Wellesley College is on a rebuilding and renovation tear, with a big focus on energy efficiency and ADA compliance, and all those pesky Design Review Board meetings required by the town for minor construction projects are cramping its style. Time is especially of the essence for the college on “summer slammer” projects targeted for the brief period when students and staff are mostly away.
As a result, the school’s seeking a change to the town’s zoning bylaw that would allow Wellesley College to skip the aesthetics-focused Design Review process (often 4 or so weeks) for what are termed minor construction projects on its 200-plus acre campus that aren’t visible from public ways, such as Rtes. 16 and 135. These minor construction projects impact less than 2,500 sq. ft., and there could be a couple dozen such undertakings as part of a multi-year capital improvement plan.
One catch is that it’s tough to say whether some of the internal roads (aka, “driveways,” per Wellesley College) on campus are considered public or private ways. These no-name stretches don’t even make the town’s list of accepted and unaccepted streets.
Wellesley College has gradually reopened public access to its campus since the pandemic, though it did take the opportunity during that time to put in place more parking lot gates and made more parking areas off-limits to the public. But Marianne Cooley, secretary of the Board of Trustees at Wellesley College, said the college in general is not looking to gate off its property to the public just to make clearer that its roads are indeed private. The college is well aware that many people use College Drive, the main road through campus, as a cut-through between Rtes. 135 and 16, and is fine with that as long as drivers are respectful of speed limits and those in crosswalks.
College officials have met with town officials, plus the Zoning Board of Appeals (the board rejected an appeal by the college by a 2-1 vote in March) and the Planning Board, which last month voted against sponsoring the article for Annual Town Meeting in part because members felt rushed (the board seeks to review the idea further).
This past week, the college took its case to the Advisory Committee, which vets Town Meeting articles and votes to recommend them or not. Cooley stressed to Advisory in a sort of marketing pitch at the start that the College has paid well over $2M in property taxes and construction-related fees over the past fiscal year, and has historically paid its fair share and adhered to the town’s rules.
Cooley emphasized in her comments before the Planning Board and Advisory Committee that the school takes great pride in its buildings’ aesthetics, so is not trying to avoid such considerations in skipping the town’s Design Review process for minor construction projects. “The college has significant interest in maintaining the architectural standards on our campus,” she told the Planning Board.
Making the zoning bylaw change would save the college money. When you consider the fees and the paid time for consultants and town employees attending these meetings, these add up, Cooley said.
The bylaw change proposed by the college started off general but has become more specific, after consultation with town officials, so that it would only apply to the Wellesley College and Babson College campuses. Babson was still considering whether to back the bylaw change as of the Jan. 3 Advisory Committee meeting (see Wellesley Media recording). Making the wording of the citizen petition specific is designed to limit unintended consequences of such a bylaw change.
Such a zoning bylaw change would be an alternative approach to the school invoking the Dover Amendment, a rule enacted by the state in 1950 that gives religious, agricultural, and non-profit educational institutions relief from local zoning bylaws. Planning Board member Jim Roberti encouraged the College to take the Dover Amendment route.
Cooley told Advisory that the College was not inclined to use the Dover Amendment. “We view that as a pretty challenging way to go about doing business and prefer to really work under the same framework that everyone else in town does,” she said, adding that she views the Dover Amendment as “kind of a nuclear option.”
In addition to asking about the Dover Amendment, Advisory members had questions about why the college doesn’t just bundle projects to reduce Design Review Board meetings (it’s not that simple, the college says, since each project is unique), why Planning and the ZBA responded as they did, and ‘Why now?’ (the college has been trying to figure out the right process for years).
Advisory did not take a vote or make a formal recommendation on the petition.
There’s still plenty of time for that: Annual Town Meeting is set to begin on March 25.