The Wellesley Advisory Committee this past week recommended unfavorable action on Article 15 by a vote of 11-2-1, with most members emphasizing how difficult their decision was and sharing hopes that a solution can be reached on this proposed zoning bylaw amendment that will benefit both the town and the Sisters of Charity, who seek to sell their property adjacent to Centennial Reservation. Advisory recommendations are taken into consideration by Town Meeting members, who will convene beginning on Nov. 6 for Special Town Meeting.
Advisory Committee discussion on the matter began at about the 2-hour, 30-minute mark of Wellesley Media’s recording of the Oct. 19 meeting, though the citizen speak segment at the start of the meeting features a line-up of people commenting on the issue as well.
The Sisters had to be buoyed by the Planning Board’s recent unanimous support for Article 15, which seeks to amend the zoning bylaw to allow any property owner—for-profit or non-profit—to continue with current uses within this Educational District. The most recent development with the proposed amendment is requiring that any expansion of existing use, buildings or facilities would require a special permit through the Zoning Board of Appeals. Attorney David Himmelberger, the Sisters’ local legal rep, said during Advisory’s citizen speak that “great consideration or deference should be given to this [Planning Board] vote coming from the only board in town responsible for studying and making recommendations to zoning bylaws…”
Despite Planning’s blessing, it was clear other town bodies such as the Natural Resources Commission viewed the proposed amendment less favorably. The NRC on the same day as the Advisory Meeting voted 4-1 in favor of a motion to say at Special Town Meeting that it can’t support the proposed amendment as written due to a “lack of adequate measures to protect the town’s natural resource assets.” NRC Chair Bea Bezmalinovic also took part in Advisory’s citizen speak on behalf of the Commission, urging the proponent to consider possibilities such as conservation zoning, a conservation restriction, or development agreement language that might offer stronger protections.
Advisory members frequently mentioned how “torn” or “conflicted” they were over this decision, praising the Sisters for their roles in town and stewardship of the 14-acre property where they are now retiring. They expressed appreciation that the Sisters have been in discussions with the town for years, but also noted that wider public discussion hasn’t really picked up until more recently, and that they received an outpouring of letters from those against the proposed amendment. Those who voted unfavorable action were optimistic that a solution could be reached by Annual Town Meeting in the spring.
“I feel like there is still too much space between the objectives of the proponents and opponents, and I feel like we can come closer to meeting everyone’s goals,” said Advisory Member Gail Sullivan, who later referenced the influx of experts now weighing in on this. “It has been said the Sisters have been discussing this for years with Planning, but to me it seems like the discussions have not been nearly as focused as they have been in just the past few months. The proposal from the [Wellesley Conservation] Land Trust and the public comments from the NRC were really just provided this month… I feel like with a little more time we could close that gap, somewhat.” (See Wellesley Conservation Land Trust letter about its offer.)
Member Susan Clapham, who like Sullivan voted unfavorable action, said she’s gone back and forth on the issue in her mind. But with Annual Town Meeting not that far off in the spring, she said that “I feel like were getting close to a solution that would better meet the needs of everyone than where we are right now. So I think I’m in the camp of ‘No, but…,’ and hoping that the parties will continue to work together to try to come up with a solution…”
While Town Meeting often votes in line with Advisory, members will make their own decision on this come November.
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