Wellesley Special Town Meeting wrapped up on Tuesday, Nov. 7 by voting on 7 motions across 6 articles, 2 each of which focused on library and zoning matters (see Wellesley Media’s recording for all the action).
The first 2 motions of the night, 1 regarding the leasing of part of the main library branch roof for solar panels and the other for related to school purchasing contracts, both easily and quickly gained Town Meeting approval. The number of Town Meeting members in attendance dropped off from night #1, with vote totals in the 160s and 170s vs. as high as the 190s on Monday (overall Town Meeting headcount is 240).
The library article involves leasing a portion of the roof, installed in 2021, with solar panels from a third-party vendor to be chosen by the Wellesley Municipal Light Plant as part of a broader request for proposals that would also result in solar panels on Department of Public Works and Wellesley Public Schools buildings. Putting solar panels on the library roof also aligns with the town’s climate action goals, said Marla Robinson, chair of the Board of Trustees of Wellesley Free Library.
The Wellesley Public Schools article sought to give the school system more flexibility on contracts for food services, school yearbooks, and class photos. Whereas most of its contracts are limited to 3 years under state procurement laws, this would allow the school system to enter into 5-year contracts for specific services. The aim would be to gain negotiating flexibility and better deals.
When the Library Board of Trustees’ Robinson returned to the podium to make her presentation about Article 10, Town Meeting discussed the Board’s desire to set the salary for the library director for about an hour before voting against it. The rejection wasn’t a shock, as the Select Board had voted 3-2 in October not to support the article, with some concerns that allowing this change for the Library Board of Trustees could pave the way for directors of other departments seeking such a salary setup. Advisory voted 8-5 in favor of it, but those not for it raised numerous concerns.
The Board’s case for changing the way the library director’s salary is set comes amidst a period of tension at libraries across the country in light of increased book and materials challenges, and much higher than usual staff and director turnover. The Board argues that it should set the director’s salary as part of the library director contract negotiation process rather than having the town’s Human Resources Board set the salary, and points to other department leaders in town whose salaries are set by the Select Board, other boards, or department heads (Robinson also cited such examples within the school system, though Wellesley Executive Director Meghan Jop countered that that’s a difference situation). Robinson said Trustees would consult the town’s salary and classification data in setting the director’s salary, but first would look at what directors in comparable communities are making.
“The Trustees’ ability to set the library director’s salary will be a useful, proactive tool to help us retain, and/or attract, an excellent employee in a competitive market,” said Robinson, adding that the Board already has authority to hire, review, and if necessary, terminate the director.
Madison Riley, chair of the town’s Advisory Committee (which vets Town Meeting articles ahead of the actual meeting), said those on the Committee against this change had reservations about the timing of it. They pointed to the town’s plans to conduct a compensation and job classification study, and its lack of an HR director until recently. “These Advisory members desire to see both results of the study and the hiring of a new HR director play out before making a change to this town process.”
The motion failed by a vote of 78-97.
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Onto the zoning articles
The 3-plus hour second night of Special Town Meeting ended with discussion and voting on 2 zoning articles from the Planning Board. Two of 3 motions were approved.
Motion 1 of Article 13, focused on amending the inclusionary zoning provisions in town, was a proactive effort to ready the town for end-of-2024 compliance with the state’s MBTA Communities plan to boost multifamily housing near public transportation by allowing by-right development (no special permits required). It would adjust the criteria for when inclusionary zoning would be triggered by a development beyond just projects of significant impact to major construction projects merely needing a site plan review, and add 2 districts—Lower Falls and residential overlay districts—where it would apply (“A broader, fairer application of where inclusionary zoning would apply, Planning Board Chair Tom Taylor said during the article’s presentation). Inclusionary zoning, which has been in place in town since 2004, defines a certain percentage of units (20%) within a project be deemed affordable based on a state formula. The Belclare and Waterstone are among developments where such zoning has been applied.
Wellesley seeks to boost its housing diversity beyond the super expensive variety, and part of that is keeping its affordable housing stock at 10% or more of its overall housing (the town’s at 10.7%, Taylor said). This protects the town from unfriendly 40B projects that give developers significant zoning relief.
Motion 1 passed by a vote of 147-18.
Motion 2, which passed by a vote of 155-12, focused on diversifying the mix of affordable housing required under inclusionary zoning. It would go from 20% of units at 80% of area median income (Wellesley is part of a very wide area median income region that extends well beyond here) to 15% at that rate and 5% at greater than 80% of area median income (AMI) up to 140% of it. This would expand housing opportunities for those making more than 80% of AMI, including those who might be increasing their earnings as well as those who might work in town but not make enough to afford the most expensive homes in Wellesley. We’re talking housing that costs in the $450K-640K range, per a case study shared by Taylor.
Town Meeting Katherine Babson rose in support of the motion, describing it as “a terrific way of thinking of a creative way to address a piece of the housing stock that’s missing in our town.”
The grand finale, Article 14, sought to exempt attached accessory dwelling units from large house reviews on new construction and existing homes where total living area plus garage space exceeds 3,600 sq. ft. This would build on a Town Meeting article approved in spring of 2022 to allow homeowners to carve out self-contained ADUs (aka, in-law apartments) on their property. Supporting ADUs was seen as a modest attempt to allow for more diverse housing in town (Wellesley has only received 3 applications for them).
The Advisory Committee recommended favorable action 13-0, but this was a case where Town Meeting didn’t follow its lead.
Town Meeting member Tad Heuer stood in opposition to the motion primary because this “will allow ADUs to bypass the very things that we created LHR [large house review] to prevent.” He said making this change could provide a loophole for homeowners seeking to avoid some of the many expenses (i.e., paying a host of professionals such as surveyors and architects) involved in building a home that complies with large house review rules.
Town Meeting member David Himmelberger agreed, and said the Planning Board has better mechanisms (such as waivers) for accomplishing what this motion attempts. “We said at the outset that LHR is against the spirit of ADUs; one could also say ADUs are against the spirit of large house review,” he said, adding that having LHRs in place since 2007 has on a whole benefited the town thanks to thoughtful review of projects by the Planning Board.
Others raised concerns about the impact allowing ADUs to be built more easily might have on abutters and their rights.
The motion got shot down, with the vote total 51 “Yes,” 116 “No,” and 1 “Abstain.”
Now a break before Annual Town Meeting commences in the spring.