In this issue:
• New plan for Real Estate Transfer Fee Home Rule Petition
• Update on the Administration’s proposed citywide zoning overhaul
• Fields Master Plan, Draw 7 Park, and Conway field closure
• Construction in Ward 5: Cedar-Highland intersection closed 2 more weeks; Green Line Extension (GLX) construction to begin soon
• Upcoming events and meetings
New plan for Real Estate Transfer Fee Home Rule Petition
All owner-occupants, both sellers and buyers, will be exempt from the fee under a new plan developed by Alderman-at-Large Stephanie Hirsch, and supported by the Board of Aldermen (BOA) in a unanimous vote on April 11th.
Alderman Hirsch found a way to do exactly what all of us want — including many who testified or emailed in opposition to the transfer tax: make developers, investors and absentee landlords pay, and don’t make people who live in Somerville pay.
Her plan sets a 1% fee on both seller and buyer, but anyone who is or will be an owner-occupant doesn’t pay anything. So, for example, if someone who has lived in Somerville for 5, 10 or 30 years sells their home, they don’t pay. And if a young family who intends to live in Somerville (they will apply for and get the residential tax exemption) buys it, they won’t pay. If an owner-occupant sells to a developer or investor, the seller doesn’t pay, but the developer or investor pays the 1%. If that developer than redevelops the property and sells it to an investor who rents it out, the fee is a total of 2% — both the seller and buyer pay. Alderman Hirsch believes this plan would still raise between $6-9 million a year for affordable housing. If you want to learn more about her thinking, read her article, “One Affordability Proposal: Can we find a way to unite, not divide, our community?” at http://www.thesomervilletimes.com/archives/83035
We’ve still got a LOT of work to do to flesh out this plan, determine how the funds raised would be managed and by which City board, and provide more information to the public about the kinds of affordable housing programs for low-income, working, and middle-income families the funds will support. As Chair of the Legislative Matters Committee, I’ve scheduled a half-a-dozen more meetings over the next month, the first one on April 25th at 7 PM, and there will be another Public Hearing in May. We’ll announce the date once we are far enough along on a draft based on the new plan so that there is something solid to comment on. My hope is that the BOA will vote on the transfer fee Home Rule Petition sometime in May.
Getting a transfer fee in place is a three-step process. If the BOA does vote to send the Home Rule Petition to the State Legislature (step 1), we’ll all need to work hard to try to get it through the Legislature (step 2). It won’t be easy, because politicians don’t like fees, even in Massachusetts. But our four state legislators — Pat Jehlen, Denise Provost, Christine Barber, and Mike Connolly — are strong supporters and will help as much as they can. If the Legislature approves it, it comes back to the Board of Aldermen to write an ordinance to officially enact the transfer fee (step 3).
I think we’ve got an approach now that, hopefully, will win over many of the residents who expressed understandable concerns about the previous plan. Some thoughtful folks have raised questions about the new plan, and the Administration is at work fleshing out the details and doing an analysis to address those concerns.
If you want more information about the transfer fee proposal, go to https://www.somervillema.gov/…/proposed-transfer-fee-home-r…. Also worth reading for historical context is Bill Shelton’s column, “Paying for the beloved community,” http://www.thesomervilletimes.com/archives/82869
Update on the Administration’s proposed citywide zoning overhaul
The short story on this is that the current proposal has a better chance of approval than the 2015 version, but no vote will be taken until the fall, at the earliest.
We’ve already received considerable pubic feedback. In March, many Aldermen held community meetings to hear the concerns of residents, including two meetings I hosted in Ward 5. On April 3rd, over 200 people attended a Public Hearing, at which scores of people spoke. We’ve also have received quite a few emails on the zoning overhaul.
The BOA has since had several meetings to start working through the Administration’s proposal. However, we won’t have sufficient time this spring to complete this (most of June will be taken up with consideration of the FY 2019 City budget), so we’ll do what we can in May. The current version will “time out” in July, and the Administration will reintroduce something in the fall. At that point there will be another Public Hearing and the BOA will take it up again. It is my hope that we can make the necessary and desired improvements and pass a comprehensive zoning overhaul this year.
