In this update, I want to give everyone some background on the criteria for granting or denying a special permit.
Fair Housing rules
Since these are the rules City Council must abide by for both small home renovations (particularly until the Zoning Code is revised) and for large projects, they are clearly vital to understanding how we in City Council go about our business.
Both special permits and zoning changes require a 2/3 vote to pass, or 16 votes in our council. But there are important distinctions.
According to our Law Department:
“…while City Councilors serve broadly in a legislative/political role, when acting as the special permit granting authority the City Council is acting in a judicial role and is conducting what is commonly referred to as a “quasi-judicial process.” City Councilors are not acting on behalf of their constituents when voting on special permits.” (Emphasis mine).
This tension councilors face is probably why Newton is one of the few communities in which a political body makes special permit decisions (it's in the charter). Most Massachusetts cities and towns use an appointed body.
Best practices are here.
In short— Of course I want to hear from you, and any light you can shed on an upcoming permit is tremendously useful. But, it is best to do so in a public hearing, or via an email to the whole council (citycouncil-AT-newtonma.gov). Also, I won’t be able to tell you “how I am going to vote,” because I can’t. In this role, City Councilors should weigh all the evidence first—and until right before the final vote, we don’t have all the evidence.
The special permit criteria are outlined in Newton’s zoning ordinance. A project should, in Council’s judgement:
Fair Housing rules
Additional guidance is provided by Fair Housing laws, which requires that opportunities for housing and employment are not just equal, but that governments proactively work to reverse discrimination based on:
In a city-sponsored training for decision makers in Newton last month, we learned that these laws apply to both decisions that clearly intend to discriminate as well as those that have a discriminatory effect. Among the case studies of illegal decisions were:
Related to Fair Housing, some historical background:
Our zoning code harkens back to the dark days of the 20th century when single-family zoning was intentionally used to segregate minorities (mostly African-Americans, but also "undesirable" immigrants like Italians, Jews, Irish...) from "white" people. Multi-family homes in the urban core were “red-lined” by banks (they would not lend to these areas) and left to minorities. Suburbs, even in the 1950s, were usually too expensive and often actively prohibited minority ownership. (Interesting: Nonantum and Upper Falls were red-lined in the 1930s)
Newton currently only allows multi-family housing (3-or-more-units) by special permit. Some argue that this is exclusionary, and is compounded by having our special permits (for all multi-family housing) made by a political body. What do you think?
I take special permit decisions seriously: I listen carefully and read everything I can that’s related to them. One looming challenge for the city is managing traffic that may be generated by a project. Councilors and the Planning Department have been discussing several tools—including measurement and enforcement—that may help the city to mitigate traffic. One of these tools is parking. I have covered this in earlier emails, see here.
I will be running for re-election this term. The city has made progress in making it safer to walk and bike; we have gotten the attention of the MBTA on issues such as station accessibility and service frequency; we have started to plan for a greener, more vibrant, more welcoming city.
But there is still much to do, including Zoning Redesign for the whole city, and implementing climate action plans. I’m willing to do that hard work. Ours will likely be a contested race. I am hoping for your support!
Launch Party—is Thursday, May 23 at 6:30pm. Pia Bertelli has kindly opened her home at 31 Locke Road, Waban. There will be great company, which I hope includes YOU! If you can’t make Thursday, there will be more events listed on my website and Facebook page.
I will also be holding regular office hours at the Newton Innovation Center, 124 Vernon St., Newton Corner, from 3-5 pm Saturday, May 25th. And, you get more: Councilors Alison Leary and Maria Greenberg, both of Ward 1, will also be there.
Hoping spring arrives soon!
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Copyright © 2019 Newton City Councilor Andreae Downs, All rights reserved.