With word that the controversial Article 15 (aka, Sisters of Charity zoning amendment) would not be moved at Wellesley’s Special Town Meeting on Monday night, hopes were high that this might be a one-and-done event. But the chances of that happening were dashed early, with Town Meeting only reaching Article 5 at 9pm, a full two hours in, after the moderator had earlier informed Wellesley’s legislative body that the goal was to get things wrapped by 10:30pm if possible.
So what took all that time despite the lack of bagpipes and other pomp and circumstance that takes place at the larger Annual Town Meeting in the spring? Some technical issues with the electronic voting devices cost a good 15-20 minutes, but that wasn’t to blame. There was just lots of business to get done.
The list of 14 remaining articles on the Special Town Meeting warrant might have been a tad deceiving in that some articles contained multiple motions. Article 2, for example, had 7 motions related to settlement of union contracts, and took about 50 minutes to go through. No real drama here, unlike during Annual Town Meeting when Wellesley Public School teachers showed up in big numbers with their red shirts as their contract negotiations dragged on (a deal was reached in May, after Town Meeting).
Motions under Article 2 dealt with other unions, including for those who provide public safety, public works, facilities, and library services.
Wellesley Executive Director Meghan Jop kicked off discussion of the motions by thanking the unions for “a very successful bargaining session… it was very collegial and collaborative,” as well as by thanking department heads involved. She noted that the town had put aside about $1.2M in its FY24 budget for contract settlements and came in just under that.
Repeating a concern heard often at town government meetings over the past few years, Jop cited challenges in hiring, including at the Department of Public Works, which has had vacancy rates of up to 20%, and the fire department, which will be hiring to replace up to 8 firefighters in FY24. The public safety dispatcher vacancy rate has hit 60%. So in coming to terms on salaries, the town did some serious number crunching to ensure its offers would be competitive. “Our goal was to bring these unions to median [compensation],” she said before introducing the DPW Production staff agreement, which started with a 5% cost-of-living adjustment-inspired salary increase of 5% in year one. A 4-day, 10-hour-per-day work week has been among things piloted by the DPW to attract and retain talent. Also getting a big bump, 6%, in the first year of their new contract are police patrol officers, which are also tough to hire and now need to adhere to a new state certification under the POST Commission.
All 7 motions under Article 2 easily passed, with only a few comments or questions from Town Meeting members over a period of about 50 minutes to get through them all.
Article 3 contained just 2 motions, both involving additional FY24 appropriations, the first involving the fire department, which has had a history of significant deficits caused by in part by staffing shortages and resulting overtime costs for those who fill the gaps (including deputy chiefs). With the retirement of the longtime fire chief, and installment of an interim chief, the Select Board and Jop took a fresh look at this situation, and among other things proposed hiring an additional firefighter to address the staff operating sometimes with the minimum allowed number of personnel. “We’re in a constant state of hiring at the fire department at this time,” said Jop, adding that new firefighters require new uniforms, etc. Motion 1 called for $360,000 in additional spending be allowed on the fire department, and Town Meeting passed this by a count of 194-1.
Motion 2 under Article 3 involved a request for a relatively mere $11K to cover valuation services for the Board of Assessors. This passed unanimously.
The subject of Article 4 is 1 of everybody’s favorite: Rescinding of debt. In this case, $3.1M reimbursed for the Hardy Elementary School project. This passed easily, though a motion was made to continue the meeting to Tuesday, Nov. 7 if needed.
Housing & pickleball
Things were moving right along. Then came Article 5, brought forward by the Community Preservation Committee (CPC), which recommends spending on projects from a surcharge on property taxes and matching state money. Such funds are mainly for projects related to open space, affordable housing, recreation, and historic buildings and landscapes, and consultants are all ears when it comes to these plans.
Town Meeting spent most of the rest of Monday’s meeting on Article 5.
The first motion was a request for $65,000 to create a strategic housing plan to be conducted by a consultant. Based on the level of angst in town now between those who are pushing for new housing anywhere there’s space vs. those against having it in their neighborhood, there’s a need for a more thought-out scheme for determining the best way to increase the amount and diversity of the town’s housing in such a way that will meet demand for housing but also respect those who already live here. The request was sponsored by a Housing Task Force consisting of reps from various town bodies, such as the Select Board, Planning Board, and Wellesley’s housing-focused groups.
This plan would serve as a follow-on to the state-approved Wellesley Housing Production Plan, which helped the town meet the state’s requirement to have 10% of its housing stock deemed affordable and allowed Wellesley to stave off unfriendly 40B projects that gave developers lots of leeway to build wherever and under looser zoning. The new plan would guide the town’s review and possible updates to its zoning bylaw as well at a time when suburbs like Wellesley are under fire for historically being too restrictive despite recent efforts by the town to address concerns, such as through inclusionary zoning that requires a certain amount of affordable units in new developments and plans to meet the state’s new MBTA Communities multifamily zoning rules.
The overall goal would be to strategize a way to introduce more affordable units not just for low-income individuals, but for downsizers, young people, and those working for or in the town. A $10K housing study conducted on behalf of the Wellesley Housing Development Corp. yet illustrated such demand via hard data. As it is, the bulk of new units being built here go for $1M or more.
CPC Chair Barbara McMahon said “The goals of this new strategic plan are many, but we believe they are attainable and necessary,” she said, pointing to Gov. Maura Healey’s big push to address the state’s housing crisis.
A few comments were made and questions asked by Town Meeting members, including when the public would get to provide input into any such plan. The motion passed by a count of 160-15 (by the way, if you’re wondering, Wellesley Town Meeting consists of 240 members, so we’re not sure what the Naples happened to the rest).
Motion 2 under Article 5 focused on a study of another kind: A $70K request regarding the criteria and feasibility of siting pickleball courts in town (1 Town Meeting member said “I have to find it somewhat amusing” that more was being requested for a pickleball study than a housing plan).
Much of the discussion leading up to this motion centered around the possibility of pickleball courts coming to the Morses Pond parking lot in the wake of dissension between players and neighbors at Sprague Field and Perrin Park. People want to play outside, but many neighbors said the game is just too loud, and the idea of locating courts at Morses Pond has raised environmental concerns from some.
“The CPC has heard loud and clear from all corners of town about pickleball,” McMahon said.
A recent field utilization study conducted in town found that up to 14 standalone courts might be needed to meet demand. Recreation Commission Chair Paul Cramer said the town has almost that number of courts available, but some have quality issues and others have location issues.
The CPC funding being requested would initially include such things as determining demand, ranking possible locations, and establishing criteria for locations. Then a chunk of the funding would be used to evaluate specific sites.
Familiar face from Wellesley’s pickleball drama, pro and con, made familiar points about the popular paddle sport.
Questions were raised by Town Meeting members about such issues as evaluating indoor vs. outdoor courts. We’ve heard from some that “pickleball should just be an indoor game,” though of course many players enjoy getting outdoors and playing it.
One Town Meeting member said the community-building aspect of pickleball is huge, so having a bunch of courts together rather than spread all over town is important to enable that. Another vouched for the inclusivity of pickleball in that it’s not just for older people, but also entire families.
Town Meeting approved funding the study by a 135-40-1 vote (see the Town Meeting scorecard for all vote totals so far).
Still to come…
Tuesday’s meeting, at 7pm at the Middle School, will tackle issues such as solar panels at the library, inclusionary zoning, and accessory dwelling units.
- See also:
- Wellesley Town Meeting gives Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick a vote of confidence
- Wellesley Special Town Meeting night #2: Library Board wins 1, loses 1; Inclusionary zoning changes approved; ADU motion fails