The biggest issue that has emerged so far is whether two-family houses in the neighborhoods should be allowed to add a third unit. The current draft would prohibit turning a two-family into a three-family in the NR (Neighborhood Residential) zone, which is most of the City’s neighborhoods. But many, many people have called for allowing the third unit. There have been a variety of interesting suggestions about what limitations or conditions should be put on the addition of a third unit. For me to support it, it would have to be by special permit, which would allow neighbors to express concerns, opposition or support in a Public Hearing. Under a special permit application, the Zoning Board of Appeals would have discretion as to whether to allow the third unit. I am open-minded on this issue and am looking forward to the analysis and recommendations of the City Planning Department on how to best implement the addition of a third unit in the NR zone. I am also interested in allowing accessory units in garages and other freestanding structures, something that is prohibited both in the current zoning and in the Administration’s proposal, but which many people support.
Some Ward 5 residents are concerned about the height and bulk of buildings that would be allowed on major corridors, main streets like Broadway, Medford Street, Highland Avenue, etc., which abut homes in the neighborhoods behind them. I am looking closely at the zoning for specific parcels on some main streets to make sure that what is allowed to be built there will not negatively impact neighbors behind those buildings. If you have questions or concerns about your neighborhood, please contact me and share them with me.
At the Public Hearing, the “Zone Smart Somerville” group turned out a lot of people to speak in favor of striking the current limitation on no more than four unrelated individuals living in one dwelling unit. (The Administration draft leaves this prohibition in place.) The BOA has not yet discussed changing this provision, but I would be open to some limited initial changes, such as allowing an exemption by special permit for certain group living arrangements. One example would be congregant housing for seniors. Another, in this age of changing definitions of family and family arrangements, is to allow cooperative households, where the occupants sign an affidavit saying that they are a community — not just a collection of friends or renters trying to save money on rent — and where there is a limit to the number of parking stickers that could be issued to that unit, perhaps two. For me to support these options, they would have to require a special permit to allow public input and discretion by the Zoning Board of Appeals. Please let me know your thoughts on this issue if you care about it.
Fields Master Plan, Draw 7 Park, and Conway field closure
The Administration has requested to provide an update on the Fields Master Plan, and I have been told by Alderman-at-Large Will Mbah, Chair of the Open Space, Environment and Energy Committee, that this will occur on Wednesday, May 9, 6:30 PM at City Hall. I am looking forward to the latest information about the athletic playing fields in Somerville, including updates on fields that the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) controls, among them Draw 7 and Foss Park.
With the closure of Conway field, the shortage of playing fields, especially for youth sports, has gone from bad to worse. The many parents I know who are youth sports leaders and coaches are just beside themselves with worry about where their kids will be able to play, and about the quality and safety of some of our heavily-used grass fields. I look forward to hearing the Administration’s plan for accommodating the needs of Somerville youth sports leagues while Conway field is closed.
The Administration closed Conway because, “Soil testing conducted in preparation for the proposed renovation of Conway field has revealed contamination in the soil…Samples…identified contamination including lead and PCBs, some of which exceeded regulatory limits…There will be further testing and the plan is for remediation to then take place.” Of course, the closure of Conway field raises many questions and concerns, such as: Why were people — and especially children — playing on a contaminated field for years? I look forward to getting answers to these and other questions on May 9th.
DCR held a meeting in February to share proposed designs for redeveloping Draw 7 Park, which is located on the Mystic River beyond Assembly Square, and is currently unusable. The plans call for a synthetic turf athletic field, a concert venue, and in my opinion, way too much concrete, asphalt and rubber surfaces in the rest of the park. I have shared my opinion as public comment with DCR (although the BOA has no authority over what happens at Draw 7, since it is a state-owned park) that a synthetic turf field makes sense in this location and is desperately needed in Somerville. Other than that there should be as much pervious and natural green surfaces as possible. Some people have described a vision of a river-edge park with natural features, open space along the river with native plants and grasses where people could walk and be by the water. I like this vision and don’t see why it can’t be combined with an artificial turf field further in from the river. The idea of a concert venue in that location seems just ridiculous for many reasons.
I think the Fields Master Plan, developed by the City’s Park, Recreation and Somerstat Departments, is a well-thought-out blueprint for managing and redeveloping our athletic fields. While the Board of Aldermen does not have the power to approve or disapprove it (our role is to vote on funding for specific field redevelopments, if requested by the Mayor), I believe it is a reasonable and balanced plan for providing sufficient playing fields for sports teams and athletes in the City, particularly for children and youth. The Plan calls for synthetic turf fields in Conway, Draw 7, and at the Healey School. I support this Plan and believe that we need decent facilities for youth sports. I also want a lot more natural green and open spaces in Somerville.
