for each component.
Examples of such strategies include: revision to zoning by-law including use of form-based zoning; identification of appropriate locations for economic development, housing, conservation, etc.; improvements to public transit, bikeways, and identification of regional approaches.
B2: How did you get involved in this process?
JF: The Planning Board has identified the need for and been promoting Comprehensive Planning for many years. In 2003, the Belmont Economic Development and Planning Group (BEDPG) in their report to the Selectmen entitled Is Belmont “Business-Friendly?” endorsed production of a Comprehensive Plan noting that such a plan, “would consider the town as a whole, rather than piecemeal, and . . . could provide a framework, endorsed by the residents, for decision-making in the future. We realize that this is an expensive and time-consuming task, but believe that it will be a worthwhile investment in place of a set of obsolete zoning by-laws and a massive number of precedent-setting exceptions.”
With all of the challenges and limitations facing us, there is consensus that now is the time to take a comprehensive look at how we can renew our community and sustain what is important to us about Belmont into the future.
B2: Are there other examples of towns using a plan like this to good effect?
JF: The first community that comes to mind is Wellesley. Wellesley is known for its vibrant downtown and its quality of life. Planning has been a fundamental tool in that community for many years, including periodic updates to its Master Community Development Plan.