In a meeting marked by interruptions and accusations, Wellesley’s Planning Board on Aug. 24 voted to put an article on the fall Special Town Meeting that would amend a zoning bylaw that could help the Sisters of Charity more easily sell their property at 125 Oakland St. The Board voted against sponsoring the article, but agreed to simply place it on the warrant and alert the Select Board to that fact—this approach allows the Sisters to forego securing 100 signatures to put a citizen petition on the warrant. (See Wellesley Media recording of the meeting and Planning Board materials related to the proposal)
This proposed zoning amendment would allow any property owner to continue with current uses within this Educational District and would not include language regarding the scope of the current building and facilities. The Sisters’ local attorney, David Himmelberger, said his client seeks a new property owner that will continue operating the existing elderly living home and skilled nursing facility as the nuns live out their lives.
Only 4 of the 5 Planning Board members were left to vote on the motions to either sponsor the article or simply put it on the warrant, after an exasperated Jim Roberti exited the online meeting following a series of inflammatory exchanges. Continuing a theme from the previous meeting earlier in the week, Roberti accused those seeking to require the Sisters of Charity to agree to conservation restrictions on parts of their 14 acres as “NIMBYs” (Not in My Backyard) and as trying to execute a “land grab.” The former Board chair criticized the Wellesley Conservation Land Trust and told fellow Board member Patty Mallet that she should get together with friends and buy the property if she wanted a conservation restriction so badly. He urged Board Chair Tom Taylor (who tried on numerous occasions to stop Roberti from interrupting others) to vote in favor of sponsoring the article, because “it’s the right thing to do, and it’s the moral thing to do,” to which Taylor replied “Okay… thanks for the sermon.”
After the Sisters’ local attorney was given a chance to make a statement at the start of the agenda item, members of the public spoke in up to 3-minute segments. This included Michael Tobin, president of the Wellesley Conservation Land Trust, who made reference to another unique Wellesley property—the much larger North 40—that will include a conservation restriction. He said portions of conservation restrictions owned by the land trust on Wellesley College land better protect wetlands and buffer zones than do state and municipal rules. Speakers also included attorney Jonathan Silverstein, representing Sisters of Charity neighbors with concerns about whether the currently worded proposed zoning amendment would provide enough protections regarding future use.
Planning Board members mulled which direction to take, with some citing reservations to move ahead without further input, such as from the Natural Resources Commission, which simultaneously had an item on its meeting agenda regarding the Sisters of Charity property. Board member Mallett said she felt there were enough unanswered questions still that the article’s motions would not fare well at Special Town Meeting. “I don’t think anybody is looking to tank the project, they’re looking for a way to move it forward…,” she said.
Board member Kathleen Woodward said toward the end of the discussion that she supports the concept of the zoning change but that it would take until Annual Town Meeting to get it ready for broader town approval. “It could end up hurting the cause in the long run” to rush it forward for Special Town Meeting, she said.
Board member Marc Charney, on the other hand, felt that there’s been plenty of time to discuss the issues given that an article was initially targeted for this past spring’s Town Meeting, and he was ready to vote his support for the proposed article.
“The idea that this is just sort of somehow being rushed and sprung on everybody without any discussion or thought to me, from my point of view, isn’t exactly factually true,” Charney said. “To me, it feels like the Sisters have been in this conundrum for quite some time…they’re making an effort to come up with something that’s going to work.” He also tried to reassure the public that protections, such as permitting rules, are in place to ensure any future development of the property will be need to go through a well-defined and involved process, such as we’ve seen with plans for lights at the track and field.
In the end, only Charney voted to support having the Board sponsor the article. Taylor might have, but he said “Even with the fact that I don’t disagree with the Sisters’ proposal, I’m going to vote ‘No’ to sponsoring it unless we have a more reasoned discussion and take another shot at a middle ground.”
The Planning Board voted on or delayed a handful of other potential Special Town Meeting articles during the last hour of their meeting.
The Board is next slated to meet on Sept. 5.
(Disclaimer: My co-editor, Deborah Brown, is a board advisor for the Wellesley Conservation Land Trust, though has had no involvement in the matters above.)