There has been significant opposition to development of synthetic turf fields in Somerville. I have read thousands of pages of reports, scientific analyses, newspaper and magazine articles and other documents about artificial turf, pro and con. I have listened to many hours of public testimony from passionate residents on both sides, and received hundreds of emails on this topic. I have concluded that artificial turf is necessary in a City of four square miles with thousands of people who want to play sports on those fields. I love grass but it simply cannot bear the wear and tear from the thousands of hours of play that each of our fields needs to satisfy the demand from our residents and remain a safe and playable surface. (However, any artificial turf the City installs should have organic or inert infill and a pervious surface.) I also believe we must and can get additional green and open spaces in Somerville for non-sports uses, and I am doing and will do everything I can to make that happen.
Construction in Ward 5: Cedar-Highland intersection closed for 2 more weeks; Green Line Extension (GLX) construction to begin soon
The construction on our streets just goes on and on and on…and will for a while. The Cedar Street water and sewer project is finishing up with the intersection of Highland Ave and Cedar St to be closed weekdays from 7 – 3:30 until May 4th. This is an inconvenience but the work is necessary to end the flooding that has plagued Cedar Street, Hall Avenue and Cedar Avenue.
From the GLX Project Team: “After years of community advocacy and planning, the GLX was given an official ‘Notice to Proceed’ in December 2017, and work is already underway with completion
expected by late 2021. The GLX contract team is currently mobilizing at each of the six station areas, and you will begin to see work happening in April around each of these station areas (Union Square, Washington Street, Gilman Square, Lowell Street, Ball Square, and College Ave. in Medford). Preliminary work throughout the month of April will include tree removal, digging test pits, and pest control. More significant construction is expected to begin in summer 2018. During the heavier construction, there may also be some night and weekend work. If you are signed up for updates, you will receive schedules and information as they become available. Whether or not you are signed up for the email updates, the City will notify you with 48 hours advance notice (when possible) of any planned work that will impact you outside of normal activities (such as excessive noise or night work)….To sign up for the GLX email list, visit www.greenlineextension.org. Also, there is a GLX 24/7 Hotline: This is the best first stop for any questions or concerns. Email them at email@example.com, or call 1-855-GLX-INFO.”
Upcoming events and meetings
Tomorrow, Saturday, April 21, is the City’s Spring Clean Up day from 10-12 in the morning. I encourage you to come out to one of the seven locations, to help pick up garbage and beautify Somerville. This is a great way to meet neighbors! In Ward 5, we’ll be cleaning the woods by the parking lot at 114 Central Street (between Albion and Vernon Streets) and around Junction Park and Hoyt Sullivan Park. There is also breakfast at the boathouse before and a barbeque lunch afterwards. See for more info: https://www.facebook.com/events/242532196290732/
Public Hearing on the condition of affordable housing units and whether there is an affordable housing emergency on Monday, April 30, 2018, at 6:30 p.m., in the Aldermanic Chambers, 2nd Floor, City Hall. The BOA Committee on Housing and Community Development is seeking public input on the condition of affordable housing units in the City, and whether there is an affordable housing crisis that constitutes a public emergency. All are invited to attend and to be heard.
The second Henry Hansen Park redesign meeting is on Tuesday, May 1, 6:30 PM at the Visiting Nurse Association, 3rd Floor Community Room, 259 Lowell Street. The Commissioner of Veterans’ Services, Bryan Bishop and Ward 5 resident DJ Chagnon from CBA Landscape Architects will host the meeting. After getting public input at the first meeting, Mr. Chagnon will present a proposed redesign at this one. Unfortunately, I have another meeting at that time so won’t be able to attend. For more information, contact Bryan Bishop at 617-625-660 x4700 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Board of Aldermen Committee on Open Space, Environment, and Energy will receive an update on the Fields Master Plan and will discuss related issues such as the Conway Park closure and progress on Draw 7 Field development on Wednesday, May 9, 6:30 PM in City Hall. This is a public meeting, not a public hearing, but the Chair may allow some members of the public to speak to share their concerns and opinions.
Mark Niedergang, Ward 5 Alderman