An undemocratic approach to planning in Newton

The following ~725-word essay originally appeared on the Ipso Facto blog, titled Newton Mayor Setti Warren’s dangerous Planning Department report, and is reposted here with permission. A shorter version was also submitted to the Newton Tab as a letter and was printed in July 2016.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren Planning Department ReportLast month, the city released the “Management and Organizational Analysis” of Newton’s Planning Department. The report was commissioned by the Mayor’s Office and co-authored by Sasaki Associates, the same consultancy that helped organize a housing strategy workshop last November that had residents and developers placing LEGO blocks on a map to indicate where they preferred high-density housing to be built. The LEGO exercise was rightly called out as a fait accompli and dismissed by many councilors and residents. Similarly, I would like to call out the new Planning Department report as a flawed document whose recommendations threaten to undermine our elected representatives while giving Mayor Warren’s administration—and its successors—unfettered control over special permits and related processes.

The Planning Department report purports to provide a “clear and honest” accounting of the problems facing the department. While it presents a list of legitimate concerns (e.g., a lack of documented processes, project management inefficiencies, high turnover, no long-term IT plan, etc.) it proceeds to assign much of the blame to a group of stakeholders who happen to represent Newton’s citizens—the City Council. The report basically throws Councilors under the bus, blaming them for being too numerous, taking up too much staff time, and generally getting in the way of the special permitting process.

The report states, “The City should strongly consider removing the special permit granting authority from the City Council and placing it with an independent, less political body comprised of knowledgeable professionals, citizens, and business owners.” Practically speaking, this would mean that if a special permit were required for a large condo development or a new commercial project that exceeds the zoning limits of the parcel, our elected representatives would have no say in the matter. Instead, the approval would be up to city staff as well as unelected appointees who represent the interests of commercial developers, not citizens.

This and other oversight recommendations in the report are dangerous and unwarranted. I think many others will agree. The recommendations, if implemented, remove an important channel for residents and their elected representatives to influence specific proposals. As citizens and taxpayers, we have a right to be heard, which includes appealing to our councilors to ask hard questions and request changes that the Mayor, developers, and other parties would rather ignore. You may like the mayor’s development plans, or you may object to them, but regardless more citizen input is needed to guide development going forward, not less. Elected representatives play a critical role in bringing neighborhood concerns in front of the staff responsible for implementing housing policies.

The Planning Department report also points to a problem with a “lack of leadership.” However, the report confines the leadership problems to the department. It goes no higher than that. It fails to mention the Mayor even once, despite the fact he has led the city government since January 2010 and could have addressed legitimate concerns with the Planning Department’s organization, turnover, technology, and processes years ago.

So, why is this report coming out now, instead of during Mayor Warren’s first term? In my opinion, it’s because the Mayor needs to overcome local opposition to his new development vision, and he needs to do it soon. As reported in the Tab, the Mayor and developers hope to build thousands of new housing units across the city and transform the villages into small urban centers. We have seen the responses in the pages of this paper, in letters from residents who say they won’t be able to afford “market rate” apartments and condos in the new developments, as well as those who object to the scale of the giant buildings and the impact of large-scale development upon Newtonville, Newton Center, West Newton, Oak Hill, Auburndale, and other neighborhoods. This strong grassroots opposition suggests that developers won’t be able to build thousands of units of new housing and commercial space unless Mayor Warren and his administration are given free rein over zoning, permitting, and other development approvals. Removing elected councilors from the picture is crucial to achieving the Mayor’s goals.

In summary, I believe the new Planning Department report was created to justify changes that would reduce the power of councilors and make it easier for the current Mayor—and future mayors—to force their strategic visions for development upon the citizens of Newton with limited oversight. It’s unfair, unwarranted, and undemocratic.

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